Owner-drivers in Queensland have been stripped of access to workers compensation under legislative reforms the Transport Workers Union (TWU) fears will send some operators to the wall.
Despite two parliamentary committees recommending otherwise, State Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie amended the definition of ‘worker’ to deny contractors access to WorkCover.
The Industrial Relations (Transparency and Accountability of Industrial Organisations) and Other Acts Amendment Bill adopts the definition used by the Australian Taxation Office, which distinguishes a contractor from an employee as someone who is responsible for providing equipment and is in a position to make a profit or loss.
Bleijie says many contractors already have 24-hour sickness and accident insurance, but Queensland Transport Workers Union (TWU) Secretary Peter Biagini says owner-drivers relied on WorkCover to pay their medical expenses if they were injured on the job.
“The benefit of using WorkCover is it would pay loss of wages plus medical bills. Sickness and accident only covers loss of wages,” he says.
Biagini says owner-drivers will now need to take out private health insurance, but adds that there are many out there who will not be able to afford to do so.
“They are struggling to keep their heads above water now, let alone end up with the extra cost of taking out health insurance. If something happens, and it’s likely to happen out on the highway, this is another thing that will help push them over the edge,” he says.
Bleijie claims the definition needed to be altered because it had caused confusion among businesses.
“WorkCover Queensland has requested we urgently clarify the definition of a worker for workers compensation, especially for construction workers and companies, and bring it into line with the Australian Tax Office,” he says.
However, the Finance and Administration Committee recommended no change after reviewing the scheme.
“The Committee agreed that the definition, as it currently stands, has been tested at law and fundamentally works. Any change to that definition will impact on both employers and workers,” a report from the committee states.
The Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee, which examined the Bill, urged Bleijie to accept the Finance and Administration Committee’s findings.
In its response, the Government stated: The Application of the tests in the existing definition of worker have caused significant confusion around when an employer is required to hold a policy of insurance to cover “worker” for a work-related injury.”
Biagini says he can’t understand why Bleijie tinkered with the scheme.
“It’s a good scheme, best in Australia. Coverage for workers is why it’s the best. It’s very well run, so why play with it?” he asks.
Biagini criticized Bleijie for not consulting the TWU before using its numbers to ram the Bill through Parliament. He has also expressed doubt owner-drivers who took out private health cover would be able to pass the cost on to customers.
"What he has done is put a real big cost [on owner-drivers] and it will break some of them," he says.
The union secretary says he is also concerned there is a lack of awareness among owner-drivers of the change.
"Most of them will not be aware of it until something happens. That's what I'm afraid of. It's one of those things - out of sight, out of mind. You don't realise until you need it that it's no longer there."
The Opposition refused to support the Bill and accused the Government of trying to make it harder for claimants to pursue their rights under the workers compensation scheme.
Deputy Leader Tim Mulherin disputed Bleijie’s claim the definition needed to change.
“It has been operating effectively for years and the courts have been able to effectively and efficiently interpret the law and apply the meaning contained in the [Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation] Act to great effect,” He says.
“The real motive behind the proposed change is to reduce the number of people who are covered by the workers compensation scheme, particularly those in the construction industry. It is unfair and it will impact on workers and their families and further undermine the economy of this state.”
The Bill also alters arrangements for Queensland’s 32 employer associations and 34 trade unions currently registered in the State.
Organisations now need to ballot members for expenditure of more than $10,000 on political campaigns. Bleijie says the Bill also introduces greater transparency and accountability.
“New disclosure requirements, including personal interests and gifts declarations, will ensure greater accountability by decision makers in these organisations.
“Officials and decision makers occupy a privileged position and it is important they are kept to the highest standard,” he says.
“Maximum penalties for dishonesty have been increased from $22,000 to $340,000 and/or five years imprisonment, in line with the Corporations Act.