Fear and resistance as the virus hits Victorian distribution centres
Fear and resistance as the virus hits Victorian distribution centres)

Distribution centre workers have a prominent place in the appalling daily lists of workplace Covid-19 clusters coming out of Victoria.

There have been 12 positive cases so far at the Coles chilled distributon centre, Laverton, 10 at the StarTrack parcel distribution centre, Laverton, and 12 at the Linfox Coles distribution centre in Truganina.

Talking to some of the workers in these facilities, it’s obvious why. “People are going over each other to pick boxes,” says George. “They can’t really social distance inside the warehouse. They’ve got extra cleaners going around wiping, but that died down after a while.”

George (not his real name) has helped provide food for millions of people over the last 20 years. He works at the Woolworths chilled distribution center in Mulgrave, where most of the produce, milk and fresh meat that end up on Woolworth’s store shelves in Melbourne comes from.

George didn’t work last week. The week before, a worker tested positive at the Mulgrave centre. The place kept operating. Then there were another two. Once there were five positive tests, the warehouse was finally shut down. As of writing the warehouse remains closed: 21 workers have now reportedly tested positive.

Despite the obviously essential nature of the work performed by George and his roughly 350 workmates, they have largely been kept in the dark throughout the outbreak. “We don’t know when we will be back” George told Red Flag, “but we’ve heard that they have gotten clearance from the health department to open up again.”

The company hasn’t even told the workers how many are sick – they find that out through the news. After the workers were sent home last week, George was told that he had been in contact with a positive case at work and that he needed to self-isolate.

“Management didn’t tell us who was sick,” said George, “but we knew who it was. Everyone was really worried wondering whether they came in to contact with him. I got a message from DHHS saying to get the 11th day test middle of this week, but the actual day is next week…Health department messaging and corporate messaging [from Woolworths] was very confusing.”

When George asked the company and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) whether he needed to isolate from his family, he couldn’t get a clear answer. He also says the company only has sketchy records of the dates and times that casuals have worked, making contact tracing more challenging.

The situation is made even worse by the complete silence coming from the union covering the workers at this distribution centre, The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Assosiation. According to George, the workers haven’t even received a text message from their union.

Roughly 150 full time workers at the Mulgrave centre are being paid full wages while the warehouse is shut down, without any loss to their sick pay or other entitlements. The 250 labor-hire casuals that work there, however, get nothing.

“The casuals are quite worried,” said George. “Some of them are trying to get that $1,500 payment, but it’s not going well for them. They have just been without wages this whole time, but some are concerned that they will be sent back to work too early, before it is safe.”

This was highlighted last Monday, when management unsuccessfully tried to send casuals back in to the centre while it was closed in order to clear some stock. The casuals refused to go out of concern for their health and safety.

This is an extraordinary and courageous stand from these workers, especially since the whole process to do with workplace outbreaks – like so much of our working lives – seems purposely designed to leave workers powerless. Workers overcoming this, and taking some control over their working lives in response to the renewed surge in the pandemic, would be the most important public health measure that could be implemented in Victoria.

As it is, information and legal power around workplace outbreaks is concentrated with the DHHS. The department is currently overwhelmed by the task of identifying contacts, ordering isolation, supporting those who need to isolate, and ensuring remedial measures have been implemented. And of course the department doesn’t address the issues of insecure work, low pay and lack of leave which are driving people to work and thus maintaining the high rate of infection in the current Victorian outbreak.

It was not difficult to predict that outbreaks like this would likely occur in Melbourne’s warehouses. The majority of warehouse workers live in working class areas, which are being disproportionately affected by the virus. Despite some degree of management-enforced social distancing, temperature checks and the provision of masks and hand sanitiser, these massive distribution centers are designed to maximise productivity at the expense of the health and wellbeing of its workforce.

Catching the virus is not the only thing on the minds of the Mulgrave distrubution centre workers either. Woolworths recently announced 1,300 layoffs in its Melbourne and Sydney warehouses as it transfers product to new, automated warehouses. Mulgrave will be shuttered by the end of October and its workforce will be out of a job – an unnerving proposition for these workers given double digit unemployment and unprecedented economic turmoil.

But the immediate concern of the workers is to stop the virus’ spread. “My biggest worry is that I will pass it on to my workmates,” says George.  “There are diabetics here, and they obviously need to come in for the money. People realise how hard it is now.” Workers are being put in an impossible position by a system used to putting them last.

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