Three essential measures to make workplaces COVID-19 safe

Workplaces have to be made safe if we are to avoid a second wave of COVID-19.

Success in suppressing the spread of COVID-19, along with expanded testing, has led to lockdown restrictions being eased. However, for many, the slow return to working life is being met with unease as workplaces become the key site of new outbreaks.

In the past few weeks four workplaces — Newmarch House in Kingswood, New South Wales, Cedar Meats in Brooklyn, Victoria, the Qantas baggage room in Adelaide Airport and a McDonalds in Fawkner, Victoria — have become the sources of most of the new COVID-19 cases.

Ensuring a safe workplace is vital not just for workers, but the community, as we seek to avoid a second wave of infections.

Here are three essential measures that can ensure workplaces are made as safe as possible, while restrictions are being lifted.

1. Special paid leave for all

It is no coincidence the four clusters emerged in workplaces largely made up of casual or labour hire workers, who have little or no access to sick leave.

No worker should be forced to choose between paying rent and feeding their family or going to work sick. Just over one third of all workers have no access to paid sick leave. Without this protection, workers are much less likely to get tested or stay home if they only have mild symptoms.

The Australian Council of Trades Unions (ACTU) is calling for paid pandemic leave to be made available to all workers, including casuals and visa workers. This would require the government paying for an additional two weeks’ sick leave for all employees (including the self-employed) so they can get tested or self-isolate if required, without losing income.

Special paid leave should be extended to cover those who need to care for someone with COVID-19. Otherwise, there is a risk that the carer may spread the virus to another workplace or face the devastating prospect of losing both household incomes.

Workers who need to stay at home for longer because they are at risk, or caring for a family member who is, should be able to access JobKeeper without having to seek permission from their employer.

Additionally, those who have to care for children should have the option to continue working part-time, as this can enable the sharing of care responsibilities while allowing both parents to maintain a connection to their place of employment and earn in excess of the JobKeeper rate.

2. Enforce right to refuse unsafe work.

The ACTU says that “employers must be required to implement the highest practical standards and controls that will prevent workers from being infected and stop the virus from spreading”.

This will only happen if bosses are required by law to do so, as they will always prioritise profit over protecting workers’ health and safety.

Transport Workers Union (TWU) safety experts found Qantas had delayed a deep-clean of its baggage area in Adelaide airport by almost three days after the first case was confirmed. Meanwhile, it continued to direct workers who had been exposed to the infected worker to turn up for work for several days.

TWU national secretary Michael Kaine noted on May 8: “Qantas, from the start, has denied that the virus posed a risk so it wouldn’t have to spend money on protective gear, training staff, giving them extra time to clean equipment, clean themselves and change into protective gear”.

Laws must be passed to make it mandatory for employers to meet workers’ sanitation needs, provide any necessary personal protection equipment and ensure physical distancing is possible in the workplace. Failure to comply must be punished and the workplace closed until it is safe.

Existing laws make it a legal requirement to consult workers on workplace health and safety issues and allows them to refuse unsafe work. The problem is many workers fear repercussions for taking such action.

Qantas is being investigated by SafeWork NSW for suspending an aircraft cleaner in February after they raised concerns about the virus.

It is unsurprising that a TWU national survey of more than 850 Qantas workers found that, while 93% were concerned about their safety and that of others, almost half did not feel they could raise safety issues at work and the vast majority said doing so would make no difference.

Workers and trade unions need to have the final say over workplace health and safety. Where COVID-19 safety measures are not being implemented, workers should be empowered to halt workplace activities and not return until the site is safe. This requires accompanying workplace safety laws with greater protection for those that speak out.

3. Use JobKeeper to protect workers not profits

Bosses are not just failing to comply with safety measures; they are also using the pandemic to attack workers’ pay and conditions — in some cases with the help of the federal government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy program.

Under JobKeeper, companies experiencing a loss due to COVID-19 restrictions will receive a wage subsidy in the form of $1500 a fortnight for each eligible employee for six months. The aim was to cover the first $1500 of a workers’ wage (with bosses to top up the rest) in companies where revenue had fallen, while keeping stood-down workers on the books throughout the lockdown.

The program should continue to play a role in subsidising workers’ pay during the staggered return to work, or in cases where companies may need to shut down again for health and safety reasons.

Moreover, given that the uptake of the program has fallen short of the originally budgeted 6 million employees, its reach should be extended to cover those that have missed out — in particular casual and visa workers. 

It should not, however, be allowed to be used by bosses to fill their coffers.

Just a day after Village Roadshow Theme Parks (VRTP) CEO Clark Kirby called for the JobKeeper program to be extended beyond September, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) ruled the theme park operator could force stood-down employees receiving the payment to take annual leave.

A worker who challenged VRTP’s request to reduce her annual leave balance argued at the FWC that JobKeeper was never intended to allow big companies to offset annual leave accrual against the government payment.

“If my employer was a small business that was at risk of bankruptcy due to COVID-19, I would do whatever it took to help them stay afloat,” she told the May 13 The Australian.

“But the fact remains that VRTP is merely lining their own pockets, and paying their shareholders a dividend is of more importance than the outrage of their employees.”

Meanwhile, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union Construction and General Division’s Victoria and Tasmania branch reported on a May 4 Facebook post that a week after JMK Construction in Hobart had made its workers apply for JobKeeper, the company was forcing them “to vote on giving up a pay increase that was written into their EBA [Enterprise Bargaining Agreement] and which was meant to have started on May Day.”

Such rorting of the system must be made illegal; companies must be heavily penalised if they use JobKeeper to undermine workers’ pay and conditions.

Workers and unions must have a say on any changes to EBAs. As a first step, the reduction in consultation time change EBAs to just 24 hours must be overturned and no discussion of variations should be undertaken without workers and their unions being given the right to scrutinise the company’s books.

Laws enabling workers to be able to take industrial action around proposed variations is also important.

These measures are vital to ensure that a program, aimed at keeping workers safe and with an income through the crisis, is not abused to prop up bosses’ profits.

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