Second-wave shutdowns highlight need for pandemic leave

The federal government's additional support for childcare was directed to centres not workers.

The Stage 4 COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria have led to a larger number of workplaces closing compared with the earlier lockdown. The impact of the restrictions on workers who have to leave their homes to work is not equal — either for wages or safety on the job.

Analysis by the Greens from 2019 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures estimates that up to 83,000 casual jobs are at risk in the state due to stage 4 restrictions and the exclusion of short-term casuals from JobKeeper.

It has also been predicted by the federal Treasury that between 240,000 and 400,000 more people will be out of work by Christmas as a result of the lockdown.

Wesfarmers, which employs workers in Bunnings, Officeworks, Kmart and Target, has declared that more staff will be stood down and only receive two weeks’ pay, even though it recorded a $1.7 billion profit this financial year. Workers have been left to fend for themselves.

One of the hardest hit industries has been in childcare. Its JobKeeper subsidy was cut in July. The federal government’s “additional support” for childcare providers in Victoria amounted to nothing more than additional funding to childcare centres.

There was no promise of a guaranteed income for all childcare workers affected by the shutdown: only permanent staff have been promised a wage.

The Age reported on August 23 that despite receiving the transition payment, one childcare centre in Melbourne had already stood down more than seven casual workers.

The United Workers Union is pushing for federal education minister Daniel Tehan to guarantee educators’ wages by strengthening the employment guarantee provisions in the transitional funding. The union said that an employment guarantee is critical in an industry in which insecure work is rife.

It is now clear that the second wave of the COVID-19 infection was the result of insecure work and casualisation, as well as a lack of safety on the job.

Therefore, to stop a third and fourth wave of infection, lessons need to be learned.

The federal government introduced a $1500 pandemic leave payment for workers without sick leave who need to self-isolate. The Victorian government introduced a $450 coronavirus test isolation payment (a rise from its initial $250) for anyone who has to undertake a COVID-19 test and await the result.

But these measures do not go far enough.

To guarantee workers’ livelihoods, we need federal pandemic leave that fully protects wages and job security.

Despite the stricter lockdowns, which includes curfews, there have been no laws that require employers to make workplaces COVID-19 safe, or penalise employers for forcing workers to go to work if they have symptoms of the virus.

This is why workers are organising in their unions to stop the spread of the virus.

At the end of July half the staff at Spotless laundry services in Dandenong refused to go to work fearing a COVID-19 outbreak. The staff at Woolworths Liquor distribution centre in Laverton also walked off the job to protest the lack of safety.

Their active resistance is bringing results: workers at Spotless in Dandenong won the right to be paid while the workplace was shutdown.

United Workers Union spokesperson Godfrey Moase said on August 5 that governments need to do more to make bosses look after workers. The union is campaigning for every worker — no matter their employment or migration status — to have access to paid pandemic leave and a living income while they cannot work for an extended period of time.

Safe workplaces should be a right and workers’ livelihoods should be guaranteed during a pandemic.

We keep being told that we are all in this together. But it is clear that the financial and health impact of the pandemic shutdowns are disproportionally hitting working people, especially frontline workers.

[Jacob Andrewatha is running with the Sue Bolton Team for the Moreland City Council elections. To help the team out and find out more, visit the website here.]