The Guardian • Issue #1996

Unions join to give voice on job casualisation and COVID-19

It was great to see so many people joining together to listen and give voice to the major problems of casualisation and the pandemic that impact our community. Over 100 people from at least five unions – Electrical Trades Union (ETU), Transport Workers Union (TWU), QLD Nurses and Midwives Union (QNMU), United Workers Union (UWU), and The Services Union (TSU) – recently attended a joint union meeting at the Club Tavern, Caboolture. This suburb, on the outskirts of Brisbane, is noted for suffering from long-term socio-economic problems in a low-income area.

The meeting began with Rebecca Fanning, the ALP candidate for Longman (Caboolture). She spoke on issues very familiar to the area: casualisation and the lack of doctors. Casualisation has gone way too far, and Queenslanders need safe and secure jobs. The Labor Government will grant Distribution Priority Area (DPA) status to the area, which will address the great shortage of doctors and thereby reduce waiting times for families.

Fanning introduced Anthony Albanese, the Leader of the Opposition, who addressed the workers, via Zoom from Canberra, on the Labor Party’s policies. Workers need job security, increased pay, and a just industrial relations system. Casuals account for about a quarter of the workforce in Australia. When the pandemic hit, they lost their jobs eight times faster than those in secure employment. A million casual workers were excluded from JobKeeper, forcing them onto Centrelink benefits. Well-paid work is at the heart of the ALP’s Secure Australian Jobs Plan. Adding together all forms of insecure work, such as temporary contracts and working in labour hire, nearly half our workforce misses out on the benefits provided by permanent jobs. He then addressed how the ALP would introduce a much-needed ten-day leave for battered wives.

From the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Michelle O’Neil told her attentive audience that one in three people have no sick leave. Many workers have a low income because of the low hourly rates and the small number of hours they work. This is especially so for women and migrant workers. Of these, one in four have insecure work, and eighty-eight per cent of workers feel their work is insecure, especially with the numerous shutdowns with COVID-19. The erosion of working conditions in Australia takes many forms. The most obvious is a lack of secure work due to the increase in the casualisation of the workforce, the rise of outsourcing, and the use of labour hire.

The Morrison government and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation teamed up to push through laws that would have overturned the union’s important court wins that retained the rights of casuals. They helped overturn the rights of casual workers, affecting thousands in the coal mining industry. Although the government was forced to ditch much of its anti-worker IR Omnibus Bill, due to a lack of support from cross-benchers, it was able to pass new legislation on casualisation with the support of One Nation Senators Malcolm Roberts and Pauline Hanson.

O’Neil then handed over to the audience to tell of their own experiences with casualisation, and the long working hours due to COVID-19.

Joel of the ETU told the crowd that in his industry eighty per cent of those with more than seven years experience are on casual rates. The casualisation of our workers has led to an increase in job insecurity and workplaces that are more dangerous to work in. Also on the rise are anxiety, bullying, and standover tactics. Casualisation means no holiday pay and no paid sick leave. It ensures a culture of distrust and division amongst workers. It exposes our families to the whims of profit-hunters. When workers, more experienced in fair workplaces, speak up over salaries, working conditions and health and safety issues, they are shown the door. Site managers are younger and less experienced, who themselves are subcontracted or in casual jobs. Management has thus created a work culture in which the workers shut up or get fired.

Josh of the TWU talked about safe and secure rates under federal laws. Although there was a recent major win of a fifteen per cent increase in the minimum ratio of workers, sixty per cent workers were in casual employment. With major Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBA) across a whole industry, workers should be aware of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to taking personal leave to cover COVID-19 infection. They should know the Workcover entitlements and accommodations in quarantine requirements.

Mina of the QNMU spoke of the problems faced in her industry. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep issues embedded in our public health systems in Queensland. Health workers know firsthand that Queensland has been in a major health crisis. The lack of proper public health service planning has created short-term crisis management that adversely impacts the public system and generates considerable profit for private companies.

Nurses working in Aged Care and Hospitals are told to work double shifts meaning long hours and poor working conditions due to the pressure to continue working without breaks. Child care for nurses is not possible if called to do extra hours of work. There are significant issues with PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment), staff vaccination rollouts, and access to resources and equipment. We need radical change and a plan now.

The state’s public hospital system has long struggled to meet demand. The federal and state governments’ failure to adequately invest in our public health system has seen the long-term transfer of public patients to high-cost, acute private facilities. Such outsourcing of health services and beds is not a solution, as it minimises health funding transparency and the governments’ commitment to free healthcare. Care is fragmented and costs are shifted, contributing further to the health system’s dysfunctionality.

In addition to this fragmentation is the added complexity of how to navigate complex health care needs. Registered nurses – who have been working for an Aged Care employer for a period of six months – are eligible to receive a half-payment of the Aged Care Registered Nurses’ Payment. This does not solve the health and safety of our workforce. Nurses should only work within their scope of practice. The existing industrial entitlements should be maintained, with any changes being only temporary.

Mike from the UWU spoke on worker-led education and agitation in the workplace. Local activist groups should build effective community support, increasing their activity in the lead up to the federal election. Why? Because seventy-nine per cent of hospitality workers are in insecure work, where many employers steal their wages, underpay their superannuation, exploiting the most vulnerable workers wherever they can. The shop steward plays a vital role in enforcing the agreement and defending our members’ rights. Much has still to be done.

At the end people got up on stage waving their signs: “Secure Jobs. Worth Fighting For.”

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