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WORKERS COMPENSATION LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2012 SAFETY, RETURN TO WORK AND SUPPORT BOARD BILL 2012
The Hon. HELEN WESTWOOD [10.48 a.m.]: I oppose the Workers Compensation Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 and the Safety, Return to Work and Support Board Bill 2012. The manner in which these bills have been hatched and then introduced is reprehensible. Yet again, this Government is disrespecting the workers of New South Wales. These bills are yet another illustration of the fact that the O'FarrellStoner Government holds the workers of this State in contempt. New South Wales has historically led the nation in occupational health and safety reform and it currently has the lowest rate of workplace injuries since the WorkCover scheme commenced in 1987. That can be singularly attributed to the work of the Labor Government.
In the year ending June 2009 there were 9,300 fewer work-related injuries reported in New South Wales than in the previous year. That continues a downward trend in this State. In fact, thanks to the strong policies implemented over the 16 years of the Labor Government, the number of deaths in workplaces fell by 3.4 per 100,000 workers. In 1995 there were eight workplace deaths per 100,000 workers and by 2009 that figure had fallen to 4.6 deaths per 100,000 workers. In the year or so since the O'Farrell Government was elected it has systematically attacked the rights of workers in this State. We will now have the weakest set of workers compensation laws in the Commonwealth.
Figures from Safe Work Australia show that New South Wales had a lower number of workplace fatalities than Victoria and Queensland. Between July 2009 and May 2010 a total of 19 workplace fatalities were reported in New South Wales compared to 24 in Victoria and 23 in Queensland. It is a fact that New South Wales was
reducing the number of serious injuries and fatalities in the workplace. Between 2004-05 and 2008-09 New South Wales had a 25 per cent improvement in the number of serious workplace compensated injuries and musculoskeletal claims. All of those results show that the New South Wales system delivers the right balance of protection to workers. I refer to dissenting statements in the workers compensation report at page 284, which state: Premiums have reduced by $1 billion a year since 2005, leading to a reduction in costs for employers in the State by some $7 billion. It is unnecessary, as well as harsh and unfair, that the entire burden of reform should fall upon those who are most vulnerable: namely the injured workers.
I found that the issues paper released by the Government and the subsequent report released last week are overly preoccupied with the notion that injured workers are somehow to blame for the state of the scheme. There are various references to the need for further financial disincentives as a means to encourage injured workers to get back to work. These inferences appear to be that, if workers' entitlements are slashed, it is more likely they will return to work sooner. This is an overly simplistic, ignorant view of the overall return to work process. Not surprisingly, it diverts attention away from the more pressing and substantive issues which are responsible for the deterioration in the scheme's performance. I refer again to the dissenting statements in the report at page 283: The Scheme actuary discloses that half the deterioration in the scheme finances is due to external economic factors. The evidence taken by the committee overwhelmingly indicates that the role of the scheme agents (insurers) has been a key factor in the deterioration of the scheme through claims management functions and failures to get injured workers into appropriate rehabilitation sufficiently soon.
All important stakeholders and the committee accept that there needs to be a thorough review of the Scheme and the role played by the Scheme agents and we believe that this should occur rather than embarking upon wholesale slashing of the benefits to injured workers.
We note in this regard that compensation payments to injured workers have fallen by almost 20 per cent from 2002 to 2010.
And: We believe that in particular having regard to the significant reduction in premiums over the last 7 years, modest premium increases could occur to stabilise the scheme while a more thorough review of needed systemic reforms such as the role played by scheme agents and their performance can be reviewed and developed.
That was a view I heard expressed by Associate Professor Brian Owler, who is a neurosurgeon and vice president of the Australian Medical Association. Anyone who heard Associate Professor Owler speak to Linda Mottram on 702 ABC yesterday would have heard him talk about his concerns about the proposals in this bill. He said it was a missed opportunity. He agrees that there is a problem but says that, instead of going after the benefits of workers, this Government should have been looking at how the system is administered. He talked about the sorts of decisions by agents—that is, the insurers—that we heard evidence of from workers before the committee. It is insurers who have caused the blow-out in costs of this scheme. It is they who need to have their management approach and their administration structures addressed.
We heard from him and from workers about the high turnover of case managers, decisions being made by people who have no medical training, who are not clinicians and who do not understand the needs of injured workers, who have no understanding of how long it takes for workers with very serious injuries to recover or the sort of treatment they need and support they need to get back to work. That is the main problem with the scheme but, in keeping with all that this Government does, what does it do? It attacks workers. It takes away workers' rights. It slashes their benefits. That is what this Government does. It is never willing to look at the real cause because the easy target is workers and their representatives, both in the trade union movement and in this place.
I will expand the point regarding scheme agents a little further. I read with interest a number of submissions that raised the misadministration by scheme agents, namely, the insurance companies and their underperformance. I refer to submission 43 of the inquiry where we have some living examples of the incompetency inherent in the system, such as the fact that three different insurance companies had handled the claim, and an army of claims managers. The dollar value cost of reacquainting each insurance company and claims manager with the details of each individual claim is insurmountable.
I find it even more incomprehensible that this Government is now going to direct WorkCover inspectors to do extra training to get injured workers back to work. Let me spell that out. We pay the scheme agents—that is, insurance companies—who are responsible for preparing and implementing the return to work plans, but because they have been underperforming the State Government is going to pay WorkCover inspectors to do the insurance companies' job. In effect, we pay insurance companies twice for the same service when we take inspectors away from their valuable role of injury prevention. How inefficient is that? It is no wonder the scheme is in deficit. I do not see any clause in this bill that will address that disgraceful malpractice. It is evident that the deterioration in the performance of scheme agents has overwhelmingly contributed to the deterioration in scheme performance and, therefore, its financial deficit.
I cannot fathom why you would go to the trouble, not to mention expense, of calling an inquiry and taking submissions, and then producing a report that disregards the evidence presented—unless, of course, it is all a farce. I believe that is just what has occurred here. This O'Farrell Government has seized on yet another opportunity to kick the worker and this time they have gone one lower. This time the worker that the Government has in its sights is the injured worker and the family of the worker killed on the job. It is an absolute disgrace.
The O'Farrell Government has attempted to portray injured workers as
malingerers. It argues that the New South Wales workers compensation scheme is unviable because workers are not returning to work quickly enough and are claiming benefits unnecessarily or even fraudulently. What this dishonest O'Farrell Government is out there arguing is that compensation must be cut to force lazy workers back to work. To suggest that injuries to workers are unique to New South Wales because we have such a generous scheme flies in the face of the reality of work-related injuries. The fact is that worldwide each year more than two million women and men die as a result of work-related accidents and diseases.
Workers suffer approximately 270 million occupational accidents each year and fall victim to some 160 million incidents of work-related illnesses. Hazardous substances kill 440,000 workers annually. Asbestos claims 100,000 lives. One worker dies every 15 seconds worldwide; 6,000 workers die every day. More people die whilst at work than fighting wars. Members may think we are immune in Australia; however, the deaths and injuries that occur here are damning. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more that 15 serious injuries occur every hour, or one injury every 4 minutes. Thousands of workers are killed and millions more are injured or diseased because of their jobs. This is all the more poignant because their deaths and injuries are largely preventable.
It is imperative that we defend our workers compensation laws as they have been put in place for the protection of workers. The union movement actively campaigns on occupational health and safety, and those efforts are partly reflected by the fact that the greater the degree of unionism in a workplace, the safer it is. Decades of struggle by workers and their unions have resulted in significant improvements in working conditions, but the toll of workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths remains enormous. The fact is that, despite the great improvements that have been made in this State to make our workplaces safer, workers are still injured every day in work-related accidents and workers still contract diseases as a direct result of the work they do. When workers are injured, it is imperative that a workers compensation scheme is in place to ensure that those workers and their families do not
suffer further by loss of income and mounting medical bills that they cannot afford to pay.
DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Natasha Maclaren-Jones): Order! There is too much audible conversation in the Chamber.
The Hon. HELEN WESTWOOD: Currently the workers compensation scheme ensures peace of mind for the workers of this State that if injured at work a worker will receive a regular outcome and that worker will be able to pay for whatever medical costs are required to recover and, if possible, return to work as quickly as possible; and that they will be able to pay electricity bills, buy school uniforms for their children, pay for school fees and put food on the family table. It is our responsibility as legislators of the New South Wales Parliament to protect workers from the poverty into which a work-related injury can thrust them. If these bills are passed then the legislators on the other side of this Chamber have let the workers of this State and their families down. We have heard the pathetic justification of those opposite that the bill will simply restrict benefits. The workers in this State well know that "restricting benefits" is Liberal speak for attacking workers and their families.
The Hon. Mick Veitch: Point of order: My point of order is that because of the noise in the Chamber it is very difficult to hear the Hon. Helen Westwood's contribution. This is a very serious debate and members should be heard.
DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Sarah Mitchell): Order! I uphold the point of order. I ask members to keep conversations to a minimum.
The Hon. HELEN WESTWOOD: I thank the Hon. Mick Veitch for his point of order and I thank the Deputy-President for her ruling. Regretfully, those on the other side do not want to hear the facts. If they were to listen and take account of what I am saying they would hang their heads in shame. Let us consider what workers will be most affected—namely, the workers who work with their hands, construction workers, shearers, agricultural workers, factory workers, mechanics and transport workers; the workers who care for the sick,
the elderly and people with disability, nurses, aged care workers and care attendants; and the workers who protect us, police, fire-fighters, ambulance officers and paramedics. These workers need the protection of a just and fair workers compensation scheme. The lives of these workers will be affected by this heartless Government's legislation. It will not be the merchant bankers or the barristers and lawyers from the big end of town, and it will not be the company directors; no, it will be ordinary workers who have the misfortune of having a work-related accident. Interestingly, the agriculture and fishing industries are quite high on the list of injuries. I advise those members who claim to represent those industries to pay particular note. I refer to the report from Safe Work Australia:
'Compendium of Workers' Compensation Statistics Australia 2009-10. Industry employees in transport and storage sustained the highest incidence rate of all industries: 24.0 serious claims per 1,000 employees, nearly twice the national rate of 12.6. In manufacturing employees made 21.9 serious claims per 1,000 employees. In agriculture, forestry and fishing employees made 21.5 serious claims per 1,000 employees. In construction employees made 19.6 serious claims per 1,000 employees. These four industry divisions also experienced high frequency rates. Employees working as labourers and related workers sustained the highest incidence rate of all occupation groups: 29.5 serious claims per 1,000 employees, more than twice the national rate. In intermediate production and transport employees made 28.3 claims per 1,000 employees. Tradespersons and related workers made 22.6 claims per 1,000 employees. These three occupation groups also recorded the highest frequency rates.'
Not surprisingly, those workers do not receive high incomes. They do not have a portfolio of shares, nor do they have assets all around the State that they can rely upon to support them and their families if they are injured. What they need is a fair and just workers compensation scheme, which that lot on the other side are about to dismantle. Workers' rights will be slashed. The benefits that workers need to keep a roof over their heads, put food on their tables and pay for electricity for their families
will be taken away. Those opposite should hang their heads in shame. This is an attack on the most vulnerable workers in this State, and it retrospective. Unions NSW Secretary Mark Lennon said in its current form, the changes would therefore apply to the vast majority of people injured before today. He said:
How can working people in New South Wales have confidence in this Government when it clearly does not understand its own legislation? We heard that clearly from the Premier yesterday. How embarrassing: a Premier who is taking away workers' rights does not understand his own legislation. If that is not the case then the Premier is lying. Either way, it is an absolute disgrace. I continue the quote: 'This is cruel, retrospective legislation that pulls the rug from under sick and injured workers.
We know of specific cases where grieving widows who were set to seek compensation for nervous shock will now be denied the right to even make a claim.
Crossbench MPs need to take heed—how can they have confidence in laws that the Government doesn't even understand?'
Removing journey claims is a short-sighted and retrograde step. It will force people into the public health system and add further burden to a system that has significantly deteriorated in the last year. Journey claims account for only 2.6 per cent of all workers compensation claims. How can they be considered a financial drain on the scheme? It has been an entitlement to the citizens of New South Wales since 1926. I refer to submission 116 to the inquiry, from a worker who was seriously injured by a vehicle on her way to work. As a result she was hospitalised and unable to work for two months. She is a widow with no other family support. She was also the main carer for an elderly mother. Without her workers compensation entitlements she and her elderly mother would have been in dire financial hardship. What will happen to such workers? The Government clearly does not care if women, families or their dependants are thrown on the street as a consequence of this bill.
The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: What about widowers? Don't be sexist. Don't forget widowers.
The Hon. HELEN WESTWOOD: Widowers will also be thrown onto the street, because the Government does not care about people's worth. These WorkCover reforms will continue to deliver record profits for private insurers while pushing the families of many injured workers into poverty. I urge all members with any conscience in this place to oppose this reprehensible legislation.
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