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Issue #1911      April 20, 2020

COVID-19: RECALL PARLIAMENT NOW!

Who would have thought that a Coalition government would provide free childcare, double the unemployment allowance, and offer wage subsidies to employers hit by the economic crisis! But that is what the Morrison government has done!

Parliament – spaced out and praying

But these are desperate times. It was a matter of necessity to save the economy and the face of capitalism. The economy was facing collapse, unemployment rocketing and businesses staving off bankruptcy, on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.

As hundreds of thousands of workers were being stood down or sacked in March, the government resisted demands for a wage subsidy.

It took considerable lobbying by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), big and small business organisations, and the charity sector to eventually move a very reluctant government into action.

The wage subsidy – the JobKeeper allowance – and free childcare were part of a package of bills passed by both Houses of Parliament on 8th April. The package contains a number of temporary measures that have the prime aim of keeping businesses afloat.

The JobKeeper allowance offers employers who are experiencing loss of business due to the coronavirus $1,500 a fortnight for each worker they retain on their books – either in employment or stood down. They are required by law to pass it on to their employees.

The government estimates that the wage subsidy program, known as JobKeeper, will cost it $130 billion. The first payments, backdated to 30th March, will not come through until the first week of May, which will be too late for many businesses and their employees.

DENIED JOBKEEPER PAYMENT

“We’re all in this together,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeats time and time again. But are we?

What about the 2.2 million workers who will be left out, left high and dry without an income? JobKeeper only applies to sole traders, full- and part-time employees, and casuals who have been with the same company for twelve months or more.

These restrictions deny several million workers access to the payment. It shuts out more than one million casual workers, people on the disability support pension, carers, those on temporary visas, international students, and the arts and entertainment sector. Women who spent part of the year out caring for a family member are also denied the payment.

The arts and entertainment sector is particularly hard hit as their employment can be extremely precarious from gig to gig or exhibition to exhibition.

The government just shrugs its shoulders and says they can always apply for the JobSeeker allowance (rebadged JobSearch unemployment benefit). That means a long bureaucratic struggle with a massively understaffed Centre Link.

JobSeeker which has been increased on a temporary basis to $1,100 per fortnight is $400 less than the $1,500 for JobKeeper. The difference arises out of the neoliberal myth of “deserving” and “undeserving.”

As Treasurer Josh Frydenberg likes to remind us, workers losing their jobs because of COVID-19 are unemployed “through no fault of their own.” The unstated, but clearly implied message is that others who are unemployed are in that position because of their behaviour. The “dole bludger” myth is alive and well!

There is a freeze on 242,000 public servants’ wages for six months. This comes on top of a number of years without an increase. This at a time when prices are rocketing and the economy needs a stimulatory increase in spending.

Telling workers that they can apply to access their superannuation and draw up to $10,000 this financial year and the same next financial year is no substitute for a government wage subsidy. It might be their money, but there could not be a worse time to draw on savings with funds having taken a hit. For young workers it means a long-term hit in the value of their investments.

INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS – FLEXIBILITY

There are provisions for temporary amendments to the Fair Work Act in the legislation passed on 8th April. These provide employers with a great deal of flexibility around hours of work, performance of duties, location of work, and employer ability to stand down workers. They create a dangerous precedent.

It also enables employers and employees to make agreements for increased flexibility around annual leave arrangements and days and times of work. The Fair Work Commission (FWC) will be able to resolve disputes, including by arbitration.

Under the JobKeeper scheme, workers should be paid $1,500 per fortnight, or the amount they would have received for the work they have performed if that would be greater.

JobKeeper keeps workers on an employer’s books, whether they have been stood down or remain in employment. It is too little and the question of how the system might be policed is unclear. Wage theft is already an established way of doing business. Trade unions will have their work cut out.

The bills also give the Treasurer a large slush fund and the extraordinary power to create payment schemes until Parliament resumes in August.

OWN GOAL

There are more than half a million international students, who will not be eligible for JobKeeper if they become unemployed. They mostly work in retail, hospitality, restaurants, cafes, the gig economy, and other precarious areas of the economy. Their visa conditions already limit them to working twenty hours per week.

There is not a cent for unemployed international students who make up twenty-six per cent of students and pay high fees. Higher education has become a commodity and is now Australia’s fourth largest export. According to government figures, it contributed almost $38 billion to the economy in 2018-19 and supported 240,000 jobs.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told international students and temporary visa holders they should “return to their home countries” if they were not able to support themselves here. They can’t – borders are closed, flights cancelled.

That was after Education Minister Dan Tehan told international students, “you are our friends, our classmates, our colleagues and members of our community.”

The attitude towards temporary visa workers and international students has racist undertones – the majority are from China and India. It may well backfire when it comes to the hoped for recovery!

RECALL PARLIAMENT

Parliament should be recalled immediately to expand the JobKeeper payment to include all casuals, visa workers, local and international students, people on disability support pension and carers. The JobSeeker payment should be increased to the same amount as JobKeeper.

The JobKeeper payment should be increased immediately to the level of a living wage. No worker should be left behind!

Next article – Editorial – AN OPPOSITION TO WHAT?

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