ANU, Fair Work Amendment Act, coronavirus risk

The federal government’s proposed changes to the Fair Work Amendment Act would increase the risk of COVID-19 spreading in Australia and could even “spark our next pandemic”, Australian National University experts have warned.

In a submission, the ANU researchers said the proposed changes would make it harder for people in insecure work to stay home when they were sick.

Those workers performed many essential services such as healthcare, cleaning, delivering supplies and taking care of children and the elderly, the researchers said.

“Under these conditions, highly at-risk workers will not be able to follow necessary health recommendations such as isolating when unwell or quarantining while awaiting results,“ said one of the co-authors, Professor Kamalini Lokuge.

“Unless addressed, the public health risks of insecure work will continue to pose a major public health threat into the foreseeable future while COVID-19 remains a risk.”

The submission takes aim at two aspects of the government’s bill in particular.

The bill proposes allowing the Fair Work Commission to disregard the “better off overall test”, otherwise known as the BOOT, when considering enterprise agreements for businesses hit by COVID-19.

And it also proposes to define casual work in the Fair Work Act for the first time, labelling someone offered work without “firm, advance commitment” of ongoing opportunities as a casual employee.

The ANU experts said both changes would make workers more vulnerable to transmission of COVID-19 and other future diseases.

They pointed to the Victorian outbreak last year when some people went to work despite feeling unwell in order to keep their jobs and make enough money to survive.

In NSW too, aged care facilities were vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks because of the high number of casual employees working there, the ANU experts said.

“This has led to devastating impacts on the health and wellbeing of not only the elders in our community but on these workers themselves,” the submission states.

The government’s bill has sparked a backlash from unions and Labor, and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has indicated he expects the issue of insecure work conditions to become a major part of the next election campaign.

Mr Albanese used a speech in Brisbane last week to outline the first part of Labor’s own proposed plan to address the issue of insecure jobs.

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter has slammed Labor’s plan as a potential drain on businesses’ finances.

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