Morrison to the workers: Work till you drop


“As per our call today – and as confirmed by SA Health – you should report to work tomorrow (Monday) as normal unless you are feeling unwell. This applies even if you have been tested positive for Covid-19 either by PCR or rapid test (RAT), and also if you are currently in isolation because you are a close contact.

—Letter to the workers of management at the Teys butcher shop in Naracoorte, South Australia, on January 9.


Thursday, January 13 is set to be an infamous day in Australia’s pandemic history. A day when 57 new deaths were reported, a new national record. A day when hospitalizations of COVID-positive people exceeded 4,000, almost tripling in a fortnight. A day the torrent of testimonials from healthcare workers included a Melbourne nurse tell the ABC to be regularly asked to work 18-20 hour shifts, in areas well outside of her areas of expertise.

The worst, probably much worse, is to come in the coming weeks.

But instead of changing course on the disastrous strategy of “living” with COVID, the National Cabinet chose today to step on the transmission accelerator, announcing a dramatic weakening of already threadbare protections for workers.

So-called close contacts will no longer be required to stay home for seven days in a range of ‘critical’ industries – this will mean more cases, more health problems and more deaths.

“Close contacts” are already defined extremely narrowly, so as to exclude anyone who has been exposed to a COVID-positive case from a workplace or educational institution. The Victorian Government first launched this narrow definition of ‘close contact’ (applying only to someone living with a positive case) on November 18.

From this date in Victoria, even if you have spent eight hours working or studying near a positive case, you can never be classified as a ‘close contact’. It defies common sense when it comes to a virus that can spread in a fleeting moment. But it keeps the industry going – the whole industry, no matter how “essential” it is deemed to be.

At the end of December, this restrictive and dangerous definition of a “close contact” had been taken up at the national level. And now the meager isolation requirements for “close contacts” are effectively waived for a large number of workers.

Between a quarter and half of “close contacts” will become positive, according to Victorian COVID commander Jeroen Weimar. We know that the most contagious period is the few days before symptoms appear, and we know that many rapid tests give false “negative” results during this period. It is therefore obvious that this policy will have appalling consequences. In fact, this is officially recognized.

The country’s health officials, meeting in the Australian Health Protection Principals Committee, have issued a declaration on December 30 authorizing the removal of isolation requirements for workers in “critical” industries. AHPPC acknowledges that this “pragmatic approach to TTIQ” (Test, Trace, Isolate, Quarantine), which is part of the “political approach to living with COVID”, “will likely limit the ability of TTIQ to suppress transmission of COVID-19 at a population level”.

In other words, it is officially recognized that allowing employers to order “close contacts” (i.e. household contacts) to work will mean more infections, more health problems and more death. And from there, it’s just one step for employers to make the even more dangerous decision of ordering known positive cases to work.

This nightmare is already a reality at the Teys butcher shop in Naracoorte, South Australia, where close contacts and then even positive cases (wearing yellow helmets to identify them) are ordered to work by management with the blessing of SA Health. The result was 140 infections in 400 workers.

This disastrous, literally sickening model works in practice in many hospitals, as “close contact” healthcare workers are ordered to work during their most contagious period.

And it is coming to your workplace very soon. the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry wants “all workers” to be subject to weakened isolation guidelines – and that is the direction the policy is moving in, at a rapid pace.

The National Cabinet’s decision to remove isolation requirements for ‘close contacts’ applies immediately to transport and logistics. States such as Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales have already introduced similar measures for healthcare workers.

From there, these measures will be rolled out over a long period of time. listing of industries announced by the National Cabinet, and well beyond. The AHPPC has already approved workers in “essential” industries. This includes all finance, real estate, mining and all telecoms.

Higher education workers have been scrapped for the past two years. They are now declared “essential” by the AHPPC and can potentially be forced to work during what should be a period of isolation, as soon as the National Cabinet and state health authorities write the health orders.

School staff are also on the AHPPC list. The determination of Scott Morrison and most state premiers to “pass” a wave of health problems will force unvaccinated or barely vaccinated elementary school children and high school students with waning immunity to return to class within a few weeks.

Schools are the main sites of transmission, especially among unvaccinated primary school students. Victoria’s acting chief health officer noted that towards the end of the fourth term last year, an incredible 30 per cent of positive cases were in people between the ages of 6 and 11. With the end of school, this proportion has now fallen to 4%. Large-scale transmission will resume with lessons in poorly ventilated classrooms – and forcing school staff to return to work despite ‘close contact’ will lead to even more illness.

The current settings are firmly and deliberately aimed at establishing brutal “business as usual” with a massively increased level of ill health, permanent dysfunction of already strained health services and most likely a massive legacy of long COVID.

There are alternatives, of course. Work could be reassigned – for example, logistics and transport for food supplies could be bolstered by workers moved from less crucial supply chains. Shutting down or severely restricting major super-spreading environments like indoor restaurants, nightclubs and the Australian Open would mean less transmission across the board. Schools and universities could remain mostly remote until the mitigation measures needed for two years are actually put in place.

Health orders could be changed to make working from home mandatory where possible. Childcare for essential workers could be provided at home (as during lockdowns in New Zealand) rather than in major centres, further minimizing the spread. There are many other simple ideas that could be considered and implemented. But the precondition for all of this is to reverse the sickening ‘let it go’ strategy of our leaders – state and federal, Liberal and Labour.

Various trade union branches have criticized the weakening of isolation requirements, with the ACTU saying: “If the Prime Minister does not act and if our national government does not provide national leadership at this time of national crisis, then workers and their unions will do it”. Secretary Sally McManus has announced a union meeting on Monday January 17 to discuss a response.

It at least opens up a sense of public protest over these sickening measures, something Australia’s labor movement has failed to do for most of the pandemic. However, it is of course a radical change of course that is needed from our unions, geared towards organizing and industrial action, rather than harshly worded tweets.

The predominance of class collaboration politics in the labor movement is the main obstacle to this. Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese summed it up when he said on ABC radio January 13: “We need to have real consultation with workers… As was the case at the beginning of the pandemic, where the labor movement and its representatives set aside wages, conditions, did what it needed to keep the economy going. What they need is a government that is now ready to support them”.

This is exactly the problem. Rather than aggressively pursuing workers’ interests, Labor and the vast majority of the labor movement have spent the pandemic either becoming “best friends forever” with the government (to use Christian Porter’s term for Sally McManus the year latest) and/or to push for industries to remain open regardless of the public health consequences. This has left workers in the vast majority of workplaces unprepared for the level of fighting and organizing needed in Australia’s most dramatic pandemic crisis so far.

It is possible to fight and even win small but important gains at workplace level: better masks, case reviews, ventilation and air filters are all worth fighting for and can be won. To change things on a larger scale will require a much bigger fight and a lot bigger radical forces.


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