WORKCOVER AUTHORITY WORKERS COMPENSATION PREMIUMS
Mr R. W. TURNER
(Orange) [12.40 p.m.]: Today I raise the matter of workers compensation premiums and the Workcover Authority. Two farmers, Mr Graham and Mrs Ruth Souter of Annabranch, Cowra Road, Gooloogong, in my electorate, produce tomatoes and corn and raise cattle. They are very good farmers who have up-to-date equipment on their farm. On 20 March 1997 two of their employees had an accident whilst processing tomatoes. The workers went to the doctor, went on sick leave for seven days and then resumed their employment. They are no longer in the employ of Mr and Mrs Souter.
Mr and Mrs Souter thought that was the end of the matter but about 18 months later on 16 September 1998 they were served with summonses alleging that the tomato harvester was operated without due maintenance and safety by the employers and, as a result, certain injuries were sustained. I understand that the case will be heard in July this year. The machine is a well-known brand and is sold throughout the world. I understand that the machines cost in excess of half a million dollars each and there are about 16 of them in Australia. The harvester is a very professional machine that is recognised throughout the world as complying with all possible safety standards.
Both employers and employees have responsibilities to avoid accidents wherever possible. I understand about 10 summonses have been served. When the facts come out it is hoped that the evidence will show that these employers, as much as they were able, acted as responsibly as possible. Unfortunately, due to the time that has elapsed, Mr and Mrs Souter no longer have the machine as they have changed their farming practice. They no longer grow tomatoes because of restrictions on processing tomatoes in the area and the general shift into Victoria. The machine has now gone to Victoria.
This matter highlights a number of cases notified to my office of employers no longer being able to afford the workers compensation premiums levied on them. There are too many instances of premiums being increased by 10, 15, 20 or 30 per cent per year. Whilst the inflation rate is low, in many cases the premiums can no longer be sustained. Employers face overzealous action by the Workcover Authority and far too often the evidence of employers is not considered. In many cases they are made to feel guilty before they are allowed to prove themselves innocent.
Employers point out that they plead guilty because they cannot afford the cost of going to court. Many of them are small farmers who do not have the financial means to fight court cases, and they are told they will lose anyway. It is dangerous that there is no longer an incentive for employers to employ extra employees. Employers try to do as much as possible themselves. They say that if the restrictions of heavy premiums and overzealous tactics of the Workcover Authority were not placed on them they could employ more employees and make their farms more sustainable by producing more value-added products. In New South Wales, compared with Victoria where there is a completely different attitude, there is no longer any incentive to employ extra employees.