Opposition employment spokesman Brendan O’Connor.Public service news: full coverage
Federal government reforms to public service workers’ compensation are “harsh, unjust” and “gratuitously mean”, according to the federal opposition.
Labor says changes planned by the Coalition would leave 160,000 public servants and hundreds of thousands of other workers with less cover than the rest of the Australian workforce.
Opposition employment spokesman Brendan O’Connor says changes to federal workplace insurer Comcare directly risk the health and safety of Australian workers and leave injured employees without access to compensation or medical benefits.
But Employment Minister Eric Abetz shot back on Wednesday, accusing Mr O’Connor of being content to let “rorts” against the system continue.
Before it lost office, Labor pledged to reform the Comcare in a bid to control its spiralling costs and the Coalition has continued the push since winning government.
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Senator Abetz has legislation before Parliament that will make it easier for private sector companies to join the Comcare scheme and put a stop to compo pay-outs to workers injured while on breaks from their jobs.
It will also block claims for employees seriously hurt or killed while engaging in serious misconduct or who voluntarily assume “abnormal risk”.
The Canberra Times revealed in September that a second tranche of reforms is also in development which would address some of the most controversial aspects of public service workers’ compo: payouts for psychological injuries, compensation for life, and taxpayer-funded access to dubious therapies.
But Mr O’Connor told a union workplace safety conference in Melbourne that Senator Abetz’s reforms were “a series of exclusions from compensation that will make Comcare an outlier in Australia for the harsh and unjust way that it would treat injured and deceased workers”.
Mr O’Connor said the abnormal risk clause would hurt police officers or medical workers who put their health or even their lives on the line to protect the public.
“There is no protection for vulnerable workers who are asked or directed to do dangerous tasks by their co-workers – the young worker or older worker afraid of losing their job,” the Labor frontbencher said.
“There is no protection for police, for nurses for workers who respond throughout the day and are exposed to risk, but must perform tasks to ensure the health, safety and well-being of others.”
Provisions banning compensation pay-outs for workers hurt while on an “ordinary recess”, or a break from their work, bring the scheme back to the days of WorkChoices, Mr O’Connor told the ACTU conference.
“In 2007, under John Howard’s WorkChoices regime, recess claims were removed from the scheme,” he said.
“In 2011, Labor reinstated the protection to return equity to Comcare and to provide coverage to injured workers under Comcare on a similar footing as provided to the vast majority of the Australian work force.
“Another provision in the Bill that underlines what this Government stands for is the removal of protection and compensation in cases of ‘death or serious and permanent impairment’ if ‘wilful misconduct’ is alleged.
“This is perhaps the most gratuitously mean proposal in the Bill, because the Government acknowledge at best negligible savings from this measure in its Regulation Impact Statement.
“There are no individuals or organisations that we know of that have called for this change.”
Senator Abetz rejected Mr O’Connor’s position, and said his reforms would bring Comcare into line with the schemes that cover most Australian workers.
“These reforms will help bring the Commonwealth workers compensation scheme into line with the rules under State schemes and will remove loopholes that can be rorted when injuries occur that are not the responsibility of the employer,” the minister said.
“Mr O’Connor should be upfront and admit that he would rather see such rorts continue to exist at taxpayers’ expense and that he opposes common sense reforms to the system that will help keep it affordable.”