Lock down essential workplaces - make them safe

21 August 2021
Chloe Rafferty

Sydney’s outbreak developed through the inaction of a government that staked its reputation on hostility to lockdown measures. Non-essential retailers like Bunnings, the Reject Shop and Gucci remained open weeks into the outbreak; Bunnings was told to reduce operations to click-and-collect only eight weeks into lockdown. But workers’ lives are being risked by more than the extremely broad interpretation of what is “essential”. Workers in genuinely essential workplaces such as food production, transport, child care for essential workers’ kids, aged care and distribution have been offered little or no protection.

Twenty-seven-year-old Iraqi refugee Aude Alaskar became the youngest person to die from COVID-19 in NSW, after he caught the virus from his wife, who works in disability support. Both workers were employed in truly essential industries, which would have to keep operating even in the strictest lockdown. Because of their young ages and the inadequacy and mixed messaging of the vaccine rollout, neither was vaccinated.

NSW has failed to introduce even the measures taken in the extended lockdown in Melbourne last year, when warehousing and distribution centres were limited to no more than two-thirds of their normal workforce on site at one time. Risk ratings were assigned to every industry, and personnel reductions were imposed accordingly. That resulted in 250,000 workers being stood down.

Last year, Victorians were advised that while meat would be available, there might be shortages of particular products. This was because meatworks across the state were required to reduce their output by a third, to carry out temperature checks on employees and to clothe workers in full personal protective equipment. This was after several meat processing and distribution outlets were among the largest clusters in Melbourne’s outbreak.

In NSW this year, businesses have largely been left to regulate themselves, as Berejiklian focusses on individual non-compliance in the broader community despite the fact that workplaces are the key source of transmission. At a recent press conference, NSW Deputy Health Officer Dr Marianne Gale admitted that this is the case, despite the government’s focus on “rule breakers” .“We’re seeing younger people and those who are often those authorised workers, those people who provide essential services, who work in aged care, work in disability, who work in healthcare settings, who work in factories, work in shopping centres. And so, transmission is happening between workplaces and households.”

Besides mandatory masks and poorly enforced social distancing, there have been very few extra safety regulations for essential workers. Supermarket workers in so-called hot spots were given priority vaccine access only in late July, and childcare workers are still lobbying the government for priority access.

Supermarket workers from high-transmission areas could have been paid to stay at home to curb the spread early in the outbreak, with reduced rosters to keep workplace density down. Restrictions could be placed on the number of customers allowed in store and click and collect services ramped up. Rosters could be organised in recurring groups to reduce the number of co-workers being interacted with and limit the risk of transmission.

Although we have known for 18 months that COVID-19 transmits through aerosols, very little has been done to ensure workplaces have better ventilation. Social distancing indoors and square metre restrictions are important but inadequate on their own. The NSW government could be inspecting all genuinely essential workplaces and mandating air filtration checks that ensure workplaces are not recirculating stale air and potentially spreading the virus.

In this outbreak, many childcare centres have been transmission sites. It’s a reflection of the disturbing reality that, unlike earlier strains, Delta is highly transmissible between children. According to NSW Health statistics, there have been more than double the number of COVID-19 cases in patients less than 19 years old than in the next highest age bracket. One hundred and fifty-seven childcare centres have been closed nationally as a result of outbreaks, but the government has failed to regulate the industry accordingly. Even bosses’ organisations, like the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, are asking for guidance. The NSW government should make child care accessible only to the children of genuinely essential workers, and urgently provide frontline childcare workers with priority access to a vaccine.

`While mandatory testing has been imposed for many industries, its implementation has been a debacle. The public and private pathology system is overloaded, some people in western NSW waiting nearly six days for test results. In western Sydney, the lines for drive-through testing have been notoriously long, workers waiting for hours in their cars after work in hot spots like Fairfield. The state government has had months to prepare this infrastructure. Mandatory testing and vaccination should be made available at large essential workplaces, and other workers should be paid for any time spent being tested, vaccinated or isolated.

Berejiklian is quick to blame the “minority doing the wrong thing”, targeting individual non-compliance and reporting at every daily press conference on fines being issued for beachcombers and soccer games. But she has nothing to say about cracking down on bosses doing the wrong thing. Berejiklian wants to push the message that selfish individuals are to blame for the spiralling outbreak, not clusters overwhelmingly linked to workplaces and the unavoidable interaction of family members with workers.

As with every outbreak so far, the key way to ensure individual compliance with necessary health restrictions is to pay people adequately to stay home and provide government services to support people’s reduced movement. The minority we should be fining heavily are the bosses. There should be a ramping up of workplace health and safety requirements like ventilation, social distancing, reduced rosters and workplace quotas, and massive fines to businesses that fail to comply.

Similar measures need to be put in place in Victoria, where, so far, only the construction industry has had mandatory density limits imposed.

Berejiklian wants us to “learn to live with the virus”. We need to resist. That means fighting for more workplaces to be deemed non-essential and workers provided with full pay to stay at home during lockdown. There is also much more for unions to fight for in genuinely essential industries, such as ventilation requirements, reduced quotas with stand-down pay for those who lose shifts and an expansion of mandatory testing. It’s in the workplaces that the bosses’ hunger for profits most directly threatens all of our health and safety.

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