Defending workers in a time of COVID-19

March 29, 2020
It has been estimated that at least 1 million more Australians will be sacked as the COVID-19 crisis continues. With permission of Alan Moir,

Many working Australians do not have enough cash to survive the COVID-19 crisis. A recent Grattan Institute report showed 10% of working households have less than $90 in the bank.

Now, on the unemployment front, out of the country's 12.5 million workers, two million could be out of work.

The federal government has passed two stimulus packages, but they are largely aimed at helping its corporate mates. The value of the government’s airline bailout is the equivalent of $2 million a day.

By contrast, very little government support has been directed to workers. Even the $550 a fortnight rise in the JobSeeker Payment and Youth Allowance will not be fully rolled out until April 27, and then only after workers have used up all annual leave, long-service leave and other emergency funding.

Most of us will be paying for the first six to eight weeks for any lost time — not the government, not big business and, definitely, not the bosses.

This leads to a couple of other problems.

I am in the commercial sector of the construction industry in Victoria. We have about 25,000 union members and, over the past couple of weeks, unions, bosses and government have been trying to work out how to keep the building industry going while maintaining a hygienic workplace.

Job sites

Some of the job sites have 1000-2000 workers, all eating in little lunchrooms and all clambering over each other trying to get the job done. It is difficult at the best of times. (Each week in Australia, one construction worker is killed on the job.)

If the federal government shuts everything down, as it has with restaurants and hotels, 25,000 construction workers would not have a job. This may be a good thing if it helps control the virus.

But these workers will have to access their redundancy funds from their income protection and their long service leave. These funds were never set up for all 25,000 workers to make an application at once; they were set up for workers’ retirement.

To have a whole industry try to access these funds at the same time could lead to their collapse. We will then also have to join Centrelink queues.

The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) has tried to set up some new rules on site such as: the four-square metre rule for each person; tripling the bleaching and cleaning regime; splitting shifts; splitting lunchtimes; trying to get smaller groups working together; and looking at a morning and afternoon shift to spread the labour force.

This can be done on smaller jobs, but on sites with 1000 people who have to get in the mechanical lift, two at a time, it would take all shift before they get to their work station. The internal lifts are the same. Moving that volume of workers around in an eight-hour shift is a problem.

Currently, the Chief Medical Officer can shut down a building site if someone gets the virus. The site is then cleaned up and people go back to work. This is clearly an insufficient immediate response.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has launched a campaign for a federal wage subsidy of 80%, so that workers are supported as the industry is shut down. This needs to happen — and fast — and it should applied to those workers who have already been sacked over the past few weeks.

Workers need to have the assurance that if they cannot work, they can still eat and pay the bills. They also need to have confidence that there’s a job for them at the end of this pandemic.

Racism is starting to rear its head on site, which is not good. We are also starting to see some bosses opportunistically using the coronavirus pandemic and hygiene rules to deny industrial organisers entry to sites.

Public sector decimated

Years of neoliberalism have decimated the public sector. As a result, we are not able to do what Thailand, South Korea and Singapore are doing with temperature scans and screening.

But even if we had the kits, it would not be a given that everyone would be tested. Same goes for the infrared temperature scanners.

The slashing of the old Commonwealth Employment Service (CES), the forerunner to Centrelink, took place under Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating. Centrelink clearly cannot deal with the huge numbers needing assistance to survive. We need well-staffed public services for everyone, including workers who have recently been made redundant.

Wage theft should be made a crime. Our money is being given to Qantas in spite of it sacking 20,000 workers. The $715 million bailout Qantas has received should be used to keep people employed, even if they stay at home, and the process of putting Qantas back into public hands should be started.

Publicly-run distribution centres

Clearly, corporate chains cannot guarantee supplies of food and other essential items, which is why we need publicly-run distribution centres.

Australia’s competition regulator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission granted supermarkets the right to collaborate on their supply chain and distribution, but not on prices. It is clear they cannot cope with a major crisis. 

Our food supply needs to be regulated, and not just at the point of sale.

Geelong Trades Hall has decided to organise food drops. A volunteer roster and funding from trade unions will ensure that at least members and other unemployed people do not get caught out without food.

That is one practical measure unions can take to show their continuing relevance in a crisis.

Unions also need to start preparing for after the pandemic. We need to start organising to hold on to the concessions the government has had to make, despite its efforts to cut unions out of negotiating on behalf of workers.

[Tim Gooden is a carpenter, shop steward and member of the CFMMEU in Victoria. He is a former secretary of Geelong Trades Hall Council.]

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