Two months into lockdown, Sydney’s essential workers still face COVID-19 risk at work

August 15, 2021
An AMWU survey has found that low-paid essential workers are risking their health because of employer and government failures. Photo: Australian Manufacturing Workers Union / Facebook

Despite daily acknowledgements by the New South Wales government that essential workplaces are critical sites of COVID-19 transmission, almost two months into Sydney’s lockdown many essential workers say little has been done to protect them.

Greater Sydney has been in lockdown since June 27 yet, as restrictions tighten and the lockdown expands to encompass the state, cases continue to rise. A key reason is the high rate of transmission among essential workers.

NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant noted on July 26 that, outside households, transmission was largely happening “in logistics and distribution, [among] critical workers ... that support Sydney and NSW and beyond.” From there, many of these workers were unwittingly passing it on to others at home

Most of these essential workers live and work in south-west and western Sydney. The Smithfield-Wetherill Park Industrial Estate alone contains more than 3000 manufacturing, wholesale and transport firms, making it one the largest industrial areas in the Southern Hemisphere.

This region is also where the highest number of infections have been recorded.

But, according to a report by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), almost half of essential workers say they are still being put at risk of contracting the Delta variant at work.

The report, An Emergency for Essential Workers, is based on a survey undertaken between July 27 and August 2 of 849 AMWU members.

“New South Wales is now in a situation where the low-paid, often minimum-waged, workers carrying out the essential work that keeps the rest of the Australian economy functioning are risking their health due to the failures of employers and government agencies,” it noted.

It states that “these same low-paid workers and their communities are bearing the brunt of economic hardship caused by the callous and reckless indifference of the Federal government”.

It adds that members and union organisers have raised concerns about “the intimidating, militarised police presence and activity” in South West and Western Sydney.

“The results of this survey are clear: essential workers are not safe at work. The stress caused by potential exposure, and the financial hardship caused by restrictions, are contributing to rising community anger.”

It argues that “instead of relying on policing, the NSW government needs to step up on community engagement by public health officials, the widespread and daily translation and communication of health information, and the free distribution of personal protective equipment.”

A refusal to enact “at the very least, effective policies that guarantee incomes, reduce workplace transmission, protect jobs and reduce hardship … is a recipe for disaster.”

Among the report’s findings are: 48% of essential workers believe they have been put at risk of contracting COVID-19 in their workplace; only 39% said that social distancing is being consistently applied at work; and fewer than 35% reported that either roster changes or staggered lunch breaks had been introduced to help with this.

While just over half reported regular extra cleaning was being done at workplaces, Green Left has been told of examples where bosses have said it was up to workers to clean up at the end of their shifts, over and above their regular work duties, with no extra pay.

Workers’ stress is being compounded by the lack of communication between NSW Health and workers.

While NSW Health has assumed responsibility for responding to outbreaks in workplaces, it has largely left it to employers — often working from home — to let workers know of positive cases in the workplaces.

Too often, employers are more interested in minimising disruptions than promptly passing on information.

The United Workers Union said it is aware of at least eight sites where “workers have been exposed to confirmed cases and have either not been contacted by NSW Health, or have been given contradictory instruction to that of their employer”.

Green Left has also been told of examples of how this lack of clear and quick information has led to cases of workers sleeping in their cars, or at work, due to uncertainty over whether they were a close contact and the fear that they could potentially pass the virus on to family members.

Several workers told the AMWU of being forced to come to work even when sick. “I feel the management just want the machines running and don’t really care about the safety,” one worker said. “Some employees have been made to come to work sick. Or with COVID symptoms.”

Another worker reported: “I have no sick leave left and lose pay when I get tested and self-isolate until the result. I feel pressured not to take the time off work even if I have any symptoms. I get questioned as if I’m lying.”

The report noted that essential workers “are instructed every day by politicians and health officials to get tested and vaccinated” but are not provided with any financial support to do so.

Two-thirds of bosses are refusing to pay workers for the time, often hours, spent waiting to undergo regular mandatory surveillance testing, the survey found. Less than 40% said their employer was providing them with paid leave to get vaccinated.

“Individuals need to play their part”, the report stated, “but protecting public health in a pandemic must be viewed primarily as a collective, social and state responsibility.”

Criminally, some bosses are using the COVID-19 lockdown to carry out redundancies. At least 7% of respondents reported that there had been sackings in their workplace since the lockdown began, while 21% said their employer was illegally forcing stood-down workers to use up annual or accrued leave.

Almost 60% of workers who had lost work hours, or been stood down, reported employers had not informed them of their eligibility for federal government assistance.

In response, the AMWU has issued a number of recommendations, including calling on NSW Health to include “workers, site health and safety representatives and union delegates in the process of identifying close and casual contacts”.

To facilitate this, it also requesting NSW Health convenes a Workplace Transmission Committee, with trade union representation, to identify and respond to specific workplace emergencies.

It is also calling for the public reporting of workplace transmission incidents as a percentage of overall positive cases.

While the government has now introduce a test and isolate support payment and focused attention on vaccinating essential workers, the union wants it to instruct employers to pay for time spent on surveillance testing and vaccination.

It said the federal government must establish paid vaccination leave, under the National Employment Standards.

The AMWU supports a new JobKeeper-style wage subsidy, but with “increased monitoring to prevent abuse by companies”, a rise in all welfare payments to at least $600 a week and a ban on both evictions and utility providers cutting off services.

It also wants the Fair Work Ombudsman to investigate “employers illegally forcing workers to draw down their accrued annual and long-service leave during stand-downs”.

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