After their co-workers contracted COVID-19, Spotless cleaning workers walked off the job – so their bosses took them to the Fair Work Commission in an attempt to force them back.

That’s just one of a number of industrial battles that have broken out in Melbourne’s workplaces during the current wave of infections. Workers have struck against unsafe conditions in retail and supermarket distribution centres, while employers have revealed themselves as the ones lacking regard for the lives of others.

Over the course of July and August, workers have struck to stop the disease spreading at Spotless, Woolworth’s Melbourne Liquor Distribution Centre (MLDC), a Kmart distribution centre and a Mitre 10 distribution centre. That’s because their bosses, keen to keep profits rolling, have been lax on testing, cleaning and other safety measures. It’s fallen to workers to take responsibility for stopping the spread of the disease.

Ben Schneiders, reporting on the Spotless strike for the Age, wrote that if the company had won at Fair Work then “stopping work for safety reasons during the pandemic would have been ruled unlawful”. But for now, in a country with draconian anti-strike laws, the ability to stop work for health and safety is one of only a few legal opportunities workers have to withdraw their labour. During the pandemic, it’s proven vital to establishing even a semblance of safety in the workplace.

At Spotless, the workers’ action won them the right to be paid while the workplace was shut indefinitely – whether they are casual, part-time or full-time, and regardless of whether they can access leave. By walking off the job and winning rights to good leave entitlements, workers stopped a potential outbreak.

At Woolworth’s MLDC, workers were kept in the dark about a positive COVID-19 case at the end of July. “Over the weekend, Woolworths asked workers to perform overtime hours”, Thomas Edwardson, a worker at the centre, wrote at Red Ant. “Many of these workers had not been informed that COVID-19 was detected in the workplace. Critical of the lack of communication and insufficient cleaning, workers decided that it was unsafe to commence work and refused ... It seems the work stoppage today is now forcing MLDC management to take the global pandemic a little more seriously.”

While the company ignored some of the workers’ demands, the stop-work won guarantees of more stringent deep cleaning, better testing and a reorganisation of equipment and facilities.

On 7 August, hundreds of workers walked off the job at a Kmart distribution warehouse in the city’s west. They were unhappy with the company’s virus control efforts after a worker tested positive.

Three days later, more than 60 workers at a Mitre 10 distribution centre in Derrimut, also in Melbourne’s western suburbs, stopped work over a positive case. The warehouse was shut down and workers were sent home with pay to be tested. They forced the company to stop cross contamination between sheds and to provide protective equipment for each worker.

Yet, at his daily press conferences, Premier Daniel Andrews expresses great empathy with bosses, while endlessly repeating stories about individuals caught going out for a coffee at night. Despite repeating the mantra that “these rules are there for all of us”, he seems uninterested in naming, shaming and going after the bosses risking their workers’ lives and spreading the pandemic. In fact, he’s caved to pressure from employers’ associations.

Jim Penman, a right-wing crank and CEO of Jim’s Group, told his franchisees that if they disobeyed the new restrictions, he would defend them. Then he wrote an open letter accusing the premier of “replacing well thought out departmental regulations with your personal agenda” for shutting down some non-essential businesses. In his reply, Andrews struck an apologetic tone: “I appreciate this is very painful, very difficult”.

When stage four restrictions were announced, building companies threatened to shut down the state’s construction industryso Andrews caved, and let them move workers between three sites a week. After employers at warehouses and distribution centres threatened “supply-chain problems” in supermarkets if the government went ahead with restrictions in their sector, Andrews decided to let the warehouses continue to work at full capacity and gave them an extension on the original deadline.

The premier seems uninterested in disciplining companies that break restrictions or run unsafe workplaces with the same vigour he seems to apply to random individuals. His daily press conferences are structured to reassure bosses and threaten workers, even when workers are having to stand up to the irresponsible, disease-spreading practices of employers.

This hasn’t been lost on health experts. “I can’t believe we are not seeing laws requiring employers to make workplaces COVID-safe, and instead we have this mass focus on individual members of the public, and not even in the settings which most COVID-19 transmissions are happening”, Daniel Reeders, a health promotion practitioner who has worked on virus responses for years, told the Guardian.

Warehouse workers, like others involved in transport and logistics, perform some of the lockdown’s most essential work. It’s mostly indoor manual labour, with large, often casual, workforces perfect conditions for the virus to spread. The workers’ organisation shown in the health-and-safety stoppages is the most important method of enforcing safety in workplaces, where the majority of outbreaks happen.

And the successful strikes by these essential workers show that we can fight for much more. In Wyong, central New South Wales, 500 workers at a Woolworths distribution centre walked out in late July. They weren’t prompted by a coronavirus scare, but were demanding a pay rise and for an end to insecure work. They’d been negotiating for five months. Workers struck for a day, and bosses responded with a lockout. By the time work resumed, two weeks later, the workers had won wage rises of more than 10 percent and permanent jobs for labour-hire workers. Essential workers – not just warehouse workers, but teachers, childcare workers, supermarket workers, health care front liners and more – can strike and win better pay and conditions during a pandemic.

We need strikes to protect us from other threats, too. We’re entering a prolonged period of crisis. Unemployment is high, and bosses in some industries are going on the offensive. The economic recession can ruin lives and kill just like a virus. And just as with the virus, we can protect ourselves best with working-class organisation and strike action.