by Judy Kuo
When corporate profits are put ahead of the health of workers in the name of ‘flexibility’, workers in insecure arrangements are left defenceless against COVID-19.
We know that 80% of transmissions of COVID-19 in Victoria were in workplaces last year. That’s not because workers are willingly ignoring advice to stay home if they feel symptoms. It’s because structural and systemic problems in our industrial system force them to make an impossible choice between putting food on the table or staying home sick to prevent the spread.
Insecure work is a problem facing all of Australia. If you are a casual worker, taking a day off work means missing out on that shift’s pay and risking being in your boss’ bad books. If you’re a delivery driver, taking a sick day means putting your livelihood on hold. That’s why so many insecure workers effectively have no choice but to show up to work when sick, just to put food on the table for themselves and their families.
As Victorian Premier Dan Andrews said this time last year: “Insecure work is toxic.”
Working people want to keep their communities safe. We want our neighbours and locals to be supported. We want things to go back to normal and start living life again.
But when the Federal Government does nothing in the way of reinstating JobKeeper when over half the country’s population is in lockdown, what choice do people have?
The Victorian union movement saw this from a mile away, which is why we advocated so strongly to the Victorian Government to step up to fill in the gap.
And we won. The Victorian Government announced late 2020 that it would launch a Secure Work Pilot Scheme that provides payment equivalent to 5 days of sick or carer’s leave to Victorian workers in insecure work arrangements.
Where workers employed casually or in short-term contracts would’ve previously had to choose between getting to pay for their living essentials or protecting their communities by staying home, they won’t need to anymore.
The situation at KFC Punchbowl in New South Wales, where 12 workers tested positive to Covid after working at the outlet in late July, illustrates exactly what happens when there’s no safety net for casual and low-paid workers in essential industries. It’s a situation that could’ve been avoided if New South Wales decision-makers had acted to address the massive risks that insecure work pose to our communities.
NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant pointed to the KFC situation as instructive. “This highlights that when you have one [infected] person introduced to a workplace, you then have 12 people who become infected because we don’t all maintain social distancing. We don’t wear our masks correctly. We don’t all get tested promptly.” But characterising the KFC cluster as a failure on the part of workers is unfair. Workers are not the problem when it comes to the spread of COVID-19. It’s the structural power imbalances and our weak industrial system under the Coalition Federal Government that is to blame for the lose-lose situation that faces every insecure worker during the pandemic.
Workers are not the problem when it comes to the spread of COVID-19. It’s the structural power imbalances and our weak industrial system under the Coalition Federal Government that is to blame for the lose-lose situation that faces every insecure worker during the pandemic.
The Secure Work Pilot Scheme isn’t going to fix our federal system, but the Victorian Government and the Victorian union movement are leading the way to show that working people are fed up with insecure work.
We are showing that we care about our community’s health, and we are going to stand together to make every change we can to minimise the harms of insecure work and get on top of the virus.
We are showing the rest of Australia what we can achieve when working people come together and demand better.
Like Dan Andrews said: “There is nothing good about insecure work, and when this is done, when this virus has been beaten, we will need to commit ourselves to do something really significant about it. It is no good for anything, for families, for a sense of security [and] for public health, for any purpose. We have a lot of people who work very hard but have no safety net to fall back on and that is just not something we should settle for.”
The final design of the Secure Work Pilot Scheme in Victoria is set to be announced by the end of 2021, and the Scheme will launch in 2022.
Judy Kuo is a Chinese-Australian unionist, artist and activist living and working on Wurundjeri land. She’s passionate about disability justice, refugee rights, and anti-racism.