ACTU demands a meeting with Scott Morrison amid new rules that leave workers to ‘fend for themselves’ without government support

ACTU demands a meeting with Scott Morrison amid new rules that leave workers to ‘fend for themselves’ without government support
ACTU secretary Sally McManus. Photo: Getty
  • After major workers’ unions were excluded from an emergency national supply chain meeting, the ACTU is demanding a do-over.
  • New rules set up to soften the current supply chain crisis were developed without the input from workers, unions say.
  • “Workers feel like they have been left to fend for themselves,” ACTU secretary Sally McManus said.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Workers’ unions, already furious at state governments’ decision to get essential workers exposed to COVID-19 back into supermarkets and hospitals, are demanding a raft of new worker protections from the federal government as Omicron cases continue to surge. 

The fiery responses over the past 24 hours follow an emergency supply chain management meeting convened on Sunday by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt about staffing and stock shortage issues — which excluded the major unions

On Tuesday, Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) said she sent a letter to the Prime Minister demanding an emergency meeting with union leaders representing essential workers to address the escalating national crisis around the Omicron variant.

Unions demand government support amid ‘unofficial lockdown’ 

In the letter to Morrison, the ACTU demanded the government make Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) free and accessible for all Australians, with tests prioritised for frontline workers until current supply failures are resolved.

Additionally, the workers’ union called for paid pandemic leave to be restored for those who are close contacts with a work colleague; a benefit that was stripped from workers last week. 

It also said the government should provide income support for people who have been forced out of work and left without pay as a result of the current onslaught.

The demands echo those of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), which on Monday said the government should suspend mutual obligations to safeguard people on JobSeeker and other payments until the end of the current Omicron wave. 

The ACTU said workers should be provided with N95 or P2 masks, warning unions would fight attempts by the government to water down occupational health and safety laws.

McManus said she called for the meeting because the government’s recent decisions around workplace requirements for essential workers had failed to factor in the voices of workers “on the front line.” 

“Workers feel like they have been left to fend for themselves, sick people are hunting down non-existent tests, are waiting in long lines or have given up because they cannot afford the exorbitant prices,” McManus said. 

“Many are losing pay while sick as they have no sick leave,” she said, adding “others are losing hours and their jobs as businesses close or cut back in what is turning into an unofficial lockdown.”

The ACTU boss said in the face of conditions that replicated those of recent hard lockdowns, the government needed to scale up support for workers caught in the crosshairs. 

“Working people need the support of their national government,” McManus said. “The prime minister must give them the support they need to keep the country going, businesses open, the economy ticking over and, importantly, keeping us all safe.”

Call for return of lockdown support payments 

ACOSS on Monday also raised concerns about the shortfall for workers facing “unofficial lockdown” conditions without the government support granted during previous shutdowns.

The speed at which Omicron was infecting people before they could gain access to tests and results meant people looking for paid work were currently being placed in danger while they met mutual obligation requirements, ACOSS said. 

Dr Cassandra Goldie, chief executive of ACOSS, said that requiring people to attend job services provider appointments or other face-to-face activities was only exposing people to unnecessary risks and “placing the whole community at greater risk”.

“We must also urgently address the adequacy of income support for people who are being repeatedly hit by the loss of paid work or inability to secure it,” Goldie said. 

ACOSS called on the government to suspend mutual obligations for job seekers until March, increase income support payments — including rent assistance — and “extend income support to all who need this safety net including those on temporary visas”.

Michael Kaine, secretary of the Transport Workers Union, told Business Insider Australia the federal and state governments’ policy response to the supply chain shortages in supermarkets threw workers under the bus. 

Essential transport workers are “being denied a seat at the table when decisions are being made about their workplace safety,” Kaine said.

“You can’t end the supply chain chaos we are seeing nationwide by making workplaces more dangerous,” he said, adding the new rules could result in more workers being exposed to the virus, or see workers risk their jobs by challenging their employers on workplace safety. 

The “panicked political fix” by the government would only serve to “make chronic worker shortages worse,” Kaine said.