Melbourne unionists protest against weak compensation rights
Some 3000 union members rallied in the streets of Melbourne last Wednesday to protest the against the inadequate new workers' compensation legislation recently introduced by the Bracks Labor Government. The previous Kennett Government stripped most workers of the right to sue their employers under common law for injuries suffered in the workplace, with the intention of restricting compensation for such injuries to the cost of medical expenses. The new Bracks Government was expected to at least restore the previous level of compensation rights. It was also expected to make the new laws retrospective, to allow 5000 workers who suffered injuries during the Kennett regime to seek compensation from their employers, and to improve workplace inspection by government. However, the Bracks Government did not restore the workers' compensation entitlements to the pre-Kennett level, let alone improve those entitlements, nor did it make the legislation retrospective. The Government has employed an extra 30 Workcover inspectors, and it intends to introduce legislation (the Occupational Health and Safety 2000 Bill) which it says will impose a stricter Workplace health and safety regime on employers and will introduce the concept of industrial manslaughter. However, the union movement has not yet been given the opportunity to peruse the Bill or comment on it. In the light of the shortcomings of the Workcover legislation, there are deep misgivings about the adequacy of this legislation also. Speakers at the rally made it clear that the union movement will not rest until certain conditions have been met. Firstly, the level of compensation rights must be restored to at least the Pre-Kennett level. Secondly, the 5000 workers injured under the Kennett regime must be empowered to take common law action for compensation. And thirdly, the number of injuries suffered in the workplace must be drastically curtailed. A spokesman for the Workcover Minister, Bob Cameron, last week stated stubbornly that the Bracks Government had made good on its pre-election promises to workers, which he said had never actually included a commitment to introduce retrospective legislation. Apart from this statement, the Government has to date, met union criticism of its actions with a sullen silence.