COVID-19: When pandemic and precarious work intersect

A rally against penalty rate cuts, in Sydney in July. Photo: Save Our Penalty Rates/Facebook

Russian revolutionary VIadimir Lenin famously stated, in a phrase refashioned by time, that “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that his 20th century counsel is ringing true.

With confirmed cases and deaths rising, federal and state governments are just now scrambling to mitigate the havoc.

The Dow Jones has fallen by 31.1 percentage points since the onset of the pandemic and Australia faces an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression.

All this is having a profound impact on workers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the inadequacies and deficiencies of their work rights. There are 2.5 million casual workers in Australia, a figure that has risen from 13% in the 1980s to now cover one-third of all workers.

Casual workers are particularly vulnerable. They have no access to paid leave, including sick pay. Even though the Fair Work Act 2009 (FWA) enshrines these rights as part of the National Employment Standards, they are only applicable to full- and part-time employees.

Casual workers receive a minimum 25% loading — a greater rate of pay to compensate for these deficiencies. But this loading is not a saving to cover those shifts they are unable to work. It is a much-needed morsel that gets them over the line with household bills.

Not being entitled to sick pay is a huge problem for casuals in this crisis: they are being forced into making the potentially deadly choice between having a roof over their heads or staying at home to prevent the spread of the virus.

Casual workers tend to be women. Youth and people of colour are also over represented in this sector. This means those with the least amount of bargaining power will feel the brunt of adverse changes to their employment.

If casuals lose their jobs as a result of a shutdown, there is no guarantee they will be compensated. Their livelihoods are entirely at the whim of their employer.

The industrial relations laws are rife with exceptions. In the same arbitrary way as losing shifts, under the FWA casuals are disposable.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s hint of a $40-a-day allowance for casuals and the Australian Council of Trade Union’s demand of a legislated 14-day sick pay entitlement for all workers may provide some temporary relief. But, they are still band-aid treatment.

During this unprecedented crisis, we have seen who the country’s “essential workers” really are: health workers, nurses, teachers, cleaners, shop assistants and delivery drivers — the latter not even considered employees.

CEOs all sit far from any frontline.

The very people keeping others afloat right now have to do so often in very poor working conditions.

The pandemic has also shown up neoliberalism: so many services we need to survive the crisis are simply not there, or are not enough. Public investment right now into the health sector, in particular, is necessary.

The pandemic has also shown, in just a few weeks, how the response demands collective solutions and that corporate-driven neoliberalism is either unwilling or incapable of responding.

The state’s class bias is exposed as it bails out corporations and banks, ahead of any temporary wage subsidy or welfare package.

How can the market claim to be the most efficient distribution system when chronic shortages of basic goods like toilet paper continue?

How is it possible that, after being told for decades that it is the private sector that drives a healthy economy, the state is now pumping in vast sums of money to prop it up?

These are just some of the things stirring outrage at the government’s mishandling of the crisis. While we are being told that infinite growth must continue, businesses are shutting down, sending people into poverty and limiting their ability to spend.

It has taken a pandemic for the government to admit that the JobSeeker allowance (previously Newstart) is vastly too pitiful to survive on. Yet, it maintains the rise is temporary.

In the midst of the coronavirus calamity, we have also seen community solidarity rise up with mutual aid organisations and growing neighbourhood cooperation.

Whether the COVID-19 pandemic leads to progressive change based on solidarity, or it allows the state to further entrench austerity, anxiety and misery, will be up to us organising to defend our rights.