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Tuesday, 6 December 1938

Mr THOMPSON (New EnglandAssistant Minister for Commerce) .- I move-

That the bill be now read a second time.

The Seamen's Compensation Act, passed by Parliament in, 1911, has become in several respects out of date, chiefly by reason of the inadequacy of the amounts of compensation prescribed, owing to the considerable increase of the cost of living that has since taken place.

The act provides for payment by the employer, as compensation for total incapacity, of a sum not exceeding 30s. a week, and to the dependants, in case of death of the seaman, for example, by shipwreck with loss of life, of a sum not less than £200 and " not exceeding in any case" £500.

State acts providing for compensation in respect of injuries to workmen, including seamen employed on purely intra state vessels, passed since the enactment of our Seamen's Compensation Act, and also of our Commonwealth Employees'Compensation Act 1930, all make more liberal provision than does the Seamen's Compensation Act. The following table gives a comparison of the amounts, with limitations in lump sums, payable under each act: -

It is clear from this table that the amount of compensation payable under the Seamen's Compensation Act, whether by way of lump sum in case of death, or weekly payment in case of incapacity, is considerably below that payable under the Commonwealth Employee's Compensation Act 1930 and the Workers' Compensation Acts of the various States and that the anomaly can be overcome only by an increase of the compensation payable so that it shall more closely accord not only with the higher cost of living now as compared with 1911, but also with the amounts payable under other comparable Sta>te and Commonwealth acts. Thus the bill proposes that a seaman totally or partially incapacitated by injury shall receive a maximum weekly payment of 70s. instead of the maximum 30s. a week under the existing act. In the case of death resulting from the injury, the maximum amount payable to dependants will be increased from a minimum of £200 to a minimum of £400, and a maximum of £500 to a maximum of £750.

A second important direction in which it is proposed to amend the act is by providing for lump sum payments as compensation in respect of certain specified physical injuries. Under the act as it stands, a seaman who has lost, say, a finger or a foot, is entitled to compensation at a weekly rate, with 30s. as a maximum, during incapacity. A man who has lost, say, the index finger of his right hand would be seriously inconvenienced for the rest of his life. But in a fewweeks,, after the injury had healed, he would still be capable of doing a seaman's work, so compensation payments stop. Under the amendment proposed he would be entitled to a lump sum payment of £150.

On the other hand, the man who lost a foot, though quite capable of engaging without handicap in many other avocations, would be incapable of returning to his former position as a deck or stokehold hand on board ship. The employer would accordingly be liable to pay him, so long as he lived, the difference between the amount of his average weekly earnings before the accident and the average weekly amount which he is earning, or is able to earn, after the accident in some other employment or business suitable to his incapacitated condition. If he were so incapacitated as to he unable to take up any other form of employment, lie would receive, in the aggregate, if he lived another 25 or 30 years, and the weekly payments continued, three and four times as much as the widow and family of a seaman killed on the job. In neither case is the result equitable; the man deprived of his index finger does not get enough, while the man who loses a foot gets too much.

It is true that under paragraph 18 of the first schedule to the act, the liability of the employer for weekly payments may be redeemed by a lump sum payment (a) equal to that which would purchase an immediate life annuity for the seamen equal to 75 per cent, of the annual value of the weekly payments under the act or (6) settled by arbitration under the act or (c) fixed by a county court or (d) arrived at by agreement between the parties. In practice, during the last 27 years, the last-mentioned method only has been used. The defect of the method is that no standards are prescribed by which the amount of a lump sum may be fixed as being commensurate with the degree of incapacity of the seaman for general usefulness, arising from the particular injury suffered. The consequence is that an energetic man, desiring to secure capital for, say, a small business, will often accept a relatively small amount, while another, content to live in idleness on the weekly allowance, will not agree to any, or at any rate any reasonable, lump sum payment. The new provision proposed remedies this. The third schedule specifies the amount of the lump sum payable ' in respect of any of the injuries enumerated. The amount for the loss of both eyes, or hands or feet, or of a hand_ and a foot, or of mental powers, or total paralysis of limbs, is the same as the maximum amount payable in the case of death, viz., £750. For the loss of the sight of one eye the proportion has been fixed as 50 per cent., equivalent to £375, and so on for various permanent injuries, down to the loss of a joint of a finger ot a joint of a toe for which the proportions are 12 per cent, and 10 per cent., equal to £90 and £75 respectively. >

The relativity of the proportions to the injuries is not new or arbitrary, but is based first on that observed in the Commonwealth Employees' Compensation Act, which in turn followed generally the proportions set out in earlier State acts. In the fixing of the proportions originally, regard .was paid, it is understood, to the degree of disability the average worker would be subject to in the way of obtaining employment in any general community.

Another important provision of the bill is the payment of a weekly allowance, where total incapacity for work results from the injury, of 7s. 6d. a week in respect of each dependent child of the seaman under 14 years of age, with the proviso that the total amount payable shall not exceed -.the seamen's average weekly earnings. The Commonwealth Employees' Act and all State compensation acts, excepting in the case of Tasmania, provide for weekly allowances in respect of dependent children.

Provision for the payment of hospital and medical expenses is made in the Navigation Act and also in the Commonwealth Employees' Compensation Act, but no corresponding provision is made in the Seamen's Compensation Act. It is considered reasonable that an injured seaman, or, in the case of death resulting from the injury, his dependants, should not he required to pay these expenses, and provision has accordingly been made in the bill for the payment of hospital and medical expenses up to a maximum of £25.

In. an Arbitration Court award, made in 1928, in respect of wages and conditions of employment of members of the Merchant Service Guild of Australasia', which comprises masters, officers and certain engineers, it was provided that compensation should not be payable if the employee concerned were entitled to receive compensation under any Federal or State act. This had the effect of excluding masters and officers on interstate vessels from the provisions of the award relative to compensation, as the Seamen's Compensation Act applies equally to -masters and officers as it docs to deck and stokehold ratings. In actual practice, however, it is understood that, as the award provisions with respect to compensation are more favorable than those under the Seamen's Compensation Act, ship-owners have, as a matter of course, paid compensation in accordance with the provisions of the award. Masters and many officers employed on interstate vessels enjoy the benefits of the award, by reason of the fact that' the workers' compensation acts of the various States limit compensation payable under those acts to employees whose annual remuneration is less than certain stipulated amounts. These amounts range from £550 in New South "Wales to £312 in Tasmania.

Tinder the award: dependants of a master or officer, whose death resulted from an injury received in the course of his employment, would receive a sum equal to three years' earnings of the employee, or about £2,100 in the case of a master. Under the existing Seamen's Compensation Act the amount payable in the case of death is £500. The bill provides for this maximum to be increased to £750. To overcome this anomaly the bill provides for the exclusion of masters and deck and engineer officers from the provisions of the Seamen's Compensation Act so that they, or their dependants, may receive the better conditions provided by their respective awards.

The existing act is defective also in that no provision is made therein for compensation in respect of occupational or industrial diseases. It is proposed to remedy this defect. The remaining amendments of the Seamen's Compensation Act proposed to be made are either consequential on those above referred to, or are machinery or minor administrative changes found necessary or desirable in the light of experience in the administration of the act. These amendments will be explained in detail if necessary, in committee.

The whole object of the bill, as already explained, is to improve the position of seamen with respect to" compensation for injury arising out of, or in the of, their employment. The amendments of ibc Seamen's Compensation Act are overdue and as it is desired, if at all possible, to put 'the hill through all stages during the current sittings of Parliament. T would ask honorable members to assist bv giving the measure a speedy passage.

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