Workers affected by floods, cyclone left unprotected

For communities affected by Cyclone Yasi and the recent floods across Queensland, Western Australia, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, it will be no comfort to hear that the Fair Work Act provides little protection for workers from unscrupulous employers.

Many bosses will choose to stand workers down without pay if their business is affected by these natural disasters.

At the height of the Queensland floods, state Workplace Rights Ombudsman Don Brown told ABC Online on January 21 that employers have the right to not pay workers for time off caused by the floods.

"The bottom line is, where persons can't be gainfully employed, and the fault doesn't lie with the employer — in other words it is beyond their control — unless their own agreement says different, there's a general right to stand workers down in those circumstances without pay," Brown said.

Stories have circulated of employers sacking workers unable to get to work due to the floods, or demanding that they assist with clean-ups without pay.

Brown told the Brisbane Times on January 25 that employees at a Brisbane childcare centre were stood down without pay as the floodwaters approached. The employer then demanded staff help clean up the centre without pay.

Workers on collective agreements may have greater protection from unfair loss of pay or job loss in the case of floods and other disasters. Others may not.

But in 2008 only 40% of Australian workers had their pay and conditions set by such agreements, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

Workers have also been forced to use their recreation or other forms of leave to cover the impacts of flood and weather damage on their employers.

Casual workers, and others in precarious employment, have little recourse if their hours are simply cut back by their employers. The ABS showed casual employment levels reached 20% overall in 2009, (25% for women).

Last year, Australia's resources sector outlaid about $22 million in its campaign to sink the Resource Super Profits Tax. BHP Billiton spent more than $4 million, while Rio Tinto spent more than $537,000. The Minerals Council of Australia spent about $17 million.

Yet mining companies are quick to shift the burden onto workers when mining operations are shut down due to flooding and cyclone threats.

It should be unlawful for companies to stand down employees without pay, or to force employees to use their recreation leave entitlements when a natural disaster strikes.

This is another reason why Labor’s “WorkChoices Lite” should be repealed in favour of laws that provide genuine protection to workers during times of natural disaster.

[Susan Price is standing as a candidate for the Socialist Alliance in the NSW Legislative Council elections.]

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