Behind the Mask - meet some of the hidden heroes of the crisis - ACTU Australian Unions
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Behind the Mask - meet some of the hidden heroes of the crisis

Buy Australian, from manufacturers who provide safe conditions and pay their workers properly. That’s the message from workers who are making face masks in unprecedented numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Order your Australian Unions face masks here.

At the start of the pandemic, global demand for masks for medical and personal use spiked. With international supply chains under enormous strain, Australian manufacturers and workers stepped in to make masks.

These workers are the hidden heroes of the crisis. They are behind one of the most important tools we have to fight the spread of coronavirus while the world waits for a vaccine.

This week, I spoke to workers who have been making masks during the pandemic. They named sustainability, supporting local businesses and jobs, and the quality of the masks they make as reasons why you should buy Australian.

‘The buyer will receive quality masks which are safe for them to wear,’ Yen Ho said.

One of the workers producing our range of Australian-made, union-made Face Masks

Jenny Kruschel, head of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Division of the CFMEU, says that production of reusable cloth masks suitable for community use has increased by 80 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic.

‘It’s put a bit spotlight both on why we should buy Australian made and what has to be done globally, too,’ Kruschel said. But for the consumer, buying Australian isn’t as simple as it should be.

Kruschel called on government to enforce greater transparency around the materials, supply chains, and working conditions that go into clothing manufacturing in Australia.

‘What percentage is made in Australia? What percentage is not? What are conditions like for workers?’

‘I think people want to buy Australian made, but they want it to be easy. At the moment it’s really hard.’

Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) is the national accreditation body for the industry, mapping local supply chains in textile, clothing and footwear businesses. This is crucial work, in an industry with a reputation for unsafe conditions and exploitative labour practices. In light of COVID-19, ECA has put together a guide to where you can buy ethically and locally-made masks.

Beyond the crisis, unions, industry, and experts are now calling for a revival of manufacturing in a country that ranks last for manufacturing self-sufficiency among developed economies. Shortages of medical-grade PPE for health workers during the pandemic have led to calls for an increase in domestic manufacturing capacity, and raised questions about the quality of products, working hours and conditions for workers. In New South Wales, unions are fighting back against the state government’s procurement of transport assets from overseas, including 17 new trains manufactured in China and ten new ferries that will not be able to pass under bridges on the Parramatta River if there are passengers on the top deck.

Australian Unions’ Sustainable Manufacturing Strategy (SMS), part of its National Economic Reconstruction Plan, shows what this revival could look like.

The SMS calls for reforms to procurement rules, government investment in renewable energy and decarbonisation of the manufacturing sector, and the development of five Sustainable Manufacturing Clusters in key industries. Our estimates say that a $12 billion investment in the SMS could create 100,000 new manufacturing jobs.

Manufacturing workers are leading Australia through the crisis. They can lead us out of it, too.

Find out how you can support the hidden heroes here.

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