There was a brief time at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when Scott Morrison did a passable impersonation of somebody who actually cared about workers’ well-being.
Remember the homilies about us “all being in the together”? Throw in a few glib comments about “Aussie spirit” and reassurances that “we’ll get through this as a community” and you have the full kit bag of cliches from a PM who has made it his personal trademark to deal in hackneyed sound bites.
Of course, it was all smirk and mirrors, and as we head into the third year of an increasingly gruelling pandemic, Australian workers are under no illusions about whether the Prime Minister is putting their health and safety first.
As the Omicron variant swept through the country causing Christmas chaos for millions of Australian workers and their families, “we’re all in this together” suddenly became “you’re on your own – exercise personal responsibility.”
“Team Australia” had been well and truly benched in a frenzied free-for-all of long queues for PCR Tests, mad scrambles for Rapid Antigen Tests, and increasing confusion as the COVID safety rules relating to workers and their workplaces seemed to change more quickly than sultry summer weather.
To top it off, when he got around to finally addressing the chaos and confusion in workplaces, Scott Morrison called a closed-door meeting of industry bosses and didn’t invite those most exposed to risk – workers and their Unions.
ACTU Assistant Secretary Liam O’Brien was at his wits end with the government’s arrogance and indifference to workers’ needs.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, the Government worked with business and unions to keep businesses open, workplaces free from Covid and all Australians safe. Now, Scott Morrison is turning his back on workers and jeopardising the safety and security of the entire community, with secret plans hatched at closed-door meetings with Employers.
“Forcing potentially infected staff back to work will only exacerbate the already rampant spread of the highly infectious Omicron strain throughout workplaces and the broader community, putting the safety of all Australians at risk.
“Instead of turning his back on them, Scott Morrison should meet with workers and their representatives and listen to their demands of Australians to make Rapid Antigen Tests free and accessible for all,” Mr. O’Brien said.
At the same time, workers across Australia were doing the right thing when dealing with the latest COVID-19 outbreak. They were trying to get tested, isolating as they waited for the results that took an eternity to arrive, and adhering to the rules around close contacts.
The PCR testing process was splitting at the seams as demand soared. The lack of Rapid Antigen Tests (which the government told Australians should be their go-to for determining their COVID status) became a national embarrassment.
To top it off, the government’s attempts to shift the definition of what a “close contact” was – restricting it to household contacts and not those in the workplace – once again exposed workers to the frightening prospect of not having any income or support while navigating a buckling health system.
“It is ridiculous to think that Omicron only spreads in the home and that only household contacts should be considered close contacts and eligible for payment,” Mr O’Brien said.
“Workers are currently being forced into isolation without pay when exposed at work. This is ridiculous and dangerous.
“Scott Morrison’s failure to secure free and accessible rapid tests is forcing Australia back into lockdown. Workplace close contacts must be able to access the same economic support as everyone else.”
ACTU Secretary Sally McManus was just as exasperated about Scott Morrison’s determination to lock workers and their Unions out of the consultation regarding what should be happening in workplaces to keep people safe.
“Businesses and working people have waited for this Government to learn from its mistakes and take some leadership – we can’t wait any longer. Unions cannot accept working people being put in danger at work and so we will chart our own way forward,” Ms McManus said.
It seems that there remains a long journey ahead of all workers when it comes to navigating the threats posed by COVID-19.
The last thing Australians need is a government that won’t talk to the real experts about job healthy and safety – workers and their Unions.