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Government workplace plan a ‘threat to public health’: Experts

Lucy Dean
·3-min read
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 12: Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks at a news conference at the CSL facility  on February 12, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. Pharmaceutical company CSL is manufacturing Australia's Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines. (Photo by Diego Fedele/Getty Images)
Scott Morrison's omnibus bill has come under fire. (Photo by Diego Fedele/Getty Images)

The Coalition’s planned industrial relations overhaul has been panned as an “immediate threat to public health” due to its treatment of casual workers.

The industrial relations omnibus bill, introduced in December 2020, would allow casual workers to request permanency after 12 months.

The bill also defines casual employees as those who work on an indefinite basis without an agreed pattern of work.

However, employers aren’t obliged to grant the request, with nine public health experts from the Australian National University warning this provision leaves a gaping hole in Australia’s COVID-19 response.

“Casual workers are twice affected by the pandemic, due to the absence of leave entitlements, and by being among the lowest paid and insecure workers,” they said in a submission on the bill.

Casual workers who work across multiple workplaces are at greater risk of both infection and transmission, the researchers added. These include healthcare workers, cleaners, security guards, abattoir workers, supermarket staff and public transport workers.

"The world is waiting for a vaccine to take effect. But insecure work makes it harder for essential workers to get vaccinated for COVID-19, so we need to especially look out for them,” Associate Professor Kamalini Lokuge said.

The researchers called on the Government to pull the provisions that “promote insecure work”, noting that paid leave for infectious diseases has been found to reduce workplace infections by one quarter.

However, Australia has one of the highest rates of workers without leave provisions in the OECD.

The academics said the bill will encourage a “subjective agreement” between employers and employees that will allow employees to be classed as casuals, regardless of their actual work patterns.

“All the evidence shows the changes proposed in this act pose an immediate threat to public health,” Lokuge said.

“The proposed changes will undermine our world-class response to COVID by increasing casual employment and insecure working conditions. They will also lead to inadequate protections and lack of access to paid sick leave.”

The Australian Council of Trade Unions on Tuesday welcomed the ANU submission, with President Michele O’Neil saying the unions have been calling for greater protections for casual workers since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Workers need to know they can get tested and isolate at home as required, while still being able to put food on the table for their families,” she said.

“The people who do work that can’t be done from home are our essential workers, and they’ve been on the frontline of this pandemic the whole time. They deserve secure jobs and peace of mind.”

Several states have introduced paid pandemic leave for workers who don’t have access to sick leave, valued at $1,500 for two weeks, while Victoria has also introduced $450 payments for workers without leave who need to isolate while awaiting test results.

The Labor party has also proposed portable leave arrangements for casual workers, meaning casual and contract workers would be able to accrue leave. Portable leave already exists for high turnover industries like community services, construction and cleaning in some states.

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