A recent Four Corners investigation exposed the dismal realities of renting in Australia, with many people struggling to secure a roof over their heads in the face of depressingly low vacancy rates and exceedingly high rental prices. For many renters, this only solidified what we already knew, and the problem doesn’t stop there.
The first hurdle is, of course, securing a rental in the first place. But when we do, most of us face a whole new set of challenges set by our disinterested landlords who couldn’t care less about making sure their investment properties are liveable for their tenants. Many rentals in Australia’s south east are plagued by poor insulation, structural flaws and even walls dampened by mould – posing an ongoing threat to our health with little to no effective recourse to remedy these issues.
Better Renting recently released a report into the temperatures and humidity levels of over 70 rental properties in Australia over winter. The results were concerning. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum indoor temperature of 18°C as conducive to overall health. Better Renting found that a stark 75 per cent of the homes they studied were sitting below this temperature a majority of that time. In colder places like the ACT and Tasmania, these figures are even more grim, with rental homes on average sitting at just over 7°C, plummeting as low as 0.2°C in one Tasmanian home.
You needn’t be an expert to understand that these are unliveable conditions which can lead to a plethora of health issues for people forced to endure it. So, how exactly is this happening? We all know that power bills are exorbitantly high right now, which certainly contributes to this. Many of us fight the urge to flick that heating switch when overcome with the dread of our next bill. But this report found that even those who are willing to pay the price to stay warm simply can’t due to the substandard and inefficient heaters commonly installed in rental homes.
So, why is this a union issue? Firstly, the health and safety of all Australians is inherently part of Australian Unions’ overall mission to combat economic inequality in all its forms. But more importantly, when more people are working from home than ever before, our living conditions become subject to occupational health and safety regulations. During the height of the pandemic, over one third of the Australian workforce was working from home and we’ve since seen many workplaces adopt this model long-term. A core principle of the union movement is to ensure that our workplaces protect the safety and wellbeing of workers above all else.
“Every worker should have the right to be able to work from home and that means ensuring that those properties are maintained to a certain level”, says ACTU Assistant Secretary Liam O’Brien. “Being able to meet WHO guidelines on a healthy climate should be a fundamental right for all Australians – whether you’re a worker or a tenant”.
Where the responsibility lies here is an admittedly murky area; while employers are obligated to provide a safe workplace for all their workers they aren’t necessarily able to assess the private living conditions of each employee. Rather, an employer should be expected to provide an alternative workspace to any employee whose living standards are not in line with OHS guidelines. The ACTU is working to develop a regulatory framework – one that must also be enforced by governments – that addresses OHS in this changing work environment. And in the meantime, we remind tenants that they still have enforceable rights!
Nobody should be working or living in freezing temperatures. Ironically enough, as I’m writing this, I’m rugged up in my Melbourne share house – resisting the urge to turn the heating on after receiving a huge gas bill last week. Better Renting’s report shows that my situation is not unique: we’ve been forced to treat a basic human right as a luxury we cannot afford.
We know this is a grey area, but we know there must be accountability. Australian Unions are fighting for this and the most important thing you can do to protect your health and safety at work is to join your union today.