Unions pledge fight for sick & injured workers

Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon (centre). Photo: United Services Union/Flickr

NSW unions are gearing up for “the biggest battle since Work Choices” to defend the rights of the state's sick and injured workers to receive just compensation.

The Barry O'Farrell government has outlined cuts to WorkCover that mean workers would no longer be covered on their way to and from work. Payments to injured workers would fall after 13 weeks (rather than 26 weeks). All medical costs and payments for workers who are still sick or injured after two-and-a-half years would be cut.

The government says that cutting benefits would “encourage” injured workers back to work.

A May 24 union meeting heard from registered nurse Emily Orchard, who was seriously injured performing CPR. Orchard underwent four spinal surgeries. Under the proposed changes, she would have only been covered for two.

She told the meeting, "it's hard enough under the current system to survive," adding that her medications cost four times her income.

NSW business groups say jobs would be lost unless workers compensation rights are taken away.

However, Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon said that since 2005, compensation premiums had fallen by 33%. He said independent studies showed infrastructure and skilled labour are far more important to businesses than premiums.

On May 25, Lennon told a parliamentary inquiry into the NSW Workers Compensation Scheme that the scheme's liabilities were “wildly exaggerated to create a sense of crisis, so that the government can cut payments to sick and injured workers”.

Lennon said the government should make savings “from claims agents and administrative costs”, but said “sick and injured workers must not have their entitlements cut because of a blow-out in administrative costs”.

The Unions NSW submission to the inquiry attacked comparisons with Victoria, pointing to the far higher serious injury rate in NSW. It also criticised the role of the private sector, saying private insurers’ WorkCover premiums had risen by a rate far above inflation.

Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) NSW secretary Tim Ayers told the inquiry how a Sydney manufacturing worker died on the job the day before. He said if the government and the business lobby try to cut workers compensation rights “we will take them on”.

Ayers said the AMWU would seek to make up for any cut to compensation in their enterprise agreements. He said this could end up being more expensive for business in the long run.

Ayers said employers should “focus on ... providing safer workplaces where workers don't get injured and killed”.

O’Farrell’s attack on sick and injured workers is outrageous. Such attacks not only hurt the rights of all workers, but embolden bosses to be lazy about job safety. They also increase the insecure nature of work, as workers have no guarantee when injured that they will continue to be able to pay the bills.

The NSW government is devaluing the lives and wellbeing of workers. Workers deserve every effort and expense to maintain their health and safety, and if something does go wrong, they deserve full compensation. That's what all unions and workers need to fight for.

Unions are gearing up for a mass rally at NSW parliament on June 13 at 12.30pm, buoyed by polls that show up to 68% of people oppose cuts to the WorkCover scheme.

[Paul Benedek is Green Left Weekly’s industrial correspondent and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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