Getting sacked and surviving under COVID-19

Man head between knees depressed watercolour
More measures are needed to help people cope with their lives being turned upside down.

For almost 2 years, I had been working for a Japanese electrical company in Sydney’s north, but was sacked recently as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

There were hundreds, possibly thousands, working for the company. But in the factory where I was, there were probably less than 100 people, including the office workers and those working in computing.

I’m unsure what percentage of the workforce was casual, but I do know that many came through a Centrelink-associated recruiting agency. We were all casual for at least a year, before being offered full-time, permanent positions.

Conditions at work were loud and dusty. My job involved sanding large hollow sheet-metal boxes, which echoed enough to require wearing both ear-plugs and ear-muffs.

Lots of fine metal dust and spray paint demanded we wear either dust masks or ventilator masks.

Conditions in the staff kitchen were pretty unhygienic. As I had kitchen work experience, I became the one who cleaned the staff room (which I did not mind doing for no extra wages, as it allowed me to listen to music away from the bosses’ eyes).

For water, we were provided with a very old drinking fountain. Management informed us, via a note on the pin board, that when it broke it would not be replaced “due to the cost of running it”.

That meant we were forced to drink from the tap outside or the bathroom. Management said this covered their “legal requirements” to provide drinking water.

We were provided instant coffee, but had to bring our own milk.

Our supervisor was harsh, but perhaps that was because he was working under frustrating conditions. I never met the real bosses — they were all in Japan.

We usually worked a 10-hour workday, four days a week. We were not paid for our 30-minute lunch breaks meaning that, on average, we worked 38-hour weeks. I was often late due to being on a methadone program.

Working more than 38 hours a week as a permanent would usually result in overtime and bring a wage rise. However, over the six months that I was eligible, I rarely had the opportunity to take it up.

There was no union on site. I had hoped to encourage people to join one, if I stayed long enough. But, ultimately, I did not get the chance. One workmate told me he had brought up the subject with the supervisor and was told, firmly, not to bring it up again.

I am not sure who else they let go, but I would be shocked if it was only me. My bosses were very apologetic. I could tell they were scared about the future. They told me how frustrated they were at this “mess the government had got them in”.

They were generous with my severance package: they gave me a redundancy pay-out, but only retrenched me, meaning I could be hired again.

The pay-out was enough to provide a safety net if I couldn’t get JobSeeker immediately. They said they would be happy to be referees.

Centrelink is swamped and applying for JobSeeker was nightmarish: the computers and website were down and then, as the lockdown restrictions became more extreme, I tried to apply from home, over the phone and the internet.

Eight days later, I had still not been able to lodge my claim. I decided to mask up and go in person. At first, I was told there was nothing they could do to help me until, finally, a mask-wearing Asian gentleman helped me lodge my claim. I’m still waiting for my first payment.

I need the $550 because I pay $220 a week rent in the boarding house where I live.

While there has been no rent freeze, that I know of, I have not paid rent in two weeks and they have not kicked me out. Fingers crossed they will wait until my JobSeeker payment comes through.

I have not been in touch with my old workmates, but my friends being affected by the COVID-19 shutdown do not seem to be coping well. I have seen a rise in drug use and depression.

I really hope measures are put in place to provide more mental health services to those who may be stuck at home, or struggling.

There are many things that I would recommend need to be done, but here are some absolute basics the government needs to do: rent and mortgage freezes; a massive expansion of Centrelink; guarantee wages for as long as is needed, regardless of company losses; a massive expansion of social services (including mental health support, food cards and clothing), to be delivered to homes especially to those in public housing; and retool every facility capable to produce high-quality respirators and other required medical equipment.