The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the weak links in Australia’s workplace policies, with experts now calling on the Government to introduce paid sick leave for vulnerable casual workers.
Greater Sydney has been in lockdown for eight weeks, however cases of COVID-19 community transmission continue to grow at rapid rates, with NSW recording 681 new infections on Thursday.
The Delta variant has also exposed lockdown’s Achilles’ heel - essential workers are among the few permitted to leave home to travel to work. But with the virus spreading in those settings, preventing further transmission at work and then at home is proving difficult.
“It is important to note that a lot of the essential workers who keep our economy moving – and I mean that in terms of the basic economy of putting food on the table, our essential items that we need for our life – live and work in southwestern Sydney. And they also work outside those areas of southwestern Sydney and western Sydney,” NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant said on Wednesday.
“So what we are seeing is workers from those areas doing the fantastic work that they do in supporting disabilities, supporting aged care, working in factories and cleaning and other things, going into workplaces, leading to transmission. And then transmission occurs, and then a seeding of another household.”
Introducing paid sick leave for casual workers to address workplace spread is a “no brainer”, according to associate professor in employment relations at Curtin University Dr Kantha Dayaram.
Victoria announces paid sick leave trial
Victoria announced a trial program providing sick leave to casual and insecure workers in November 2020 after the state went through its sustained lockdown.
Casual workers in the aged care, cleaning, security and supermarkets and hospitality industries could access up to five days of paid leave a year under the pilot scheme. The leave would be funded by the state government, although industry levies would also be charged if the pilot was successful, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said.
The trial is set to begin in early 2022, with workers entitled to minimum wage rates.
“The pandemic has brought into sharp focus that we can no longer ignore the risks of insecure work. It’s unacceptable and dangerous that a worker should have to choose between feeding their family and keeping their workmates and community safe,” Victorian minister for workplace safety Ingrid Stitt said earlier in August.
“This will help to keep the Victorian community safe by reducing the pressure on workers to return to work when they are unwell and also risk spreading illness.”
The state government is now consulting with workers, employers, unions and industry groups.
This is the sort of policy that should be explored on a national basis, Dr Dayaram said.
Aged care workforce highlights problems
The aged and disability care workforces in particular would benefit from more structured support, she added.
The aged care sector is 90 per cent female, 78 per cent permanent part-time and 10 per cent casual or contract, according to the 2016 National Aged Care Workforce Census.
Within this, around 70 per cent are personal care attendants, and of those, nearly 60 per cent work 16-34 hours a week. That’s a median wage of $689, Dayaram said.
And, according to the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre’s 2018 survey of the workforce, 30 per cent of those would like to work more hours, while 9 per cent work more than one job.
It meant disease could spread easily from facility to facility, as workers keen to get more hours took the virus with them.
It’s also a function of the workforce, Dayaram said. Employers in this sector want a readily available pool of workers that they can access only when they need to.
It’s a similar story in meat processing: around 20 per cent of this workforce is casual, according to a 2015 report by the Australian Meat Processor Corporation.
“You’ve got some people who take on casual work because they want to take on casual work, but this way, during a pandemic we are saying to people that if you are not feeling well…[don’t come in],” she said.
Cutting chains of transmission would boost productivity and lower rates of presenteeism, or workers showing up to work while not at full capacity.
“It’s a no-brainer that the long-term impacts would be positive in that respect,” Dayaram said.
“In an ideal world, we’d be saying that we need to reduce the casualised workforce so that workers would have access to entitlements like paid leave. But this is not an ideal world, so a measure such as [Victoria’s pilot] - I can only see it having positive results in the long-term beyond COVID-19.”