Workers are essential, capitalism is dispensable

The fight to win a humane response to COVID-19 is directly connected to the longer-term struggle to save life on Earth.

I am a disability support worker. Today, as I helped a guy brush his teeth and felt his breath on my cheek, and perhaps he felt mine too, I wondered if either of us was giving the other COVID-19.

Not all of us can work from home, nor even practice appropriate distancing while doing our jobs. Furthermore, we do not have masks and my employer probably cannot get hold of them anyway. But the job still needs to be done and done with respect.

I also reflected on the way the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is reducing the wages and conditions of workers providing this essential service: its marketised funding model encourages service provider organisations and even people with a disability to drive down wages in an effort to squeeze out more hours of support.

Further, each visit to a “client” is treated as a stand-alone shift, meaning that the support worker who visits three different clients in a day is often not paid for travel time between one client and another.

The NDIS promised people with disabilities control over the services they receive, which is what they deserve. But its architects insisted, without any basis in fact, that a marketised system was the only way this could be achieved.

In truth, slashing workplace conditions only brings horror stories for workers and service users alike.

We have all come to realise how so many other workers in relatively low-paid jobs, such as supermarket staff and cleaners, are also essential service workers. Yet, the neoliberal cabal of conservative politicians, employer organisations and capitalist media have been attacking their working conditions too.

The argument as to why their weekend penalty rates needed to be cut, but not those of police, nurses or firefighters, was never logical. After all, the lower your income the more you need penalty rates to survive.

The grubs pushing this barrow went after those workers because of their relative fragmentation, low rates of unionisation and consequently weaker bargaining power. 

They cultivated the idea that these “unskilled” workers do not deserve compensation for working the weekend. Having succeeded in picking off weaker targets, they intend to go after other workers if and when they can.

We now expect supermarket staff to work with good grace in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, and I don’t just mean cranky, panic-buying customers taking their anxiety out on them.

These workers come into close contact with hundreds of customers a day, many still not practicing proper distancing.

The sales of the big supermarket chains are booming in this pandemic, which makes their failure to take serious measures to protect the safety of their staff, customers and the wider community all the more galling.

In some countries, supermarket chains are imposing maximum numbers within the store at any one time, temperature testing those entering and installing perspex screens at the cashiers.

In Australia, the big chains have done almost nothing and clearly intend not to — unless they are pressured or directed.

But, unlike Harvey Norman Holdings chairman Gerry Harvey, they have been smart enough not to publicly gloat about their spike in sales.

He backtracked when the call to boycott his stores went out, while complaining about the fact that “everyone thinks I’m this callous old bastard … making a profit on other people’s misery”.

This is the same billionaire who not only joined the chorus attacking penalty rates, but who opposes assisting the homeless because: “They are not putting anything back into the community”.

There is never a good time to be ruled by incompetent narcissistic creeps who are gophers for a clutch of parasitic billionaires and who only do anything for the public good when placed under immense pressure.

But, as we know during the bushfire and COVID-19 crises, it is proving to be fatal.

These two horror shows are tasters of how they would respond if climate change is not reined in and completely disrupts life as we know it.

The “enlightened” billionaires, who were once lauded as saviours, have proven to be as useless in this latest crisis as those who are openly sociopathic.

A lasting legacy of the social solidarity and community spirit that is needed to contain COVID-19 must be a dramatic shift in the balance of power in favour of working people.

But Prime Minister Scott Morrison has the opposite agenda.

The fight to win a humane response to COVID-19, one that strains every sinew to save every life possible, is directly connected to the longer-term struggle to save life on Earth.

Right now the form of our struggle has changed, but fundamentally it remains the same.

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