COVID-19: Workers speak out against being put in harm’s way

September 3, 2021
Image: Living Incomes for Everyone Facebook

The Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) and Living Incomes for Everyone (LIFE) held a media conference on August 31 to discuss ways of organising for COVID-19 safety in the workplace.

Described as an “alternative” to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s daily media briefings at 11am, it aimed to assist workers organising against the NSW government’s dangerous responses to COVID-19, which are putting workers at risk.

Speakers from various industries spoke about how they are affected by the virus outbreak in NSW. All called for more income support, not just for those who have lost work, but for everyone who is struggling in lockdowns, including the unemployed and underemployed.

Hayden, a retail worker and member of the Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Union, said he is not sure why his workplace is considered essential. He and his colleagues are concerned about “customer contact risk” and he reported that they are being used as “personal punching bags” by those frustrated with government restrictions.

He noted that the casual nature of their work made it harder to speak out about safety concerns.

The second speaker, Alex, was a construction worker who has been involved in rapid antigen testing at the workplace. She said the COVID-19 safety response was “total chaos” at the site where she works with about 2000 others.

She said the workers lacked proper personal protective equipment and had no bio-hazard waste bins for used testing equipment, and many safety protocols were not followed.

Alex said these problems came down to a lack of training, information and resources provided by management, and were not the result of workers not taking the pandemic seriously. After a positive COVID-19 case was found, she said, management failed to inform workers if they were a close contact or needed to isolate.

Alex spoke to her union about her concerns and the union wrote to her management about them. She was then sacked.

“Bosses are cutting corners, and putting workers and communities at risk”, Alex said. “We need a worker-led campaign to fight against casualisation and government failures.”

The third speaker, AUWU advocacy coordinator Raquel Araya, spoke about the urgent need for greater federal income support. She said the coronavirus supplement payment of $550 per week should be re-reinstated.

Araya said the AUWU had received calls from unemployed people who are being pressured into fulfilling mutual obligations by job agencies. This is despite mutual obligations being suspended for people in locked-down areas.

Araya also said the AUWU had also received calls from refugees who were “afraid of the Australian Defence Force presence in their communities”. She said they were devastated by “the government’s lack of support”.

LIFE spokesperson Janet Burstall said income support payments must be raised to $550 a week, the ban on evictions continued, and mutual obligations and work-for-the- dole programs scrapped altogether.

[You can watch a recording of the event here.]

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