By Tom Flanagan
SYDNEY — Ten thousand construction workers jammed the streets in a march from Sydney Town Hall to NSW Parliament House on July 28. Andrew Ferguson, state secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), told the rally, "We're here to protest the bosses ripping off the system".
Ferguson was referring to employers' non-compliance with their legal obligation to pay workers' compensation premiums. Non-compliance levels have reach 40% in some industries.
The NSW workers' compensation scheme, Workcover, has a $1.7 billion deficit which is jeopardising future benefit payment to injured workers. The Labor state government has proposed that the shortfall be addressed by reducing the benefits payable to workers and reducing payments to the spouses and families of workers killed in workplace accidents.
The unions argue that workers should not have to bear the costs of employer non-compliance and government mismanagement.
Ferguson pointed out that the current system rewards those who rip it off: bosses who understate their work force or misrepresent the type of work they do (more dangerous work attracts higher premiums) pay less in premiums.
The construction unions' response has been to propose a workers' compensation scheme based on the building industry, and run by unions and employers. In addition to 70% of contributions coming from employers, developers would be required to pay a 30% workers' compensation levy.
Ferguson argued that rather than operate on an honour system, employers should submit a list of their employees each month. Premiums would be based on this list. A supervisory body representing employees and employers would be established to catch bosses rorting the system.
The building industry unions are calling for workers' compensation coverage to be compulsory for all workers, including subcontractors and sole traders, as well as for a proper rehabilitation system for injured workers.
The metal and construction unions are also campaigning for the government to change the Workers Compensation Act to ensure that the normal rate of pay is paid to injured workers. The difference between the award rate and the normal rate was previously paid by the employer under a make-up pay agreement, but the agreement was abandoned by the Australian Industry Group in NSW without consultation.