What about the workers?


The coronavirus is showing up more than vulnerabilities in people’s immune systems. It is also showing inadequacies in the way millions of Australians are paid. The so-called gig economy, taking in casuals, permanent casuals and even contract workers, has a problem not so much with the rate of pay when they are working but what happens when they can’t work.

Giving some urgency to the discussion is the medical advice that those either with the virus or merely having been exposed to it, self-isolate. Sounds wise, but 3.3 million workers only get paid when they turn up to work and even though under federal awards their base pay is higher than permanent workers, it is by no means high enough to enable them to stay home for 14 days. Sure, their higher base pay, presuming their employer pays it, is supposed to cover holiday and sick leave, but generally as low-income workers they spend it on rent, food and other necessities.

Already there are reports of a casual bar tender in Tasmania going back to work while he waited for the result of his coronavirus test. Compounding the problem is the virus more commonly has mild symptoms, runny nose and the like, that as we saw in Melbourne one doctor dismissed as nothing more than a cold. In the meantime, he had treated 70 patients including a couple in a nursing home. While the Toorak doctor no doubt could afford to take time off, other health workers like cleaners and orderlies on casual shifts cannot.

At the time of writing, the government has not unveiled its package of measures to deal with the health crisis that is already rapidly becoming an economic emergency. And apart from whatever is announced, the government has spent nearly half a million dollars in Federal and High Court challenges to a ruling last year that gave casual workers at Cadbury’s chocolate factory an increase in their number of sick days. If the Morrison Government’s opposition to more generous national employment standards is a guide, it will be reluctant to be too generous now. Maybe we should forget the word “generous” and replace it with “adequate”. We shall see.

But as the ACTU’s Sally McManus pointed out in a letter to the Prime Minister last week, there is a health risk as well as an economic risk in not making it feasible for affected workers to stay home and not spread the disease further.

While the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, according to government sources, has abandoned any hope of delivering his promised Budget surplus, he now has a new challenge: avoid a debilitating recession.

On Monday Frydenberg said Australians can be assured we are “as well prepared as any other nation in dealing with the coronavirus”. No one will be more anxious to see what that means for them than those already struggling in the gig economy when they get work, let alone when they can’t or they are prevented from turning up.

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