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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20589

Mr WILKIE (12:46 PM) —I would like to take this opportunity to bring to the attention of the parliament an issue that I believe we should all be very concerned about. I am talking about Work for the Dole and, more specifically, about the lack of workers compensation coverage for those people who are obliged to work on Work for the Dole programs to avoid having their benefits stopped. It would appear that insurance policies for Work for the Dole participants do not cover workers under the Workers Compensation Act. Only medical expenses are paid. In Senate estimates—I believe in 1997—Senator George Campbell asked about this issue and was told that the Commonwealth would not generally provide workers compensation insurance for Work for the Dole participants because it believed that there was no employer-employee contract or relationship. While some accident liability insurance is provided, there is no provision for payments for pain and suffering and ongoing compensation.

I have been approached by a young constituent who was obliged, through Centrelink, to work for the dole. Unfortunately, while working on the program he suffered a significant injury which saw him hospitalised for four days in April 2002. He is still receiving medical treatment for the injury. This is his story:

In February 2002 I was obliged by Centrelink to participate in the work for the dole program. The work I participated in was at Kings Park. (Kings Park is a public park in the centre of Perth.)

In April 2002 I had an accident (a pitchfork went through the bottom of my leg from one side to the other). I had an operation that day and another on the 13th April under general anaesthetic. I spent the next two and a half months in bed.

Strangely enough, from July until November 2002 I'd obtained paid work at Kings Park, but due to reinflammation of my original injury I had to resign and seek continued medical attention via my GP and Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital. I then received physiotherapy until a scheduled reappointment with a specialist in February 2003. Last December I was informed that potentially my leg could take 18 months to heal.

In May and June 2003 I again worked for Ecojobs. In August this year the leg pain became bad again. I was transferred to the pain specialist at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and am on constant strong medication.

Up to this date, the State Department for Employment has been paying the medical bills and will do so until two years has expired. Unfortunately Federal policy deems me ineligible for compensation. So I have put off university for another 6 months (no income—no attendance).

In regard to my situation I have spoken to Legal Aid, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, the Department of Employment Protection, the Commonwealth Ombudsman's Office, Comcare, WorkCover, civil rights and advocacy groups, personal injury lawyers, a trauma counsellor, a Centrelink psychologist, a Centrelink disability officer etc. No one can help me because it's a Federal case. And no income means I've no access to a Federal lawyer ... So I don't know what my rights are or the obligations of the Federal Government in light of my medical condition ... In 2001 I returned to Perth to improve my life. Regrettably, just the opposite has occurred. At present, I am extremely keen to resolve this issue and leave WA.

It seems that the government is very strong and tough on people meeting their obligations. However, the government does not seem to be very strong or tough in meeting its own obligations to people who are required to work for the dole and who are injured. I ask the government to explain why a proportion of the population are deemed able to work, are therefore obliged to work for little remuneration, are often doing mundane jobs and are not even protected in the execution of their duties by the same protections afforded to the rest of Australia's working community—that is, workers compensation to treat and compensate them if injured at work. The very nature of activities undertaken in Work for the Dole projects means that they often involve risk. Participants are often required to use tools and equipment that they are unfamiliar with and for which they have received little or limited training and instruction.

What compounds this problem is that participants are given no choice about their participation in the Work for the Dole program. Further, they are given limited information about their rights if injured. I find it outrageous that it appears that the only avenue available to my constituent—and other Work for the Dole participants who are injured and in need of compensation—is to take civil action against the organisation running the program, the owner of the property where the injury occurred or, indeed, the Commonwealth government. Participants have no means to take this action because they have no money and often little expertise in legal areas. This is just another case of the government being mean and tricky and shirking its responsibilities to Australia's most disadvantaged.