Tuesday, February 24, 2004

WA train drivers strike

By Chris Latham

Metropolitan train drivers voted on February 13 to strike as part of their campaign for a new enterprise agreement. The Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) later that day ordered the workers to return to work. However, most workers did not return to work until the morning of February 16.


The walkout was prompted by the failure of the Western Australian Labor government's Public Transport Authority (PTA) to provide the union with the full text of its enterprise agreement offer prior to the stop-work meeting, Bob Christison, Rail, Train and Bus Union (RTBU) state secretary, told Green Left Weekly.

Christison said another reason for the workers' decision to strike was that they had received two letters the previous week, which they considered to be "threatening and intimidatory". "Those letters came from the minister for infrastructure and the acting chief executive officer of the PTA, and that further inflamed the situation", Christison said.

Christison said the union has been forced into industrial action over the past four months by the WA government's attempt to restrict public sector workers' wage increases to 9% over three years.

The government has offered a 6.9% pay rise over two years, which the union says is acceptable. However, RTBU is also attempting to regain working conditions lost in previous agreements, the most important being that workers receive days off in lieu when they work on public holidays, and that there be a cap on the number of journeys (or distance travelled) that train drivers work in a day. The RTBU has demanded that the pay rise be backdated to October 1, as the old agreement expired on September 30.

The union is also attempting to protect train guards' rosters. When the PTA first employed guards, they were rostered to shifts of between eight and 10 hours. Part-time guards filled the gaps with shifts of approximately six hours per day, five days a week.

Nine months ago, the PTA moved to shorten full-time workers' minimum shift and stop employing part-time workers. In response, the RTBU demanded that full-time workers' shifts be a minimum of eight hours. The PTA rejected this demand on the morning of the February 13 stop-work meeting.

The next flashpoint in the dispute will be the fate of drivers who failed to return to work prior to February 16. Although the IRC has indicated that it is unlikely that action will be taken against the RTBU, the PTA is threatening to sack workers who failed to work their rostered shifts.

From Green Left Weekly #572.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2004

WA Labor's new workers compensation laws

By Chris Latham

On January 29, John Kobelke, minister for Consumer and Employment Protection, released Restoring Fairness, Balance and Certainty: Workers' Compensation Reforms. The document's introduction states that it is the final stage of checking before the legislation is submitted to parliament.

The state Labor government has argued that the amendments will provide workers with improved access to benefits, injury management and greater legal protection. However, the legislation has made limited advances in protecting workers' rights.

The cap on weekly benefit payments will be increased to two-times average weekly earnings, from one-and-half. This payment will be reduced by 15% after eight weeks; it is presently reduced after four weeks.

Weekly benefit payments will still be limited. For workers with permanent total incapacity, the maximum prescribed amount can be extended up to $228,0000, up from $50,000.

The prescribed amount is the total amount available for any injury; if an injured worker dies then his or her dependents receive the prescribed amount, minus any weekly payments already received.

The amendments propose reintroducing lawyers into the whole system (rather than simply during final appeals) and the creation of a new Workers' Compensation Dispute Resolution Authority, which will oversee a process of conciliation conferences and arbitration.

Under the existing legislation, "injury management" — the process by which injured workers return to work — was voluntary, and only vocational rehabilitation was required. Labor's amendments would require large employers to develop their own policy and procedures for injury management and encourage insurers to provide resources for smaller companies to develop these as necessary.

Labor also proposes that injured workers be legally required to participate in injury management and rehabilitation activities. Failure to do so could result in the stoppage of payments.

While workers should have the option of returning to work, and employers be legally required to make arrangements to facilitate this process, Labor's amendments are not aimed at giving workers greater options. Instead, they are aimed at saving employers and insurers money by compelling injured workers to participate in attempts to return to work, and allowing an earlier reduction in weekly compensation payments.

Labor proposes to maintain the "two-gate" system for access to common law introduced by the state Coalition government in 1999. Under this system, injured workers assessed to have a "whole person impairment" (WPI) of greater than 25% (currently the threshold is 30%) are eligible to receive uncapped compensation payments.

For workers assessed to have a "serious impairment" of between 15% and 25% compensation is capped at a maximum of $275,000. Labor's updated amendments maintain its previous position to exclude workers' secondary and consequent impairment, including psychological impairment, in assessing WPI. This is aimed at reducing workers' access to civil damages.

The proposed amendments will extend the deadline for seeking common law damages to 12 months, extendable by an additional six months.

Workers with a serious impairment will also no longer lose their entire statutory benefit. Instead, all coverage of medical and other expenses will cease and weekly payments will be reduced to 70%, then to 50% after three months and cease after six months.

As common law damages are reduced by the amount of weekly benefits that the worker has already received, the phasing down of benefit payments and ending of coverage of medical expenses can only be interpreted as intended to dissuade injured workers from making common law claims.

From Green Left Weekly #570

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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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