Anti-poverty advocates have warned against a proposal which could funnel unemployed Australians into positions left vacant by COVID-19 isolation rules, after Acting Small Business Minister Anne Ruston suggested businesses could “unshackle” people who are out of work to fill those growing gaps.
Ruston joined industry leaders on Tuesday night for an urgent discussion about COVID-19 isolation rules, which have forced thousands of workers off the job and contributed to supply chain disruptions across the nation.
Industry figures asked for national consistency regarding isolation rules and assurances over the supply of rapid antigen tests (RATs), Ruston said on Wednesday.
But those parties also discussed the possibility of replacing impacted staff members with Australians who currently receive unemployment payments.
“We would certainly be very keen to work with JobActive and people who are currently unemployed to see if there are other ways we could encourage them to fill these gaps in the workforce,” Ruston told Sky News “First Edition”.
“Many older Australians, I’m sure, would be happy to do an extra few hours to help out at the moment, so we’re looking at how we can help them do that,” Ruston said, adding that the government is also investigating the role of temporary visa holders.
Social services advocates have spoken out against the proposal, saying holes in the labour force caused by the virus and current isolation rules are unlikely to be patched by Australians who might face significant health risks themselves.
“People who are out of paid work also need to be protected from the risks of COVID transmission and infection, particularly older people and people with disabilities who are at higher risk of serious disease,” said Cassandra Goldie, chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS).
“We know that a third of people in JobActive are over 55, and almost as many have been assessed as having a disability or illness.”
Labour shortages have been exacerbated by a shortage of RATs and long wait times to receive laboratory test results, Goldie added, but not by an unwillingness for unemployed Australians to seek work.
“The current issues with labour shortages will not be solved by placing further stress on people who’ve already been trying to get paid work and keep roofs over their heads,” she said.
Advocates, unions challenge new isolation rules and payment tweaks
In a bid to prevent major gaps in essential services like hospitals and grocery supply chains, state governments have relaxed isolation rules for some Australians deemed critical workers.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was set to meet with industry leaders, relevant ministers, and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee on Wednesday to discuss further potential changes to workplace isolation requirements.
Simultaneously, the federal government has watered down its pandemic leave disaster payment allowances, providing less financial support to many Australians forced to isolate as a result of COVID-19 infection or exposure.
ACOSS has criticised those changes to the pandemic leave payment, which was last week lowered from $750 a week for impacted workers, to $450 a week for those who lose up to 19 hours of work a week, and nothing for those who lose less than a day’s work.
“The federal government must not walk away from the community now when the pandemic is worsening,” Goldie said on Tuesday.
Separately, Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus has demanded the Prime Minister meet with the union leaders as well, with the provision of RATs to frontline workers and pandemic leave payments at the top of the agenda.
“Working people need the support of their national government,” McManus said.