Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Workers Compensation in Western Australia: The Shifting Landscape of Workers' Rights

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Workers Compensation in Western Australia: The Shifting Landscape of Workers' Rights

Article excerpt

Introduction

This paper maps a recent chronological journey of Western Australian workers compensation policy and legislation. Following each period of change a contextual discussion is provided, embedding the policy changes within some of the key shifts in the broader social, political and economic landscape. These discussions emphasise the interrelationships between changes to workers compensation, the re-shaping of notions of justice and fairness and the shifting of rights and responsibilities between workers, business and government. The paper begins with the Conservative Coalition Government's delimiting of common law claims in 1993 and subsequent changes in 1999. The paper then moves to successive changes to workers compensation legislation and policy initiated by the newly elected Labor Government over the course of 2001 to 2005. Finally it provides some reflections on the 2004/5 amendments to the Act.

Contextualising the discussion of workers compensation

Any discussion or debate relating to workers compensation in Western Australia and indeed nationally, is embedded within, and created through, a broader context of shifting assumptions about rights, responsibilities, fairness and justice. From its origins within burgeoning Australian federalism and the idea of worker welfare, workers compensation as both the practice and enshrinement of rights, responsibilities, fairness and justice, has undergone significant amendment. Informed by the notion of no-fault entitlement derived from citizenship, workers compensation within Australia also heralded the beginnings of social insurance established in the early years of the twentieth century (Dickey 1988:91-93; Purse 2005:8). Alongside the rights/entitlement rationale, notions of justice and fairness were also evident in the design of workers compensation as way of acknowledging and protecting against the risks associated with work and the social and economic disadvantage incurred by workers and their families when injury effects wage earning capacity. This notion of an acknowledgment was carried further by the New South Wales Labor party of the 1950s, in its articulation of industry's responsibility to its workers: 'industry needed workers and therefore, industry should be responsible for maintaining its industrial workforce and for meeting the income and health needs of injured workers as a right of industrial citizenship' (O'Loughlin 2005:24). However, as Walters has noted, the negotiation of rights and entitlements to safety and workers compensation is exercised in a context in which employers control labour, information and the nature and timing of health and safety improvements. This control shapes and constrains how existing mechanisms are challenged by labour and places barriers in the exercising of legal rights (Walters 1985:75).

Whilst dominant accounts of Australia's social and political history present these concepts of rights, entitlements, fairness and justice as integral to the fabric of society, a closer examination reveals the contested terrain that such concepts have always occupied. Given that access to rights was, and is, dependent upon citizenship, particular populations, including women, Aboriginal peoples, young people, people from culturally diverse backgrounds, and those in precarious employment generally, did not have entitlements or rights prior to their recognition as citizens. Notably, the inter-relationship between citizenship and entitlements meant that only workers who were citizens working in formal structures (usually white and male) could make claims for compensation. Australians have found it difficult to accept the injured worker within the traditional sick-role framing (Grbich et al 1998:244). Added to these limitations are images of the worker with a bad back mowing the lawn which at different times flooded the public media, leading to a focus on 'deviance ... malingering and system abuse' and the idea that the injured worker is 'deliberately magnifying injuries to escape work or to gain leisure or compensation' (Grbich et al 1998:244; Linnell and Easton 2006). …

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