COVID-19 crisis highlights failure of private sector

Casual workers have been left high and dry in the COVID-19 crisis.

Casual workers have been left high and dry in the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting how casualisation benefits no-one except the employer.

The first workers to suffer were of Asian-descent, as racism reared its head in early March. The second wave came after March 13 when large events, including the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the Australian Grand Prix, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, the Sydney Royal Easter Show and the Byron Bay Blues fest, were cancelled. Casual workers in the arts, entertainment and events sectors were sacked.

Then, on March 23 at 12noon, thousands more workers in pubs, clubs, bars, gyms and other businesses deemed “non-essential” lost hours, or lost their jobs altogether.

All these industries are highly casualised, or are serviced by sole traders: if they do not work, they receive no income.

Over the last week, the private sector has attempted to stand down casual workers without pay which, unfortunately, is legal.

But it does not end there: businesses are attempting to stand down permanent part-time and full-time workers without pay, or is asking them to take unpaid leave.

These are not the small mum-and-dad family-run businesses. These are large corporations trading in health, manufacturing and airlines such as Qantas, which has received hefty financial support from the federal government.

The federal and state governments’ economic stimulus packages have disproportionately gone to businesses that have only had to promise to retain and continue to pay their workers.

Casualised workers, as well as sole traders, labour hire workers, gig workers and those on fixed-term contracts have varying degrees of little-to-no protection.

As COVID-19 bites, private enterprise has shown it considers these workers to be expendable.

This not only shows up the failures of casualisation, it highlights the limits of the private sector.

One clear example is in health. Right now, private health businesses are sacking workers or asking them to take a cut in pay or hours, take unpaid leave or take annual leave if they do not have enough personal leave.

The health sector is, arguably, one of the most critical right now. Yet, because a large part of the health sector runs as a profit-making venture, it cannot meet current need.

Unions have an opportunity to ramp up campaigns against casualisation. Workers are angry and anxious and looking for an opportunity to fight back.

Some members of my union who were once reluctant to become involved are now telling me they are prepared to fight for access to personal protection equipment and to make sure their work stations are 1.5 metres apart.

Union leaderships need to step up: workplace delegates, shop stewards, job representatives and health and safety representatives are the first line of defence. We also need to ensure that employers are not able to stand down anyone without pay.

[Sarah Hathway is a union organiser and member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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