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Wednesday, 25 November 1959

Mr CLAREY - Prior to the suspension of the sitting I had been dealing with the lowering in the standard of living which takes place in the family of a worker when he is injured or contracts a disease as a consequence of his employment. Right along the line it has been necessary for the trade union movement to fight for the protection of the injured or diseased worker whose condition results from his employment. The fight has been long and bitter.

When I went to work as a lad I can remember that there was no workers' compensation act in Victoria. That legislation did not come into operation until 1st January, 1914. Even when it did come into operation, an incapacitated worker received 30s. a week or two-thirds of his weekly wage, whichever was the less. When an increase in this amount was suggested to the representatives of the Government of the day, and of the insurance companies which undertook the insurance of workers on behalf of employers, one of the arguments that was advanced as to why a worker who was entitled, under the determination of a wages board, to sums varying from £2 8s. to £2 12s. a week, should not receive a greater amount in compensation was that it would be wrong to encourage employees to become malingerers and to make a profit out of an injury, a kind of reasoning that one finds very difficult to understand in these modern days. The further argument was advanced that a worker might belong to a friendly society, and the payment that he would receive from the society would help to bring his income up to his wage level. In those days, the unfortunate part about the whole affair was that not only did the worker receive a very small amount of compensation, which was far from sufficient to meet his requirements as a family man, but also that no provision was made for payment of medical, hospital or other expenses that were bound to occur as a consequence of the injury.

The fight has continued, not only in Victoria but also in all States and in the Commonwealth service, to have an employees' compensation act which, at least, will recognize the human rights and the needs of the employees, and ensure that if something happens to a worker in the performance of his employer's work and while looking after the employer's interests, the worker will not be the loser. So, over the years the workers' compensation acts of the States and the employees' compensation act of the Commonwealth have improved steadily. I think that we are reaching the stage at which it will be recognized that the Commonwealth has a responsibility to see that the employee who has given faithful service and who meets with an injury or contracts a disease in the course of that service, shall not be put in an inferior economic position. That is one of the reasons why I hope that in the not far distant future the operation of this legislation will be investigated thoroughly and that the many anomalies that now exist will be rectified.

I want to lodge my objection to the present practice in relation to the determination of claims for compensation. Under the bill the Commonwealth Actuary and Insurance Commissioner, as the permanent head of the relevant Treasury section, has the power to delegate his responsibility in relation to insurance to one of his officers. I understand that throughout Australia there are numerous officers who hold this delegated authority. These officers make a decision on every application for compensation that is lodged by an employee. The decision is made by a representative of the Government, which in this case is the employer. In other words, the determination of the right of an employee to receive compensation is made by a representative of the employer. Unfortunately, in recent months quite a large number of applications for compensation have been rejected with the result that the employee, under the terms of the act, has to go before the county court in the State in which he is resident in order that his claim may be considered. That immediately involves the employee in a great deal of expense. It is wrong in principle that the determination of these matters, before they go to the court, should be in the hands of the representative of the employer.

New South Wales and Victoria have overcome this difficulty by the creation of what are known as workers' compensation boards. The insurance companies, which handle all questions of workers' compensation, assume the liability of the employer. If the insurance company refuses to recognize, or disputes, a claim, the employee then has the right to go before the workers' compensation board which consists, at any rate in Victoria, of a county court judge, a representative of the employer and a representative of the employee. The judge determines all matters of law, but each member of the board decides the facts for himself and makes a decision accordingly. I agree that it is very hard, in matters that affect both employer and employee, to give satisfaction to both, but I am sure that the boards in Victoria and New South Wales are giving entire satisfaction in a field in which feeling very often runs high. There is no proposal to abolish these boards.

This bill should contain a provision which will enable matters to be determined by an independent authority on which both the workers and the Government will be represented. This will be an improvement on the present unwieldy system of the employer's representative first determining whether he will recognize the claim and then the claim going to a judge of the county court, who probably is not experienced in workers' compensation matters, for final decision.

Unfortunately, inordinate delays frequently take place in the determination of claims. In Bendigo we have an ordnance factory, and periodically a case comes under my notice of an employee who has applied for compensation but, for some reason or other, an inordinate delay has occurred in the determination of the claim. Very often, weeks pass before the matter is finalized, and in the meantime the employee, as a result of the injury or accident, does not receive any income whatever. Unless his union or some other authority comes to his assistance, he is in a very difficult economic and financial position.

If the task is too big for the Treasury to handle because of shortage of staff, I agree with the suggestion of my colleague, the honorable member for Hindmarsh, that the appropriate Commonwealth authority to deal with matters of workers' compensation is the Department of Labour and National Service. There you have a staff that is constantly in touch with the problems of industry - a staff that has been trained in matters relating to industry generally. If the consideration and determination of applications under the Commonwealth Employees' Compensation Act were placed in the hands of that department, these claims could be determined on a proper basis, I believe. I think that decisions could be arrived at with expedition and that injured workers would receive much greater satisfaction than is the case at present. I sincerely hope that the Government will consider this proposal. What the worker wants is that his claim, whether it arises from injury or from disease, be dealt with as rapidly as possible in order that there shall be no difficulties in the ordinary conduct of his home. It is a very serious matter when people are left without any income whatever for four, five, six or seven weeks, merely because the determination of a claim for compensation is delayed.

I greatly regret that this bill does not remove from the existing act the provision that a worker may obtain compensation for injury only if he has been injured in an accident. Persons sustain injuries in the course of their employment, but not necessarily as a result of accident. I recall a case in which I was concerned as a union official. A man working in an extremely hot part of a cannery on a very hot day was sent to the cool store to do some other work. He worked there for some time, contracted a chill and went down with pneumonia. Medical evidence was to the effect that the pneumonia was due to the chill which he had suffered as a consequence of going from an extremely hot place to a place with a very low temperature. Under the Victorian act, compensation was paid.

I call to mind other cases with which 1 dealt in my early days as a union official when I was concerned in solving some of the difficulties experienced by wheat lumpers. Fortunately, wheat lumping as we knew it in old days has now disappeared. I recall men of great strength and of excellent physique who, year after year, stacked wheat in huge stacks down near the waterfront. Hour after hour, they carried heavy bags of wheat. The time of which I am speaking was about the time when the Chapman bag was introduced. Wheat lumpers carried these very heavy bags on their shoulders, often up ladders. The number of men doing that sort of work who developed aneurisms in their shoulders was remarkable. As men became older, aneurisms became more prevalent. In the end, an aneurism usually burst and caused the death of the employee. Although there was no doubt whatever that the physical injury was caused by the nature of the work done, because it was not an injury by accident compensation was not payable.

One must bear in mind that many new processes are coming into industry as a result of technological and scientific progress, and many of these new processes give rise to new disabilities and diseases. Unless the act is broad enough to ensure that employees receive compensation, they may find themselves without any relief at all. I suppose that one of the best illustrations of what happens is to be seen in the rubber industry, where the adoption of new mixtures and processes caused many of the workers to contract dermatitis. This disease is becoming more pre valent in industry because new raw materials are coming into use and some workers are allergic to the new materials. As a consequence, this kind of industrial disease is assuming proportions of considerable magnitude for the employees. All of these things indicate that there is need for the constant overhaul of the legislation that governs the rights of employees who suffer as a consequence of the service given to their employer, whoever he may be, in the course of his business.

The honorable member for Hindmarsh pointed out, among other things, that the scale of medical expenses provided for in this bill will still permit the possibility of an employee having to pay medical ex penses in respect of an injury sustained in an accident. Under the Victorian law, at one time, there was a provision similar to this provision in the bill now before us. A limit was fixed, but, if the limit was exceeded, there was a discretionary power in respect of the payment of a greater amount. With rising medical and hospital charges, it was found that almost every case had to be dealt with by the exercise of discretion. As a consequence, the Victorian legislature decided that medical expenses incurred, whether in respect of a doctor, dentist, masseur, physiotherapist or somebody else engaged in trying to restore people to health, or a hospital, should be wholly paid by the employer in order that the employee could be restored to full health as soon as was practicable. I cannot understand why the Commonwealth proposes, in respect of its own employees, to limit to £350 the rights of an injured worker with respect to medical expenses.

T know that the Minister for Labour and National Services (Mr. McMahon) may say, "The bill provides that more than £350 may be paid in certain circumstances ". The question is not whether discretion should be exercised. The question is: What are the rights of the injured worker? Is he entitled to receive whatever treatment is needed to restore him to health, or is an employer to be entitled to say, " I shall pay medical expenses up to a certain amount, and, if they exceed that amount you will have to pay the excess even though your income has been reduced as a consequence of your accident ?"

I desire to leave with the Minister another thought in respect of workers' compensation. In certain parts of the world, there is a growing tendency to consider that the payment of a lump sum to a permanently incapacitated employee, or to the dependants of an employee whose death has been caused, does not satisfactorily determine the issue. It is considered that you cannot satisfactorily clear up the whole thing simply by paying a lump sum to a man whose physical or mental health has been ruined, or by paying a lump sum to the dependants of an employee whose death has been caused and saying, in effect, " Here is a sum of money. Make the best of it. We have fulfilled our obligations, and our responsibility and liability end here". There is a growing tendency in Canada, the United States of America and elsewhere to regard the welfare of an injured worker whose physical or mental health has been broken beyond redemption, or of the dependants of a deceased worker, as being a permanent charge on either the community or the industry concerned. This means that a widow is considered to be entitled to a pension sufficient to support her in reasonable comfort for the rest of her life. It would mean, in the case of dependants, that proper provision is made for them until they eventually go into industry and are able to look after themselves.

I think it was evident from the remarks of the honorable member for Hindmarsh (Mr. Clyde Cameron) that when one gets to know cases in which people are permanently injured in accidents, and realizes the hopeless physical condition they are in and what they have suffered, one feels that no lump sum, no matter how great, could be adequate compensation. In those cases, a person should receive something after the style of the pension received by the totally and permanently incapacitated man from World War I. or World War II. Industry or the employer should see that while life remains in the body, the person's economic condition will not deteriorate, and he will have no further worries about his own security or that of his dependants. Those seem to me to be the essential facts that have to be considered in dealing with human beings and human lives.

None of us can forget that any person who is employed in industry, whether in a manufacturing process or in a service section, may, through no fault of his own, become the victim of an accident. These employees are performing an essential service for the community, and should they be injured, they should not be denied the right to live as human beings under the same circumstances and conditions as they enjoyed prior to the accident taking place. This Parliament should recognize the need for humanity in connexion with Commonwealth employees' compensation. It is essential that we, as the people's representatives, should have human rights foremost in our mind and that people shall not be denied the right of protection when they meet with an injury. It is our duty to provide this protection and until we have done so, I do not think that we will have carried out the duties that have been thrust upon us as representatives of the people. I believe that the amendments which will be moved by the honorable member for Hindmarsh will improve this legislation and give a greater measure of security to injured and diseased workers than they have at the present time. They will represent a step in the right direction to bring about a better Commonwealth Employees' Compensation Act.

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