Half of NSW essential workers ‘put at risk’ of getting Covid-19 at work – report

The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) NSW & ACT branch published a report, An Emergency for Essential Workers, on August 5, 2021. The report was based on a survey of members of the AMWU in NSW on the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak and the lockdown that began in June. The survey focused on workplace health and safety risks, punitive measures by employers, and financial hardship . An extract of the report is reprinted below. Read the full report at the AMWU website here.

An Emergency for Essential Workers in NSW

The AMWU NSW and ACT Branch surveyed NSW union members about their experiences of working under the COVID-19 restrictions during the 2021 NSW lockdown. The NSW Government stay-at-home order began on 26 June, 2021, for Sydney, the Blue Mountains, the Central Coast, Wollongong and Shellharbour. 

Stopping the transmission of COVID-19 in NSW workplaces is in everybody’s interest – workers, their families, the broader community, and the entire country. But 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 the restrictions, are contributing to rising community anger.

The NSW Government and its agencies – NSW Health and SafeWork NSW – have built their strategy of reducing workplace virus transmission on engagement with companies only. But managers and supervisors are often working from home during the lockdown. The workers at these sites are the ones on the frontline – who best understand the movements and interactions between staff, and the potential risks arising from them.

Employers have a vested interest in minimising disruption and maintaining business as usual. The AMWU and other NSW unions have direct knowledge of cases where employers have failed to act quickly to end shifts and send workers home after a positive case has been identified on site; where NSW Health has delegated the identification and contacting of close contacts in a workplace to the employer following an infection; where employers have failed to inform NSW Health of all potential close and casual contacts; and where an employer has called the police on a union organiser who was attempting to advise workers on WHS following an infection on site.

NSW Health needs to open and institutionalise direct and rapid channels of communication with unions, and give workers and HSRs the opportunity to provide their deep workplace knowledge to health officials trying to manage an infection. We need a Workers’ COVID-19 Hotline to call in emergencies, and NSW authorities need to vigorously enforce WHS standards.

Workers need to be supported instead of penalised for both surveillance testing and testing with symptoms that requires isolation. NSW needs a COVID-19 test-and-isolate payment now. We need paid vaccination leave in NSW and around the country.

All NSW residents affected by the lockdown urgently need sufficient financial support from the NSW Government and the Federal Government.

Survey results

849 AMWU members completed this survey from July 27 – August 2, 2021.  The vast majority of respondents are permanent workers (94%). 67% of respondents said they have been defined as an authorised worker under the NSW Health order; 11.4% are not; and 21% don’t know if they have been defined as an authorised worker or not. 81% of our members are still working under lockdown.

A health and safety crisis for essential workers

  • 48% of essential workers surveyed believe they have been put at risk of contracting COVID-19 in their workplace.
  • Only 39% said social distancing is applied at all times in their workplace.
  • 82% said wearing face masks indoors is enforced in their workplace. 
  • A small group of bosses (5%) are not providing workers with PPE.
  • Only 55% said their employer has put in place regular extra cleaning.
  • 65% of our members said their employer is consulting well with workers on health and safety issues during the lockdown.

Lack of paid leave for health measures

  • Where a mandatory COVID-19 testing regime has been introduced, only
    one-third of employers are paying workers for time spent getting tested. 
  • In workplaces where vaccination is required, only 38% of employers are providing paid leave for workers to be inoculated.

Stood-down workers left out in the cold

  • 50.4% of stood-down workers have not received any paid leave.
  • 59% of stood-down workers were not informed by their employer that they are eligible for the COVID-19 Disaster Payment.  
  • 21% of stood-down workers (or those who had their hours reduced) have been forced by their employer to take their annual or other accrued leave.

Redundancies are happening without transparency

  • Workers have been made redundant in at least 7% of respondents’ workplaces since the lockdown began. 
  • One-third of workers don’t know whether their employer has terminated workers since the lockdown or not.
  • 10% of workers said their employer has received government assistance for lost income during the lockdown, but more than three-quarters don’t know whether their employer has received financial assistance or not.

Key policy recommendations

NSW Health 

  • Include workers and health and safety representatives in the process of identifying close and casual contacts in workplace exposure cases.
  • Convene a Workplace Transmission Committee that includes trade union representatives to identify and respond to specific WHS emergencies.
  • Establish a Workers’ COVID-19 Emergency Hotline for cases on-site.
  • Publish each workplace where a positive case has been identified.
  • Report the number of workplace-transmitted cases as a percentage of the overall positive cases in the Weekly Surveillance Report.

NSW Government

  • Pay NSW residents to test and isolate, to ensure they can miss work and stay at home without being financially penalised.
  • Instruct employers to pay workers for time spent on surveillance testing.
  • Provide additional financial assistance to households on utilities, rent and mortgage payments; extend eviction ban and prohibit utility cut-offs.
  • Provide paid vaccination leave for all NSW workers who do not receive it from their employer.

Federal Government

  • Establish a second JobKeeper wage subsidy to secure the employment relationship, with increased monitoring to prevent abuse by companies.
  • Establish paid vaccination leave under the National Employment Standards.
  • Immediately raise all welfare benefits to at least $600 a week.

Fair Work Ombudsman

  • Open an investigation into employers illegally forcing workers to draw down their accrued annual and long-service leave during stand-downs.

A recipe for disaster

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. The resulting fear and anxiety is also putting a huge amount of strain on essential workers’ mental health. 

These workers are instructed every day by politicians and health officials to get tested and vaccinated, but they are not provided with any financial support by their employer or the State or Federal Government to take the time off work to do so. Individuals need to play their part, but protecting public health in a pandemic must be viewed primarily as a collective, social and state responsibility. 

Our members and organisers in South-West and Western Sydney have informed us of the intimidating, militarised police presence and activity in those areas. 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 (PPE).

To top it all off, 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. 

The refusal by the Federal Government to lift millions of Australians out of poverty by increasing welfare payments, and its refusal to protect jobs through a new JobKeeper program, causes hardship today and contributes to mass unemployment and another economic downturn tomorrow. Banks are forecasting the loss of 300,000 jobs in Sydney alone arising from this lockdown.

The economic, trade and industrial policies enacted by both the Federal Government and the NSW Government over the past decades have directly led to increasingly precarious working conditions, and left millions of workers without the security of paid leave and other entitlements. 

It is deeply unfair that the “assistance” package announced by these governments now leaves these same workers behind. Likewise, privatisation policies implemented at the State and Federal levels have left public services strained and unequipped to respond effectively in a crisis.

Working people, the unemployed and under-employed, people with disabilities and those who rely on access to welfare are not only worried and stressed – they are angry. This anger was reflected clearly through the responses to our survey.

The pandemic and 2020 lockdowns revealed to many the injustice underpinning our economies and societies. Governments showed that they could practically eliminate poverty and insecurity overnight through public spending programs. 

To refuse to enact, at the very least, effective policies that guarantee incomes, reduce workplace transmission, protect jobs and reduce hardship again in 2021 – as the Delta variant of COVID-19 spreads through communities and a new economic downturn unfolds – is a recipe for disaster.

Read the full report, An Emergency for Essential Workers, at the AMWU website here.

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