THE FEDERAL government recently enabled private companies to join the Commonwealth workers’ compensation scheme, Comcare, in a bid to improve assistance to employees with work-related injuries.
Workers employed by the Federal Government, the ACT Government and a number of licensed national corporations are currently covered by the Comcare scheme, representing about three per cent of Australia’s workers.
According to the Federal Government, the amendments, passed by the Senate in late March, ensure Comcare will remain financially strong so that it can continue to provide generous payments, treatment and rehabilitation to employees with work-related injuries.
Furthermore, the government believes the improved efficiencies in the scheme’s administration will benefit both employees and employers. Employees are now said to be able to enjoy updated incapacity, superannuation and funeral benefits as well as being part of a scheme with the best return to work rate in Australia.
“These changes strengthen the connection between work and eligibility for workers’ compensation ensuring that employees are compensated for genuine work related injuries,” Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Joe Hockey said.
In addition, Hockey claimed the changes demonstrated the government’s strong support and commitment to implementing greater national consistency in workers’ compensation arrangements across Australia.
However, Labor industrial relations spokeswoman, Julia Gillard has voiced concerns that
Comcare being primarily a white collar worker scheme for Commonwealth public servants will now be catering for industries with broader work safety issues without the provision of specialised staff.
According to Gillard, Comcare has just 31 staff appointed and available as investigators nationwide. At Senate Estimates in February, it was suggested this number would be increased to 49 inspectors by 30 June 2007 and are based in Queensland, Sydney, Melbourne, South Australia and Canberra.
“Comcare is clearly not equipped to deal with the occupational health and safety challenges from the broad range of new industries approved by the Minister,” she said.
“If the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Joe Hockey, is going to allow mass migration of large companies to the Comcare scheme, he must guarantee OH&S standards and promise that premiums will not rise for the small and medium businesses left in the state scheme as a result.”
In response, Hockey said that with these improvements to the Comcare scheme, he now calls on the state governments to further harmonise workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety laws for the benefit of employees and employers.
Gillard claimed that companies such as John Holland, the National Australia Bank, Linfox and National Wealth Management Services had already been approved by the government to move to the cheaper Comcare scheme.
Also joining the federal scheme is Optus who received permission from the High Court to leave the Victorian workers’ compensation system on the grounds that their competitor, Telstra would have an unfair advantage as members of the Comcare scheme.
The decision to allow the telecommunications company to change from the state to the federal system was also based on the fact it is left to a corporation to organise its own insurance cover for its workers.
Optus, who originally applied for the scheme through the federal Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission (SRCC) claimed they expected to save $2.2 million a year through the move to Comcare.