COVID-19: United Workers Union calls for jobs and income guarantees

The United Workers Union is continuing to organise during the COVID-19 pandemic, helping its members and the public.

The United Workers Union (UWU) announced a plan to ensure that no worker is left behind in the COVID-19 pandemic. UWU executive director Godfrey Moase told Green Left that its plan is focused on stopping sackings, an income guarantee, tax relief and rent and mortgage freezes.

The federal government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy package, which became law on April 8, is only “half a step in the right direction” Moase said. “But, leaving anyone behind endangers everyone,” and JobKeeper “leaves out so many people”.

It is not good enough to leave millions of people behind, because it has real consequences for public health and safety, he said.

Moase pointed to one example: “What does a temporary migrant worker security guard do when they get directed to look after quarantined people and they are not allowed to wear personal protective equipment (PPE)?

“They are forced to choose between safety and an income.”

Those sorts of “choices” are everywhere.

Moase said some employers are choosing not to apply for JobKeeper, even though they are eligible. This could be because they “want to clean out their workforce and start again” or “are putting through a lot of money off the books, so not paying tax, and they don’t want to rectify that”. He said this practice is “particularly rife in the hospitality sector, where there is a lot of wage theft”.

“Workers are being punished for the crimes of their employers,” he said, because “JobKeeper is dependent on employers making the decisions, thereby disempowering workers”.

Pay workers directly

Mass unemployment could be avoided if the government had mandated that where people did not have work, they would remain on the books in an unpaid stand-down situation.

That would mean that every worker would have the right to return to their job, post-COVID-19, he said.

The wage subsidy should be paid to every single worker, Moase argued. “We have the infrastructure ... the capacity to [pay a wage directly]. We remember our [Labor Prime Minister Kevin] Rudd cheques in 2009.”

The only “excuse” to go through the employers, Moase said, is to put control in their hands and to keep workers dependent. That has “safety implications for all of us trying to do our best to fight this pandemic”.

The big problem is that “the integrity of the overall system is only as credible as the least credible and shonky of employer operators”.

Entitlements, seniority of employment and continuity of conditions can all be sorted out without payments being paid via the employer. “The negatives far outweigh the positives.”

Moase said JobKeeper tries to do two contradictory things, simultaneously.

First, it tries to “rescue enough of the population to stymie a rebellion”, and get enough people to stay at home to reduce the infection rate.

Secondly, “it maintains the boss-worker extraction of wage labour and very precarious forms of employment”.

JobKeeper uses a “mass form of asset stripping”, Moase said. It systematically rips property and assets away from workers, making them use up annual leave and other entitlements and forcing them to dip into their superannuation.

“It is going to leave broad sections of the working class systematically disinherited and more precarious after this crisis.”

Make capital pay

By contrast, the UWU plan recognises that “the system was broken before this crisis and we needed to find a way of looking after people through it”.

Its two key elements — a job guarantee and an income guarantee — are not usually packaged together, but they need to be.

“We need a job guarantee to keep people employed as much as possible, so that workers who haven’t yet been booted out of their jobs have an absolute right to go back to earning an income.

“It would minimise the wage shock by keeping people’s incomes fairly similar to what they had prior to COVID-19.”

A jobs guarantee is also needed because many people already had very precarious and insecure work in the cash economy, and so many are underemployed, unemployed and have been sacked.

“A jobs guarantee as well as an income guarantee is a way of returning workers to pre-crisis incomes, as quickly as possible.

“It would put the power back into the hands of workers to exercise a real choice between having to go back to shonky employers or doing something else.”

“Virtually everyone who starts a job these days is a casual worker. They are the first to have been smashed by this JobKeeper program”, Moase said.

The UWU says an income guarantee would mean everyone receives at least the legal minimum wage for the duration of the coronavirus crisis, including those on JobSeeker (formerly NewStart).

No bail outs

“Our plan is about making capital pay, and the government’s plan is about making people pay.”

The UWU wants an end to government bail outs of non-essential industries. It says essential industries should be brought back into public ownership.

“There’s no point bailing out unproductive capital for the sake of helping out a few capitalists.

“If public monies are going to be used, we should say if they are socially necessary or not, particularly in a climate emergency.

“And if they are public necessities, why are they being run for private profit at the public’s expense?”

Essential industries “should come back into the commons” or be restructured so that workers and communities have the ultimate say in their day-to-day management.

“If the public has to foot the bill, ultimately we should get to say how they are run.”

Since the beginning of the shutdown, UWU members have taken industrial action to be able to work safely. Workers at distribution centres have organised “cease-works” to secure their own health and safety with physical distancing, sanitisation and other procedures to ensure that distribution centres do not become sites of transmission.

Some factory workers and call centres have also taken action.

On April 1, the UWU held an online meeting of more than 2500 members from different industries and parts of the country.

It also organised car convoys in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to highlight its call for all workers to be able to access JobKeeper, regardless of their work or visa status.

The union has also set up a special United against COVID-19 Facebook group for its members to share stories and campaign for workers’ rights.

Moase believes it is important to keep organising because it helps the public and “it is part of the inevitable struggle around who foots the bill” for the pandemic.

“We don’t have to win every single fight,” Moase said, “but we need to chip away at that dam wall ... because you never know when it’s going to break. We only have to win once to win big.”

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