Fair Work amendments increase COVID risk

Associate Professor Kamalini Lokuge and colleagues are calling for protection of workers in insecure and vulnerable work to help keep COVID under control.

The Government's proposed Fair Work Amendment Bill threatens Australia's ongoing control of COVID and could spark our next pandemic, leading experts from The Australian National University (ANU) warn.  

In a submission, the ANU experts argue an increase in casual employment, insecure working conditions and a lack of access to paid sick leave will increase the risks of COVID transmission.

They are calling for the removal of measures that drive these risks from the proposed bill.

"All the evidence shows the changes proposed in this act pose an immediate threat to public health," co-author Associate Professor Kamalini Lokuge said.

"To keep COVID under control, we rely on our essential workers to be able to get tested and to isolate when unwell and quarantine while awaiting results.

"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.

"Under these conditions, highly at-risk workers will not be able to follow necessary health recommendations such as isolating when unwell or quarantining while awaiting results.

"Unless addressed, the public health risks of insecure work will continue to pose a major public health threat into the foreseeable future while COVID-19 remains a risk.

"Addressing these risks through government legislation that protects the health and safety of employees - and therefore our whole community - is critical."

The experts warn the highest risk of COVID transmission comes from essential workers in low-paid and casual work - as seen in Victoria's outbreak and in other countries across the world.

"These are the people who keep our society functioning and who are in occupations that can't be done remotely," Associate Professor Lokuge, who has led successful responses to major pandemics across the globe, said.

"These people have kept us safe, healthy and fed during this difficult time. They are our health care workers, personal care attendants, cleaners, security guards, abattoir workers, delivery workers, supermarket staff, public transport and taxi drivers, childcare staff and others providing essential services to the community."

The experts also warn the proposed amendments would have a profoundly negative and worrying impact on another key at risk group - young Australians.

"Young Australian adults have the highest rates of COVID-19," co-author Professor Emily Banks said.

"Increasing insecure work amongst young adults is likely to further increase risks of transmission, and the disproportionate social and economic burden they are asked to bear."

The submission notes Australia has one of the highest rates of individuals without leave entitlements among OECD nations, with estimates ranging from 25 per cent to 37 per cent.

"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," Professor Banks said.

The experts are calling for the removal of provisions in the proposed amendment that promote insecure work, replacing them with provisions that strengthen the security and protections provided to employees, protect their health and the health of the community.

This includes the implementation of innovative measures like paid "flu leave days".

"Modelling has shown that paid service leave in conjunction with flu leave days can reduce workplace infections by at least 25 per cent," Professor Lokuge said.

"Extending this model to the current pandemic would have the win-win effect of reducing the risk of exposure and transmission of COVID-19 to patients, colleagues and the community and improving the financial security for these and other essential workers.

"Australia's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been remarkable. But we can't afford to undo it now.

"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.

"A critical response to this pandemic by the Commonwealth and States has been legislative changes that strengthen and extend income security and protections such as sick leave to casual workers. These were a highly effective, essential part of Australia's successful response to COVID-19.

"The very measures that have been key to protecting Australia's health would be undone if the proposed changes to workforce relations legislation are implemented."

A copy of the submission is available online.

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