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Australian workers hit by COVID-19 need income support … now

23rd March, 2020

Anthony Forsyth, RMIT University and Labour Law Down Under Blog

Much has changed in the three days since I published my ready reckoner for Australian workers facing employment law issues in the current crisis.

Over the weekend, federal and state governments took drastic measures to curtail social interaction and economic activity to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The impact of business shutdowns at the current time is mixed around the country. The federal government has ordered a confined list of businesses to close. In Victoria and New South Wales, a much broader category of “non-essential” activities must stop running.

It’s clear though that millions of Australian workers are adversely impacted. Almost overnight, they’re without income. Government measures announced on Sunday to expand access to and the amount of Jobseeker payments are not enough.

The massive queues outside Centrelink offices today – along with the MyGov website crashing – tell us that more direct income support is needed.

As I see it, there are three main groups of workers in our economy at this point, with COVID-19 impacting on each of them differently.

  1. Workers in businesses that can no longer continue to operate or are scaling down significantly.

This group grows each day as new government restrictions take effect. They include workers in tourism, aviation, retail, cafés, pubs, restaurants, and entertainment (cinemas, live venues, etc).

The major issues they face are sudden loss of work/income as a result of business closures, stand-downs and layoffs.

  1. Workers in sectors that are continuing on but with major adjustments to operations.

That includes us in higher education, schools, professional services, government and the media.

Key issues here are work-from-home arrangements, self-isolation where required and leave entitlements.

  1. Workers in businesses that are even more important than ever.

Our supermarkets, pharmacies, hospitals, aged care providers, distribution centres and wider supply chains are stretched to the limit along with communications and public transport systems and energy suppliers.

Workers in these critical sectors face greatly increased workloads and working hours, and managing health and safety risks on the front-line of potential infection from the virus. Working-from-home is generally not an option.

The major focus of government support must be on the first of these groups.

On Friday last week, the UK’s Conservative Government introduced a scheme of income support payments to “furloughed” workers (a rough equivalent to stand-downs). These payments will be provided at 80% of wages, capped at £2500 per month – around the level of the UK median wage.

An equivalent level of income support in Australia would be a major form of state intervention. But if the ideological successors to Maggie Thatcher’s notion that “there’s no such thing as society” can do it, so can this country. The UK’s approach is aimed at retaining jobs. Payments are to be made via the employer and are contingent on workers not being made redundant.

The measures passed by Australia’s Parliament tonight won’t get support to workers quickly enough and don’t have sufficient guarantees that funding to businesses will end up in workers’ pockets. We can do better.  

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