Business groups have pushed back on the government’s suggestion they shoulder the cost of supplying rapid tests to workers

Business groups have pushed back on the government’s suggestion they shoulder the cost of supplying rapid tests to workers
Close up of doctor hands with protective gloves and PPE suit, showing a test device to senior patient. Review of a Rapid Antigen Test for SARS Covid-19.
  • Access to rapid tests is highlighting social and economic inequality brought on by the pandemic, workers groups say.
  • Advocates are pushing back against a government proposal that would require more businesses to cover the cost of rapid antigen tests.
  • “Of course there’s an inequity,” Alexi Boyd, chief executive of Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, said.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

As the Omicron variant surges across the country, and with rapid antigen tests (RATs) in short supply, access to at-home testing has become the latest example of how a means to manage the COVID crisis can aggravate social and economic inequality.

Amid fierce debate between unions, businesses and the government around the best way to keep workers on factory floors and solve the current food supply shortages, industry bodies have pointed to a discrepancy in the access to RATs across industries. 

Reports out of the US show white collar workers at major corporations, many of whom are working remotely, are being provided with free rapid antigen tests, while lower paid workers in precarious industries, already more likely to come into contact with the virus through working conditions, are not able to access them. 

A similar situation is playing out in Australia.

Business Insider Australia has heard reports that across the country’s largest corporations, including in the tech sector, organisations are overwhelmingly providing staff with access to free RATs — in some cases even posting tests to individual employee’s homes. 

In Melbourne, reports have emerged that private schools are setting up self-managed vaccination and rapid testing centres in order to ensure students are able to attend in-person classes. 

In contrast, unions representing aged care, along with transport workers, retailers and small businesses, have warned they do not have enough tests to ensure their workforces are able to ensure they can safely show up for work. 

In one example, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) on Wednesday revealed workers at a supplier of meat products to Woolworths had forced workers to continue to work while infected with COVID-19. 

Businesses push back on suggestion they cover cost of tests 

While more than 200 million rapid antigen tests have been ordered by the federal and state governments, the majority of the tests are not expected to arrive until at least later in January.

The government has been criticised for failing to pre-order the tests months ago, before the Omicron wave forced the isolation of hundreds of thousands of workers who tested positive to COVID-19 or were deemed close contacts.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has taken the opportunity to lay the blame of Australia’s shortage squarely at Morrison’s feet.

Speaking to the press on Thursday, the Labor leader said the government had been aware for months that infections would increase and the country would need to scale up its testing. 

“Working people have been saying that they needed access to testing… for months,” Albanese said. 

“The Transport Workers Union wrote to the government last September about supply chains and the disruptions that could occur if they didn’t get access to rapid antigen tests and now we know this government only ordered en masse rapid antigen tests this week,” he said. 

Similarly, unions and business leaders have criticised the federal government’s latest proposal, outlined in drafted documents by Safe Work Australia, that will require businesses in certain industries to supply tests to their employees for free. 

The debate emerged after the federal government moved to expand the number of industries considered as essential services in a bid to ensure the economy continued to function. 

‘Governments should be stepping up’ 

In response, a raft of business groups have pushed back on the plan, regardless of their capacity to pay. Industry leaders are instead calling for the government to fund the kits. 

Innes Willox, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, said it “makes little sense to make PCR tests free and charge employers for RATs, particularly in situ­ations where the testing is ­required by govern­ment regulation”. 

“Employers will never put costs ahead of safety and will use the tests where necessary in the workplace,” Willox said.

“But for small and medium-sized businesses in particular, already suffering falling demand and coping with sick and isolated workers, governments should be stepping up to assist and reimburse them for their use of rapid antigen tests.”

Lori-Anne Sharp, Federal Assistant Secretary of the The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), told Business Insider Australia the lack of access to RATs for frontline healthcare workers was “extremely concerning”.

“Residents and staff just don’t have access to RATs to maintain safe working environments,” Sharp said, leading to conditions where significant numbers of staff were furloughed due to outbreaks and remaining aged care workers were taking on double and triple shifts.

Alexi Boyd, chief executive of Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, told Business Insider Australia many businesses had already been financially burdened with the responsibility of keeping a safe workplace for their employees.

“It’s unfortunate that the government has decided not to make these rapid antigen tests more affordable within the community,” Boyd said. 

With larger companies holding buying power well in excess of small and mid-sized businesses, Boyd said the government’s strategy would only widen the gap between those with the resources to protect their workforces and those without. 

“Of course, there’s an inequity,” she said.