Some warehouse work must go on during even the strictest lockdown. It is essential that food, toilet paper and toothpaste, and other essential items continue to be shipped, stocked, consigned and delivered by logistics workers. But many warehouses distribute things we can live without, at least for several months, while battling an outbreak of a deadly disease: high fashion, musical instruments, sporting goods, party supplies or, in the case of my work, high-end furniture and homewares. Instead of shutting down such operations and paying us to stay home, the Berejiklian government’s inadequate restrictions have allowed thousands of unnecessary operations to stay open, even as cases skyrocket.
In fact, because lockdown has increased demand for many of these commodities, many warehouse workers have never been busier. Since lockdown began, I’ve been pulling long shifts, meeting new colleagues hired to manage the extra workload, going all around Sydney making deliveries and taking on new duties loading goods for clients at the warehouse door—all so that Sydney’s elite can continue to enjoy an unending supply of boutique lamps.
For a long time, the state government refused to define who was and wasn’t an essential worker. In mid-July, Health Minister Brad Hazzard told a Guardian reporter that “the employer and the employee would know ... and so it will be left to the worker and to the employer” to decide what is and what is not “essential”. In other words, it is often up to the boss. This is particularly true in non-union warehouses like mine, where high staff turnover and casualisation are rife and employees generally try to keep their heads down.
Even in sheds with a decent history of trade unionism, workers have to contend with union leaders who are falling over themselves to campaign, alongside the bosses, against public health measures. For example, when additional restrictions were announced for the Fairfield, Bankstown and Parramatta local government areas, I received a text from my union boasting that it had participated in an anti-lockdown truck convoy, which it claimed had won us the “right” to keep working. There was nothing about fighting for wages for everyone affected by the shutdown.
When the government released an amended list of “authorised workers”, the situation was made even clearer. The list includes workers involved in “distribution of food, groceries and sanitary products for sale by supermarkets, grocery shops or other shops that predominantly sell food or drinks”, which seems like a reasonable definition. But it is all superfluous when you consider that the next category is just “warehousing”.
My workplace has taken maximum advantage of the vague guidelines. Some workers who live in areas of concern like Bankstown and Fairfield have been instructed to stay home. Others have simply continued to come in—especially those who are vital to operations, who are assured that they are essential, or authorised, or critical, whether or not that is the case.
One such worker was pressured into cutting short their fourteen-day isolation after being identified as a close contact. The company pushed workers repeatedly to go for swab tests and return immediately to work, violating the requirement to self-isolate after tests. These requirements were waived for some workers from areas of concern whose employers provided access to regular rapid antigen testing, but it seems since then that the exception has been informally generalised to any employer-required testing. While in line for my last swab test I asked a worker at the testing site if I could be asked to return immediately to work—they just shrugged at me. The person behind me asked the same question.
Behind all the sensational footage of the police swarming the streets to fine rule-breakers, this is the reality of the NSW lockdown—massive amounts of unnecessary human movement and interactions in non-essential workplaces. While the media and government focus on out-of-work restrictions like curfews and permitted exercise hours, many bosses have tremendous flexibility and face little prospect of government enforcement.