Published: 27/08/2021
Category: On The Job
Published: 27/08/2021
Category: On The Job

Union folks are people of action.

When Gladys Berejiklian’s Government suddenly decided to mandate that all workers in the disability sector in New South Wales needed to have at least one vaccination shot by Monday the 30th of August, the team at the Australian Services Union (ASU) realised it had to act, and act fast.

Angus McFarland is the Assistant Secretary of the ASU’s New South Wales and ACT branch. He told On the Job that the news about the vaccine mandate for disability workers was a bombshell for the already beleaguered workers in the sector.

“On Friday the 23rd of August, the New South Wales Government issued a health order that said that all disability support workers in the 12 local government areas (LGAs) of concern in Sydney had 10 days to be vaccinated,” explained McFarland.

“This came a bit out of the blue. We are the union for the disability sector workforce. We know that the amount of people that live in those 12 LGAs is larger than the population of South Australia.

“We also know from the Federal Government’s figures that 40% of disability sector workers at that time had still not had one jab. We have over 4000 members in those LGAs.”

So, what to do? Well, the ASU decided that it would do what it does best – organise workers.

Angus McFarland stresses that the ASU had already been running a strong and successful vaccine advocacy program to encourage its members to get inoculated but was wary of mandates for workers who were already in insecure work, time-poor, and would struggle to get vaccinated.

And then there was the gigantic problem of vaccine supply chaos that had rendered access to vaccines as much a lottery as anything else.

Given the Government’s public health directive on mandates, McFarland said the union knew it had to quickly adjust its strategy.

“What we have done at the ASU to support our members is establish a centralised call centre, and we have contacted all of those 4000 members to check whether or not they’ve had a vaccine, and every single member that has not, we are giving them individual phone calls and advice and support to help them get vaccinated,” McFarland said.

“What we’ve noticed is that so many members are just so grateful that we’re reaching out to them and talking to them. It’s a bit concerning that their employers haven’t. We’ve realised that we’re a very trusted source of information and support.”

The key to success here, according to McFarland is quite simple – listening.

“The first thing is we have a conversation to identify what the barriers are to being vaccinated. For a lot of members, it is concerns about just being able to get a booking. So, we help them make bookings online.

“Our team meets twice daily to share intel around where the queues (for vaccination locations) are less burdened, and we share information from sources at the health department about where vaccines are available.

“We pass that information straight on to members. If there are digital literacy or language issues, we’ll make the bookings online for the members at the time.”

Angus McFarland said that many members are finding that their employers are reluctant to make allowances for workers to get vaccinated, and as a consequence, they’re going without the jab.

“Members who are casual disability workers are worried that they cannot afford to wait in line three or four hours, that they will miss their shift, and they won’t have any income next week. So, we’ve had to work directly with those employers to ensure that these workers are paid to remove any of those barriers.”

The ASU call centre team are also mindful of vaccine hesitancy amongst their members and are working through those issues with people to reassure them that being vaccinated is in the interests of their wellbeing.

“It’s about pointing them into the right direction of where they can get accurate information. It’s encouraging them to see their GP,” said McFarland.

“As a union, we have to let them know what that will mean for their work.”

The ASU Assistant Secretary for New South Wales and the ACT also understands that the most powerful advocacy comes from respected leaders in communities where religious or cultural barriers to vaccination have emerged.

“Sometimes [vaccine hesitancy] can be driven by strong faith views and what their different communities are saying.

“What we’ve been doing is trying to identify where there are leaders in those particular communities or churches to provide them direct messages encouraging vaccination.

“An example is that we did see that there was some hesitancy with some of our Pacific members who are people of faith. So, we found a few of our leaders of that community and who are also union members who have written an open letter to their colleagues talking about their faith and their decision to be vaccinated.”

“They’re all union members, talking to union members, supporting people in their communities. And it’s working.”

Workers need paid vaccination leave

ASU vaccination campaign shows the power of unions

ASU vaccination campaign shows the power of unions