Workers, students speak out against gov’t COVID-19 failures

September 23, 2021
Photo: Chad Davis_Flickr_CC_by_2.0

A second “Safe from COVID, safe from poverty” media conference was organised on September 22 by Living Incomes for Everyone (LIFE) and the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) Sydney branch.

The first speak-out, on August 31, featured workers from various industries discussing ways of organising for COVID-19 safety in the workplace.

The conferences are aimed at helping workers discuss alternatives to the government- and corporate-led pandemic response.

Lia Perkins, a University of Sydney (USyd) Student Representative Council member and welfare officer, said many students are losing casual jobs and struggling to get by on insufficient support payments like Youth Allowance and JobSeeker. Students are “significantly impacted” by the lockdown, she said, adding that they “shouldn’t be forced to pay for the COVID-19 and climate crisis”.

Perkins said the government needs to provide “a livable [JobSeeker] rate of $550 a week for people on welfare payments, paid test and isolate leave, and paid vaccination leave”.

Hundreds of students in student accommodation are not getting any rental relief, she said, adding that much of the university's housing stock had been sold off.

“International students have been left out of support payments and are forced to work in unsafe work environments”, Perkins said. “Universities are propped up by the money that international students pay, but refuse to offer the students adequate assistance.”

Some students have been threatened with deportation, Perkins said. She also reported that the University of Sydney had not told students about the New South Wales eviction moratorium under lockdown.

AUWU NSW coordinator Thomas Studans criticised the federal government for putting corporate profits ahead of people’s safety. “Instead of ensuring the vaccine rollout was effective and building up the health system, the government’s ‘COVID taskforce’ was busy planning the so-called gas-fired recovery”, he said.

Studans highlighted the low levels of vaccinations in vulnerable First Nations communities and disability care home residents. “People are dying because the government has negligibly allowed that to happen.”

AUWU Sydney branch coordinator Evan Grey spoke about the health risks in retail and childcare workplaces, and said welfare support, funding for hospitals and safer workplaces must be prioritised over a police response.

LIFE spokesperson Janet Burstall, who chaired the event, said making workplaces safer was critical as they are the main virus transmission points. She said it was important to “empower workers to be able to refuse unsafe work, [and] allow workers to organise themselves and be part of making COVID-19 safety plans”.

[Watch a recording of the event here.]

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