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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20574

Ms JANN McFARLANE (11:46 AM) —I rise today to discuss the report from the Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations, Back on the job: report on the inquiry into aspects of Australian workers' compensation schemes. From a parliamentary perspective, I am pleased to see an open discussion on this topic emerge. Workers compensation is something that seems to fall in and out of vogue in this place. Such a fundamental issue needs to be completely understood. I hope that a better understanding of the subject will lead to better legislation and ultimately a more workable system for everyday Australians. I have taken great interest in the discussion over working hours that has been going on in the other place. Australians are working longer, harder and tougher. I take the liberty of quoting Senator Gavin Marshall. He said:

The ILO key indicators of the labour market study have found that the annual hours worked per person in Australia is 1,824, which is higher than the United States at 1,815 and significantly higher than European countries such as France and Germany at 1,545 and 1,444 respectively.

Whilst we would like to think that as an industrialised economy Australia has been able to develop fair and reasonable working conditions, the excessive annual working hours per person that Australians endure compares with countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where annual working hours are 1,980 and 1, 978 respectively. The economies in these countries are at a transitional stage, and they have succeeded in reducing annual hours worked per person. Further development will most likely see a reduction in annual working hours to levels that are less than ours here in Australia.

Clearly Australia is going against the grain. Surely harder, longer and more stressful work also means work that hurts our workers more. While I do not want to delve too far into the working hours debate, I do believe that, if we are going to continue on this path, as legislators we have a responsibility to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place. Most of all, this means an accessible, fair and logical workers compensation regime. More specifically, what can we as federal legislators do? The disjointedness and inconsistency of workers compensation schemes throughout our states and territories cannot be ignored. I for one have placed great faith in all our Labor premiers and chief ministers and I see this as an ideal opportunity to take up the standing committee on some of its recommendations. We should look at the current environment and see ourselves as facilitators.

One of the main areas that need attention is the different modes of employment that have proliferated in the past decade. We live in the age of the casual and contract worker. These employees already lose out in terms of conditions and a federal government that could not care less about them. The human resource management trend of the previous 10 years has ensured that thrifty managers are better resourced and equipped to sidestep most of our workers compensation schemes. It is the job of governments, particularly with regard to workers compensation, to ensure that our workers are better equipped as well. Contract employment should not negate the basic rights of the worker. A well-constructed, standardised workers compensation scheme would potentially make this so. Paragraph 8.6 of the report states:

The need for greater national consistency in the operation of workers' compensation schemes was frequently raised in the evidence to this inquiry. There are currently ten different schemes operating in Australia for nine million employees.

Keeping human resources managers busy with lots of systems does not necessarily mean keeping them honest. The more competing systems we use, the more cracks that these new types of worker can fall through and, sadly, the more they can be pushed.

At this point, I would like to refer to something the member for Shortland, Jill Hall, mentioned in discussing this report. She reflected on the terms of reference for the inquiry and pointed out the initial emphasis placed on compensation fraud. She also went on to debunk this witch-hunt by stating:

The evidence we received in the committee did not support the claim that there was widespread fraud. All evidence to that effect was hearsay. When I directly asked the National Farmers Federation whether fraud was a major concern for their organisation, they said it was not. As we found in the report, much of the `fraud' is perceived fraud, which relates to incompetencies and inefficiencies in the various schemes.

I find that very interesting. The deficiencies of the system, and not the people using it, need to be looked at very closely. However, to the inquiry's credit, an objective approach was adopted despite the very worst intentions of the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations.

I hope that this report reminds the minister that our injured workers are the most vulnerable. Instead of trying to pull the rug out from under their feet, let us provide them with stability and replenish their faith in the Australian industrial relations system. By this, I mean so much more than the dollars attached to compensation. Paragraph 4.14 of the report states:

In workplaces where there is a poor relationship between the employer and employee the injured worker may be reluctant to return to that environment, and negative psychological factors can impede recovery. There may be a stigma attached to being on a workers' compensation claim because of the loss of a bonus for others.

A workplace is much more than the dollars one earns. It is often the main social engagement of our lives—the place where we make friends and give meaning to our lives. These recovering workers need the support of their peers, and especially of their management. The overwhelming majority of claimants are genuine, and the employers of Australia need to remember this. I am pleased to say that the inquiry has recognised this valuable information, and I sincerely hope that the minister takes the time to absorb that too.

The media has to own up to its responsibility in this area as well. Tabloid television programs, which I am sure I need not name, need to face facts. For every `dodgy compo case' they broadcast, thousands of legitimate cases throughout the country are perceived badly by the broader community. Stigma can have a devastating effect on the recovering worker, and can often slow, impede or even halt the recovery process. In a global economy as fragile as the current one, the last thing this country needs is more disenfranchised workers, intimidated out of the job market.

The financial aspects of workers compensation go beyond the realm of the compensation. Because of the differences between states, the interaction between compensation bodies and the Commonwealth is a serious problem. The last thing a recovering worker needs is a clerical or judgment error at Centrelink resulting in loss of payment, appeals processes and, ultimately, undue stress that keeps that Australian at home for longer. The relationship between these agencies urgently needs to be addressed. It is of particular importance when people with an injury move from one state to another for reasons of family need or job prospects. They then find that they fall under a different workers compensation scheme and that they cannot necessarily access rehab in that state. They find that they have actually disadvantaged themselves massively because they do not understand the differences between state systems.

I have spoken in this place numerous times before on the topic of industrial relations. The Howard government has been shameless in chasing down and smashing the working rights of the ordinary Australian—chasing them out of unions, out of the arbitration process and out of conditions. The managerial classes of this country are taught extremely well. Human relations courses are a cornerstone of most universities in this nation. But there are questions you have to ask. Are workers properly informed of their rights? Are they encouraged to exercise these rights? Most of all, does the government properly enshrine these rights?

In discussing this, I suggest we remember our own personal work histories. Both of my own children have worked their fair share of tough jobs as casual, seasonal and contract workers. They have brought co-workers to me for assistance. Why? Because a co-worker had suffered an injury and had not been told of their rights to lodge an incident report and be put on a rehabilitation program. Often such people are sacked for getting injured. Again, they do not know of their rights. This is a shame and a disgrace, particularly when, as the indications show, we are going to continue—until we get a Labor government—on the path of becoming a more casual, seasonal or contracted workplace. I want to live in an Australia where people can have access to an equitable compensation system if they get injured at work. More importantly, I do not want them to be victimised for exercising that right. I suspect the rest of Australia's parents would feel the same way about their children.

The Commonwealth should be taking the lead on this matter. I hope the minister considers the options presented to him in this report. In particular, I believe that he should consider the recommendations referring to standardisation and dialogue between the states. The bottom line, the minister's main priority, would also benefit from this process. The more seamless and clear-cut the workers compensation system is the fewer mistakes are made. We on this side of the House always treat this subject with the highest priority. The Howard government's track record on industrial relations does not fill me with confidence, but I would like to assure the people in my electorate of Stirling and all the workers of this country that the opposition, the Labor Party, will always fight for fair working rights.

I have to deal regularly with constituents coming in with workers compensation claims. I will just mention one case of a truck driver who suffered two injuries in the course of his job and was being rehabilitated for the second one. They told him he could not work as a truck driver any more. He came to me because he had been rehabilitating for two years. He wanted to go back to work desperately; he wanted to be a truck driver again. We sat down and discussed how the rehabilitation had been handled. His case had been handled well and professionally, but he was feeling frustrated. They had sent him on a computer course and a work placement and, being an outdoors type of person, he found himself in the frustrating and difficult situation of being sat in front of a small screen and being told, `You'll have to become an indoor worker and this is the kind of work you'll have to do.' Because of his particular types of injuries, he will not be able to drive a truck again.

He and I sat down and I just used my commonsense and my 25 years of community work experience to work through the issues with him. We identified three different kinds of career options that he could pursue, where he could be an outdoor person, go to TAFE or college, do some training and be able to re-enter the work force. These included things like horticulture—we have a lot of nurseries in and around Perth—anything to do with football administration or sports administration, which is outdoor kind of work, or youth work, which is primarily outdoor work. He was very pleased with the assistance I was able to give him and was quite confused as to why nobody had sat him down and identified that the main issue was that he was an outdoors type of person and they were trying to turn him into an admin, indoors type of person. Again, this is not the first constituent to sit with me and have this kind of discussion. I was pleased to be able to help my constituent, and my many other constituents, but I am very sad that this is a regular thing in our workers compensation system. My experience is not an uncommon one, as I am sure my colleagues here would agree.

I mentioned earlier that Australia is going against the grain in terms of working hours. I ask the minister to go against the grain of his time as minister so far and put the workers before the bottom line. I would like to thank the people who served on the committee, who gave generously of their time and skills to conduct this inquiry. You have all carried yourselves with an integrity and commonsense that the Howard ministry is often lacking. If we are lucky, the government will take up your good ideas and do something to benefit the ordinary worker. I commend this report to the House.