Sunday, February 17, 2008

SA workers must be organised to fight attacks on workers compensation

Attacks on workers compensation entitlements are part and parcel of the profit-driven system of capitalism.

There is no right for working people under capitalism that has not been fought for during long and arduous campaigns.

No sooner is an advance made on behalf of the working class than the capitalists begin the process of undermining, stripping back and weakening what workers have won, with the aim of ultimately dismantling it altogether.

In South Australia, the focus of this process is on workers compensation.

Workers compensation here is administered by the WorkCover Board, essentially a private company that has a charter to administer an Act of the South Australian Parliament. It is required to have a Board that nominally includes a range of “stakeholder interests”, from industry and business representatives to the Secretary of SA Unions.

For some time now, the business lobby has been campaigning to have its compulsory WorkCover levy reduced. This means that they are not prepared to pay for the workers they have injured.

But it is complicated by the existence of a parasitic industry that grows up around injured workers: this includes some on the WorkCover Board who have their own rehabilitation companies, and a small number of doctors and specialists who rort the system by handballing injured workers around a network of profiteers in whose financial interest it is that workers do not quickly return to the workplace. And it includes the financial advisors and the larger of the Board shareholders who want to see big returns on the funds generated by the employer levy. There is said to be a $1.5 billion overseas investment portfolio held by WorkCover yet little or no public disclosure of this portfolio’s exposure to the house of cards that is the current imperialist financial crisis.

Whilst these people of dubious merit are never examined by the capitalist press, there is a continual stream of public attacks on injured workers. TV “current affairs” programs lead the way with “Man with back injury builds beach resort penthouse”-type stories.

The reality is that whilst a tiny handful of “injured” workers do rort the system, the vast majority of injured workers want to be back at work, and find the whole process of referrals and evaluations worse than the original injury. Many find it hard to protect their self-esteem and sense of personal worth and develop psychological injuries on top of whatever injury took them from the workplace in the first place.

One might be forgiven for thinking that a state Labor government might be more protective of the interests of the workers. Labor has traditional ties to the trade union movement and has historically relied upon the working class for its electoral strength.

Experience here and overseas tells us that social democratic parties are parties of capitalism. They confine their activities to the political institution of capitalism – parliament – and restrict their goals to at best, minor reforms to the economic system of capitalism.

The state Labor government unblushingly badges itself as “pro-business, pro-mining, pro-growth” and provides capitalists with access to its Ministers that working people can only dream of.

To cultivate its ties with the business community, the real ruling class, the state Treasurer has carefully secured a Triple A credit rating with Standard and Poors, and has been bluffed by Business SA into seeing WorkCover’s $850 million unfunded liability as a threat to that rating.

The unfunded liability, however, is largely a paper entity. Not every worker is going to be hit by an evil magic wand tomorrow, and thus claim their entitlements as injured workers.

Nevertheless, it appears certain that the government will cave in to the demands of the ruling class and cut compulsory levies and workers entitlements.

(Adelaide's only daily newspaper, the Murdoch rag The Advertiser editorialised with some candour, as follows: "There are only two ways to rein in the WorkCover debt - increase premiums to employers - which would have a negative impact on profits and ultimately employment opportunities - or reduce worker benefits." Unfortunately, they chose not to spell out what the 'negative effects' of the latter, clearly their preferred choice, would be.)

That die was cast when the government capitulated to Business SA demands for cuts to payroll tax: more than $500 million in cuts to payroll taxes has been delivered in the last two state budgets.

SA Unions Secretary Janet Giles (holding banner, right) has resigned, as of today, from the Board of WorkCover to free herself up for a union campaign in defence of injured workers.

This campaign must draw on what was positive in the Your Rights at Work Campaign that helped topple John Howard’s anti-worker federal Liberal government, whilst recognising that we are some years away from a state election, and that a sharper and more active and aggressive campaign is needed to defeat the changes to WorkCover,

There must be plans for mass rallies and stop work action.

The demand must include the abolition of the WorkCover Board and its replacement with a public authority accountable to state parliament.

The campaign should also demand the creation of an Independent Commission Against Corruption, and the ICAC should hold an enquiry into the activities of the current Board at the earliest opportunity.

While we can not expect an ICAC to be truly “independent” (that would require independence from the whole ideology of capitalism), the fact that it would not be obliged to act in the interests of the government of the day would make it a welcome extension of bourgeois democratic rights.

Let the battle begin!

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