Extreme weather demands better working conditions

February 7, 2020
The smoke that engulfed Sydney around the New Year period posed a serious health and safety risk to workers.

Faced with a still-unfolding summer from hell, in which catastrophic bushfires have caused 34 deaths, destroyed 11 million hectares of land and wiped out more than a billion animals, the federal Coalition government’s response has been nothing short of indifferent.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to insist on Australia’s need to adapt to “the climate risk we cannot reduce”. But his offer of $2 billion in disaster recovery aid stands in stark contrast to the $29 billion gifted in 2017 to the fossil fuel industry, the main culprit of the climate crisis.

Moreover, Morrison’s business-as-usual approach is increasing risks for workers who are inadequately protected by the Fair Work Act when it comes to extreme weather conditions.

Many were caught off-guard by the smoke that engulfed Sydney for several weeks around the New Year period and eventually made its way to Melbourne and Canberra. The smoke, a direct result of the bushfires, posed a serious health and safety risk to workers, particularly those working outdoors.

With particulate matter PM10 levels reaching nearly 700 — the equivalent of smoking more than a packet of cigarettes a day — Canberra officially became the most-polluted city in the world for several days.

Despite the obvious health risk, many employers insisted on making employees work in dangerous conditions.

For example, Uber Eats forced riders to continue working or risk losing pay, while the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union denounced McDonald’s for threatening to sack workers in bushfire-affected areas who did not attend shifts, even as their homes came under direct threat.

Prioritising profits over player welfare, Australian Open bosses forced games to go ahead despite the smoke, leading Slovenian player Dalila Jakupović to abandon her qualifying-round match due to a coughing fit.

Jakupović said the match should never have been played. “It’s not healthy for us”, she said, but ultimately declared “I guess we don’t have much choice”.

Victorian Trades Hall just transitions officer Colin Long told Green Left there is a “lack of clarity” when it comes to workers’ entitlements during periods of extreme weather. This is particularly the case for vulnerable workers — young people, the elderly, women and people of colour — many of whom are unable to readily access the rights they may possess under the law.

Instead, workers have had to take matters into their own, such as when the Maritime Union of Australia called on dock workers in Sydney to walk off the job several times during the height of the city’s smoke haze.

Long said that legal ambiguities mean workers have no choice but to protect their health at the risk of potential repercussions, as these rights are not expressly laid out in the FWA.

“The hoops imposed by the FWA regulatory regime really hinders unions’ abilities to organise in the workplace,” he said. Due to this “difficulty of organising … to protect members’ rights in the short term”, Long believes unions are burdened in their ability to advocate for better conditions.

Anti-union laws impose restrictions on right of entry and taking unilateral emergency action, thereby preventing unions from taking a “stronger stance on climate change”, he added.

It is clear that unions’ ability to perform their most basic duties — guaranteeing members’ health and safety — is almost impossible under quickly-worsening conditions.

Recent developments in Victoria have seen Trades Hall implement its own hazardous air directive, urging outside work to stop when air quality is deemed “very poor” or worse. When conditions are “poor”, health and safety representatives are required to evaluate the situation and halt work if necessary.

Hospo Voice’s climate justice coordinator Audrey McCarthy sees this as a welcome development. She told GL: “Workers must be emboldened to take action if they are being made to work in unsafe conditions,” however she believes, “we must go further”.

With scientists predicting more prolonged bushfire seasons due to drier, hotter summers, it is clear we need an industrial relations system that empower workers to defend themselves from extreme weather conditions.

As the climate movement fights for a rapid transition to 100% publicly-owned renewable energy, it must also demand measures to protect working people suffering the blunt of the climate crisis.

[Leo Crnogorcevic is a university student and a member of the Socialist Alliance]

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