Safe Work Australia – Workers Compensations Forum – 30 March 2010

Address by Assistant Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Geoff Fary

Nothing is more important to Australian Trade Unions than Occupational Health and Safety and Workers Compensation. Many of the rights, entitlements and obligations contained within the various jurisdictions throughout the country reflect years of union struggle and campaigning.

Unions have long campaigned for progressive and positive improvements to our workers' compensation systems. However, in recent years employers and all state Governments have or have attempted to reduce entitlements for injured workers and remove obligations for employers in their workers’ compensation systems. The national harmonisation of workers’ compensation therefore has the strong potential to diminish the rights and fair treatment of injured workers even further.

In Australia, in the financial year 1999-00, as a result of a fatality, a permanent incapacity or temporary incapacity with one week or more off work; there were 149,810 accepted workers'
compensation claims. In 2005-06 this figure had reduced to 136,570 accepted claims a 9% reduction.1 Over that five-year period, the workforce grew by 12%.

Looking only at those figures you could say either that we are getting better at identifying and eliminating risks in workplaces that lead to injury or death or you could say that a reduction
in numbers is a result of narrowing the types of injuries we allow injured workers' to claim for, such as journey claims and stress claims, or just not accepting claims.

The ABS has reported that in the 12 months to September 2000, 477,800 Australians were injured at work. In the financial year 2005-06, that figure rose to 689,5002. While over that period the workforce grew by 12% and additional 200,000 workers' or 44% more were injured in their workplace.

The ABS also reported that only 216,000 workers' who experience a work-related injury or illness nationally in 2006 received workers' compensation. A further 176,700 injured workers' received some sort of financial assistance. Half of these did not apply for workers'compensation as the injury or illness was minor or not considered necessary, 17% (30,000) said they were not covered or not aware of workers' compensation or did not think they were eligible and 7% (12,400) said it would have a negative impact on current or future employment.

In 2004 the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission estimated the economic costs of occupational injury and disease in Australia in the year 2000-1 at $34.3 billion or 5% of GDP.

In April 2009 the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (now Safe Work Australia) updated this information for the financial year 2005-06. The economic costs of occupational injury and disease in Australia in the year 2005-06 had grown to $57.5 billion or 5.9% of GDP.

The ASCC estimated that:
• 3% of the total cost of workplace injury and illness is borne by employers;
• 49% is borne by workers and their families; and,
• 43% is borne by the community, mostly in social security benefits and health subsidies.

These figures are truly appalling:

  • Employers must take responsibility for the injuries suffered by their workers.
  • Governments must stop the cost shifting to our social security systems, and
  • As a community we all must stop the dreadful stigmatism that prevents workers from making workers compensation claims for fear of their current or future employment opportunities.

Let me make it clear that after our experience with the OHS harmonisation process, the ACTU and our affiliate unions will not support the harmonisation of workers’ compensation if it
replicates the process undertaken for OHS harmonisation. Our support for harmonisation of workers’ compensation would be conditional on the guarantee that no workers’ entitlements would be reduced, and that Governments would ensure there would be a transparent consultation process involving workers through their unions.

There has been mention made of concern about the unbalanced representation and structure of today’s forum. The union movement shares in that concern. By the state based nature of current workers compensation arrangements, most of the heavy lifting is done by our state trades and labour councils. Following our representations we were successful in having the list of union representatives invited to this forum extended. I am joined here today by;
 Brian Boyd, Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council
 Janet Giles, Secretary, Unions SA
 Ron Monaghan, Secretary Queensland Council of Unions, and
 Jarrod Moran, ACTU Senior OHS&WC Officer

However, it has been indicated that most of our union colleagues would be precluded from attending the “closed sessions” of the forum to be conducted later today and tomorrow.

Therefore after careful consideration, we have decided that it would be inappropriate for us to participate at all in the “closed sessions” of the forum. Accordingly, we will withdraw prior to then – Jarrod will remain in an observer capacity.

The harmonisation of workers compensation is too vital an issue for unions for us to be railroaded into decisions on it. We stand prepared to engage with Governments and employers on these matters; but only after clearly setting the ground rules of how that engagement will occur. Let me repeat – we will engage only after we have received rock solid cast iron guarantee that no worker in any jurisdiction would be worse off, and that there is an open, transparent an adequate process of consultation with workers through their unions.

I am sure you will agree that with almost 700,000 Australian injured in the workplace each year at a cost of more than 57 billion dollars per annum, the views of workers on the systems of rehabilitation, return to work and compensation need to be taken seriously.

Thank you for your time.