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Paid pandemic leave and reformed rights: How Covid-19 impacts workers

Customer Making Contactless Payment For Shopping At Checkout Of Grocery Store Using Mobile Phone
Customer Making Contactless Payment For Shopping At Checkout Of Grocery Store Using Mobile Phone

Changes to the Fair Work Act that allow businesses to freely change employees duties, hours and locations could be made permanent, according to Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. 

The measures, which were made temporarily available to struggling businesses at the height of the pandemic,  could be used moving forward to allow bosses more flexibility around how they deploy their workers. 

“Those flexibilities that apply to the employer and give them the ability to change duties, to change hours and to change the location of staff, should be continued,” Frydenberg told reporters according to AAP

“The first cab off the rank will be labour market flexibility and a continuation of the industrial relations reforms that accompanied the JobKeeper introduction.

“It’s reasonable that if you were previously working in sales in the showroom but your shop has closed, your employer can ask you to help in the warehouse with the stocking.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned that jobs will remain at risk if employers are not afforded more flexibility, but shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said, ultimately, the case had not been made to retain the measures beyond the pandemic.

“The arrangements, which were struck in the depth of this crisis, were meant for businesses who were enduring an especially deep downturn,” Chalmers said. 

“Our worry is that the government is now using this crisis as an excuse for more enduring, more detrimental changes to the way workers are treated.”

While many businesses have used these abilities to reposition their workforce in the pandemic, the fear remains that contracted workers could continue to be put on zero-hour contracts, or moved to other areas of the workforce without consent. 

Labor industrial relations spokesman Tony Burke called the idea a direct attack on workers rights, and that businesses had no right to attack the job security of their workforce.

“[Labor] won’t be a part of attacking job security during a pandemic,” Burke said.

Many industry groups are supportive of the government’s proposal, however, with Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott telling the ABC the flexibility allowed by such measures could give people more secure work. 

AI Group chief executive Innes Willox also noted that once wage support measures drop off these provisions would be needed “more than ever”.

Reformed rights for some, paid pandemic leave for others

The treasurer’s comments came as the country has begun grappling with the beginnings of a second wave, with Victoria already returning to lockdown and other parts of Australia beginning to see cases spike.

In response, the Victorian Government is extending a further $300 to workers who get tested for Covid-19, as well as the one-off worker support payment to self-isolating Victorians of $1500, assuming they are not entitled to paid sick leave, special pandemic leave or other income support. 

“We know that having to isolate can mean missing work – and no one should be making the choice between their health and putting food on the table – that’s why we’re making sure those who need our support can get it,” said Victorian premier Daniel Andrews. 

“To fight this virus we need every Victorian who is sick to get tested and then stay home.”

Shops, Distributive and Allied Employers Association national secretary Gerard Dwyer said the union welcomed the extra support for retail workers, and said the fact that the state leaders found it “necessary” to do so points to an urgent need for Federal leaders to fund a universal Paid Pandemic Leave program. 

“It points up a major flaw in Australia’s workplace arrangements,” Dwyer said. 

“National paid pandemic leave would make us healthier, retain more jobs, help more businesses survive and put us on a swifter road to recovery… the economy will not recover at the pace predicted in [Thursday’s] budget update if there are any further setbacks.”

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