With workplaces nationally fighting fires across multiple fronts as COVID-19 infections destabilise the economy, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is butting heads with employer representative bodies as workers threaten to walk off the job if conditions do not improve.
With the ACTU yesterday announcing workers might strike if demands for new COVID safe plans and free rapid antigen tests (RATs) are not met, the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group) claims the threats “divert from common sense”.
“The only thing that is real and practical in the latest union demands related to living and working with COVID is that there should be far greater availability of Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs),” Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox said.
“The ACTU’s demands divert from common sense. The idea that employers should bear the costs for potentially limitless test kits is unworkable and demonstrates the lack of understanding of the pressures businesses are under.
“Many businesses are struggling to survive and to preserve the jobs of their employees.”
The ACTU said yesterday, following a meeting of leaders from national unions, that industrial action would be appropriate should employers not do “all that is reasonable and practical to keep workers safe”.
This would include each workplace undertaking new risk assessments for Omicron in consultation with unions, and the provision of free RATs by employers to all workers once supply is resolved, alongside upgraded masks and improved ventilation.
“Where employers do not fulfil their obligations, the union movement determines to do everything within its power to ensure the safety of workers and the community,” the ACTU said.
“This may include ceasing work or banning unsafe practices.”
Speaking to Business News Australia, ACTU President Michele O’Neil said concerns from bodies like Ai Group should go unfounded, noting any “reasonable employer” would come to the table to sort out the situation with workers.
“No reasonable employer would be concerned about what we’re proposing, because we’re proposing to work with reasonable employers to make sure everything possible is done to keep workers safe,” O’Neil said.
“The only people who should be concerned are those who don’t take their obligations seriously.”
In particular, O’Neil said the ACTU’s demands are pointed squarely at employers taking advantage of workers, particularly casual and insecure workers, who are being told to come into work when they’re COVID positive or when they’re sick.
“This is completely unacceptable. It’s unacceptable at any time but it’s particularly dangerous in a pandemic,” she said.
By example, O’Neil highlighted the Teys Australia situation in South Australia where she alleged the meatworks business was asking COVID-positive, symptomatic workers to work while ill.
Though the ACTU today claimed victory in that fight, with Teys announcing it would only ask workers that tested positive to work following seven days of isolation and if they were asymptomatic, O’Neil said there were plenty of other examples of alleged worker exploitation happening around the country, putting people’s health and safety at risk.
“We need to have healthy workers. That ultimately will mean we have a healthy economy,” O’Neil said.
“You can’t have one without another.”
On the topic of RATs, O’Neil acknowledged much of the blame for lack of supply can be laid at the Federal Government’s feet, but she said they have “chosen to ignore our requests for urgent action”.
Similarly, in response to the ACTU’s threats of a general strike, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO Andrew McKellar said National Cabinet needed to step up and provide free and accessible rapid antigen testing for small businesses.
“We have been calling since September last year for National Cabinet to make rapid antigen testing freely and widely available, particularly for small businesses,” McKellar said.
“When many businesses are struggling to keep their doors open due to severe staff shortages, supply chain constraints and a sharp drop in consumer activity, now is not the appropriate time to saddle them with complex testing regulation and extra cost. Many businesses, particularly small and family businesses, do not have the funds, capacity or expert skills to implement a functional rapid testing regime.
“It’s not too late for National Cabinet to change its mind and provide free and accessible rapid antigen testing for small businesses across all states so that they can detect cases earlier, limit the spread, and keep their workplaces open.”
O’Neil added that the ACTU’s demands are simply about ensuring Australian workplaces are safe.
“When employers don’t meet their obligations, and these are legal obligations to keep workers safe, then we’ll take action,” she said.
“Workers have a legal right to cease work if it’s unsafe. Now, that’s always the last thing people want to do, and we would hope that reasonable employers will work with their workforce and unions to make sure people are safe.”
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