Senate debates

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Matters of Public Interest

Workplace Relations

12:52 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My grandfather was a wharfie and in 1972, whilst he was working on the Hungry Mile docks in Sydney, he was seriously injured when he fell from a container on a ship that he was unloading. He suffered numerous injuries. He fractured his pelvis, broke his arm, injured his back and suffered internal injuries. As a result of those injuries, he would never work again as a wharfie, he would never earn the same level of income and he and his wife would never own their own home. He was hospitalised for five weeks. His rehabilitation took six months. During that time of rehabilitation he received no support from the company that he had been proud to work for for more than 30 years. Not once did a member of the company come to check on his welfare or the welfare of his family.

At that time the family was struggling and they wondered how they would make do, particularly in an era when workers compensation and occupational health and safety laws in the state of New South Wales and nationally were not to the levels that they are today. But he did survive. He survived for one single reason: he was a member of his union, the Waterside Workers Federation. Each week the union organiser, Tas Bull, would visit him in hospital and make sure that the family never went without. Whilst his income was reduced, his mates on the wharves put the hat around and ensured that the family had enough income to survive. My grandmother regularly tells me that the family would not have survived financially without the support of their union.

Since that time in this country, we have come to gradually realise that as a society we need to protect a person's regular income when they are injured in the service of another through an employment contract. We have realised that this is not just a workplace right but a basic human right, so throughout the rest of world, and in Australia, governments have progressively enacted laws that support workers whilst they are injured, that prioritise rehabilitation and prioritise ensuring that people can get back to work, that protect a person's reasonable income whilst they are injured in the employment of another and that provide ongoing support for seriously injured workers in this country. These are important human rights in the great egalitarian democracy of Australia, and it has been Australia that has led the way in ensuring workers and their families have access to adequate protections when workers are, unfortunately, injured at work.

Historically, New South Wales—the premier state, the great state of New South Wales—led Australia in the development of adequate workers compensation and occupational health and safety laws—until now, unfortunately. With the election of the O'Farrell government in New South Wales, the new government have sought to attack the most vulnerable in our society. We have all heard the stories of disabled schoolkids being left abandoned on the first day of the school term this year because the contract for bus services was not renegotiated by the O'Farrell government. We have seen them reduce payments to foster parents, who are providing support for vulnerable children in New South Wales. We have seen them attack workers' rights through the removal of conciliation and arbitration for workplace disputes, through caps on public sector wage increases and through the systematic redundancy and riddance of 10,000 public sector workers in New South Wales. This will result in a reduction in the welfare and living standards of the people of New South Wales.

What is the latest attack on workers in New South Wales by the O'Farrell government? It is a massive reduction in workers compensation protection and rights for workers in New South Wales. They are dramatically reducing the coverage of and payments to workers injured at work in New South Wales. New South Wales will go from having one of the best, most comprehensive workers compensation systems in this country to, arguably, the worst workers compensation system in this country—part of a conservative campaign to ensure that New South Wales is as unattractive as possible as a place to live and raise a family. The changes that are being introduced into the New South Wales parliament today will dramatically reduce the rights of workers when they are injured at work. These changes include the abolition of journey claims. Think of this. A nurse has just had a couple of kids and is working part time, and that part-time wage is important in ensuring that that family can meet their mortgage payments and survive. She is on her way to work one morning in her car and through no fault of her own she is injured in a car accident and cannot work for three or four months because of those injuries. Under the new regime which is being introduced by Barry O'Farrell and his government, a nurse in that situation receives no payments. She has no coverage for her injuries by workers compensation. That is an absolute disgrace!

A reduction of weekly benefits to injured workers is also part of the reforms. Injured workers will be reduced to 95 per cent of average weekly earnings for the first 13 weeks and after 13 weeks they reduce further to 80 per cent of average weekly earnings. Medical payments for expenses will be restricted to one year after a person's weekly payments cease. There will be changes to the impairment levels for which injuries are compensatable in New South Wales, and the threshold for 'severely injured' will increase quite dramatically to 30 per cent of whole-of-body impairment. They will change the definition of injury as it relates to a workplace disease, and employment will now have to be the main contributing factor, rather than simply a contributing factor to the contraction or exacerbation of a workplace disease. They are abolishing the payment of death benefits where a person is killed and has no dependents. Unfortunately, they have indicated that more cuts are planned to workers compensation protections in New South Wales.

This is a systematic dismantling of the rights of workers and, importantly, their families and their ability to maintain a reasonable income when they are injured at work. It is a disgraceful attack on the human rights of the people of New South Wales. This will have savage social consequences and economic costs not only for New South Wales but also for the federal budget, because when these people are not able to access adequate payments and reasonable support in the wake of an injury at work they will seek that assistance elsewhere. And that assistance will have to be provided through Medicare, through the health system and the hospital system—importantly, through the mental health system—and, no doubt, through social security. That will put extra pressure on the federal budget.

In a time when we talk about the importance of social inclusion as an economic and social goal for governments in this country, here we have a state government pushing social exclusion. Workers will not be able to maintain their living standards because they will not have access to a reasonable income as a result of injury in the workplace in New South Wales. I have no doubt that we will see an increase in poverty rates in New South Wales. We will see an increase in mental illness associated with people who are injured at work and are unfairly compensated for their injuries. We will see an increase in stress and pressure in the family situation—the complete antithesis of what all governments have been trying to achieve in the area of social inclusion.

One may ask why the O'Farrell government is bringing in these changes. Why are they cutting benefits to a group of the most vulnerable in our society—injured workers? They claim it is to reduce a deficit in the system, but they ignore the fact that the deficit in the system is predominantly a result of bad investments from insurers during the global financial crisis and a downturn in the investment market in the wake of the global financial crisis. It has nothing to do with the performance of the scheme or with the benefits that are paid to workers to get them back to work. They claim that there has been rorting of the system. That is a completely unjustified argument, and I challenge anyone to say that a worker who gets injured wants to stay on a measly $432.50 payment per week as a regular income whilst they are injured. Nobody wants to have to live off a payment of $432.50 per week whilst they are on workers compensation.

Think of the nurse who does her back lifting a patient at work. Think of the firepersons who injure themselves risking their lives to save others. Think of the police officers who injure themselves as a result of an assault occasioned in the line of duty. Think of all of those people who work in social services in the state of New South Wales who are about to have their benefits and their access to a reasonable incomes when they are injured at work reduced because of an ideological obsession by the conservatives in New South Wales to restrict and cut the rights of workers in that great state.

I am pleased to say that the union movement in New South Wales is not standing idly by and allowing this to happen. They are campaigning to oppose these reforms. I was pleased to join 5,000 workers in very inclement weather in Macquarie Street in Sydney last week on 13 June to protest the insidious reforms that the Howard government—sorry, the O'Farrell government—are introducing to workers compensation in New South Wales.

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They are taking their lead from John Howard. I encourage citizens of the state to go to the website that the union movement has set up——and have a look at the facts about the operation of the workers compensation scheme and occupational health and safety laws in New South Wales. Get the facts—that the scheme is aimed at insuring safety is paramount, that occupational health and safety laws protect workers and that when someone is injured the aim of the scheme should be to provide a reasonable income but at the same time to progress and prioritise rehabilitation to get someone back to work. I ask people to email or to write a letter to their local MP and express their opposition to these reforms, to sign the petition that is available on the website and to take to social media and express their outrage at what the O'Farrell government is doing to workers rights in New South Wales.

In conclusion, I wish to highlight one of the comments that was made by a worker in New South Wales on the website. They said:

On December 16th 2011 a car ran up the back of my car while I was stopped in response to a red traffic light. My car was written off. The back of the car had been pushed in to within 4 inches of the back seat. I sustained a whip lash and back injury and have been having physio as a result of this injury.

If physio had not been paid for through workers compensation, I would have had to take time off and cause the school the expense of replacing me on those days. As an assistant principal this would have also caused disruption to the school. The cost of the injury would have been greater for the students, teachers, parents and community.

(Time expired)