Even with high rates of vaccination COVID disease will still be a risk. Employed workers could be organising now, including legally refusing to work in unsafe conditions, in order to protect themselves, their households and communities. Workplaces are not only the origin of most COVID spread. Workplaces are where the case for collective safety through solidarity can be won amongst workers, and forced onto employers and the government.
The work health and safety (WHS) legislation in all Australian jurisdictions gives workers the right to refuse unsafe work. The United Workers Union has promoted a Tweet by Sally McManus saying that union members will be supported if they refuse work that endangers their health. So the ACTU acknowledges the connection between COVID and the right to refuse work.
This is the biggest opportunity in decades for legal collective withdrawal of labour. Yet union action for COVID safety at work is happening in only a small number of workplaces, and is barely visible in the media, union Facebook pages, and in social media.
The ACTU and union leaders have been in consultations with governments throughout the pandemic, resulting in a number of agreements and publications on COVID and WHS. The missed opportunity, however, is rebuilding unionism as the power of workers acting in solidarity to enforce safety and win concessions from their employers and governments. This is a time of life and death urgency for workers, when they could be meeting on the job (even if online) to make decisions about demands for safety, electing Health & Safety Representatives (HSRs) where they don’t already have them, and learning that they can refuse unsafe work. WHS legislation gives HSRs the power to issue a cease unsafe work order to the workers they represent.
These legal options are breathtakingly underused by unions, considering both the threat of COVID, and the decline in the ability of unions to mobilise workers by other means.
What are the best unions doing?
Some unions, in some workplaces, have been taking COVID safety into their own hands, and organising their members.
The United Workers Union has been the most vocal and prominent in challenging unsafe work. They have exposed failures in contact tracing and lack of clear instructions after workplace exposures, and agitated for meetings between the NSW government work safety authority, unions and employers to address a COVID-19 crisis in workplaces. The UWU also runs a prominently advertised hotline for workers to report positive COVID tests in their workplaces, in contrast to the AMWU, which calls on the government to run a COVID hotline for workers.
More significantly, UWU members have stopped work over breaches of COVID safety plans, in a number of NSW workplaces, including at Coles’ distribution centre at Eastern Creek in August, and at Scott’s Refrigerated Logistics Erskine Park in September.
The Transport Workers Union held safety stoppages over the lack of rapid antigen testing, at four Sydney bus depots on Monday 6 September. The following Thursday drivers forced a closure at Smithfield depot, “due to the failure of the operator and the NSW Government to take steps to protect drivers from COVID exposure.”
“They’ve already got rapid antigen testing at the NSW Parliament, and so the question that Gladys Berejiklian needs to answer is simple – why does she deserve a safe workplace while our bus drivers don’t?” TWU.
RAFFWU doesn’t have the density in large workplaces to take industrial action on safety, but is vocal in petitioning and using the media to publicise demands for replacing public access shopping with click and collect, and enforced safety measures in retail outlets, such as QR code check-ins, and mask wearing.
Other union bodies, including the Victorian Trades Hall Council, the NTEU and the ASU, have advice on their websites about the right to cease unsafe work in response to risks posed by COVID. VTHC is promoting its free online COVID-Safe training sessions. If any individual unions other than UWU and TWU have actively promoted the take up of that right to stop work, it is hard to find out.
The AMWU published a report about COVID in workplaces titled An emergency for essential workers https://www.amwu.org.au/report. It appeals to employers and the government to use the expertise of HSRs and workers in controlling infection. Even the AMWU’s website is muted and not at all explicit, about what workers can do collectively in their own workplaces to protect themselves through HSRs and the right to refuse unsafe work.
Legal tools for action on COVID safety
All WHS laws in Australia include the right to refuse unsafe work. They also mean that every workplace can elect HSRs, or replace an HSR who is not doing a good job. HSRs can get workers together to demand safe working conditions.
Unions generally offer free HSR training with paid leave from work, including via online delivery since the pandemic began.
Employers must respond to HSRs when they notify and consult about safety breaches, which can include both lack of consultation or effective measures to control COVID-19. HSRs have the authority to issue a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN) if the employer doesn’t act. In Victoria an HSR can issue a PIN without having attended HSR training - everywhere else they must be trained first. The PIN means that employers are legally obliged to comply. Unions strongly advise HSRs to contact their union office before proceeding to issue a PIN. In fact it is wise for an HSR to get their co-workers to endorse the issuing of a PIN, both for their own protection, and to win safety improvements.
COVID-Safe workplace plans
Every workplace is legally required to have a COVID Safe plan, and workers must be consulted with about what’s in the plan. Workers can demand specific safety measures be included and enforced in the plan. HSRs can play a leading role in getting workers together, in person or online, to work out what they want in the plan. Examples of demands that are being raised include:
- rapid antigen testing
- procedures in response to a positive test in the workplace, including immediate notification of HSRs and co-workers, and possible shut down for cleaning and planning action
- provision of free PPE, effective masks etc.
- reduction in face to face contact, maintenance of physical distancing, eg space ratios, online purchase for collection
- airflow standards and improved ventilation
- enforcement of track and trace systems, QR code check ins.
- employment of trained safety and security staff to ensure customers follow rules.
No Jab, No Work is a difficult issue, but as the nurses union has said, the right not be vaccinated amounts to the right to overwhelm health workers and the health system for everyone else. In some cases, workers might collectively decide that they do not feel safe working with unvaccinated people, and that they will implement a closed shop, against the unvaccinated.
Workplace safety rights will become more important
The federal government now refuses to cover the social and household costs of reducing the numbers of people in physical proximity to one another, which limits the spread of COVID. Financial support is stingy, and difficult to access particularly for women. As governments move towards “living with COVID”, financial support will be further cut. The NSW and Victorian governments have conceded that the infectiousness of the Delta variant makes zero COVID impossible, and say they will lift restrictions as vaccination rates rise.
In both NSW and Victoria health workers struggle to cope with whatever level of COVID disease and death follows, and many other people are over-exposed and under-protected. This danger could happen in any state or territory, once travel restrictions are lifted, or if a Delta cluster breaks out.
Two groups of people are the most at risk of exposure to COVID: those who have to turn up for indoor work, and those living in the most dense accommodation. This is a double whammy for low-paid workers in essential industries, as they are more likely to live in the most crowded accommodation. Workplace and crowded accommodation combine in hospitals, residential aged care and prisons. First Nations people are over-represented in both overcrowded housing and prisons, as well as receiving vaccinations more slowly than other groups, despite governments declaring they would be a priority.
This is how the costs of COVID disease fall most heavily on working class people. And this is why unions and workers should be playing a leading role in fighting COVID. It could also undercut the clout of right-wing, anti-lockdown, and anti-vax agitators.