The Guardian 12 March, 2008
Workers, Rann Government
at loggerheads over WorkCover
Just 100 days after South Australia’s trade unions pulled out all the stops to get Labor over the line in last November’s federal elections, they have been compelled to launch a major campaign against the Rann Labor government’s proposed attack on the state’s workers’ compensation system. SA Unions Secretary Janet Giles has resigned from the board of the WorkCover Corporation and there is serious talk of a YourRightsAtWork-style marginal seats campaign against Labor at the 2010 state elections. There is a lot of anger among the state’s workers at plans to take the axe to workers’ compensation so that costs can be reduced for the big end of town.
Big business, the Murdoch press and the government have been browbeating the public with the threat that the system’s $843 million unfunded liability will undermine the state’s AAA credit rating. They all admit that the "debt" would only become real if virtually all the state’s workers became incapacitated and made a claim on the system but that fact will not get in the way of an assault on the security of those who become ill or are injured at work.
Business wants the system’s three percent levy on payroll reduced to two percent and, in SA today, what business wants government will bend over backwards to deliver.
The government commissioned a report on WorkCover by financial advisers Alan Clayton and John Walsh. It was delivered recently and has been used as the basis for a bill to be presented to parliament on April 1. The report recommends cutting payments to injured workers to 80 percent of their wage after 13 weeks and to stop all payments after 130 weeks. After that, workers would be dumped on the social security system and into poverty.
As Australian Lawyers Alliance SA President Tony Kerin said recently, "If you are off work for two-and-a-half years, chances are you are very seriously injured." Defenders of the "reforms" don’t like talking about these consequences. They don’t talk about unsafe workplaces. They don’t talk about employers who won’t take injured workers back. They prefer to talk about a "lack of incentive" to return to work under current arrangements.
They do their best to dress the treatment to be accorded workers under the proposed new regime as lavish. "This is not a slash and burn," Alan Clayton told a public meeting at the Enfield Community Centre last Saturday. "It will be only the second jurisdiction to have the costs of specialist counselling services to the family members of a deceased worker." He said it will even be the first to include a "charter of workers’ rights"!
On the pro-corporate side of the issue, blame for the poor financial performance of WorkCover is given as a blow-out in claims, unstable management and the fickle ways of the share market.
The restriction of the ability of unions to organise safer workplaces under Howard-era legislation is not mentioned, nor is the need for greater regulation and inspection. "There are only two ways to rein in the WorkCover debt — increase premiums to employers — which would have a negative impact on profits and ultimately employment opportunities — or reduce worker benefits," The Advertiser editorialised. According to this bosses’ logic, the rising cost of unsafe jobs will have to be shouldered by workers; safer workplaces are simply unimaginable!
In response to comments from opposition finance spokesperson Steven Griffith that the 18.3 percent fall in the domestic equity market since the mid-year budget review would cause multi-million dollar losses to the Motor Accident Commission, Funds SA Superannuation and WorkCover, Treasurer Kevin Foley said, "This is the nature of investment markets … It may well be, given the nature of the stock market that we have had a negative return from Funds SA. We do not know that yet. WorkCover is in the same position." Workers will note just how much of their future security is now at the mercy of casino capitalism.
The Liberal opposition is playing a slippery role — trying to walk both sides of the street on the issue. At first, leader Martin Hamilton-Smith chastised the Rann government for not moving earlier to "rule nothing in and nothing out". At the Enfield Community Centre meeting, however, industrial relations spokesperson Duncan McFetridge said he would urge colleagues not to support cuts to entitlements. It would take a huge leap of faith to believe the Libs will break the habits of a lifetime, stand up to big business and deny them their much sought-after changes to WorkCover.
Unions and the community have vowed to fight back. A rally will take place on the steps of Parliament House on April 1 when the bill is due to be debated. Radio ads have started and leaflets are to be distributed at major shopping centres and railway stations.