Dealing with COVID has taught us as Australians to cope with drastic disruptions to our way of life, our work and our economy. We look forward to the end of this virus and a return to what we thought we had before. But what does normal now look like? Does it exist when we’ve set off down a new course in history for working people post-COVID-19?.
No one wants to live under threat from a potentially fatal virus. We don’t want to see working people lose their jobs en masse, as businesses, sport and cultural activities are stopped in their tracks. But even before the pandemic is over, we should carefully consider what we might learn from this difficult time. How we come out of this crisis will shape the way we live for years to come.
Unions have been working hard in this crisis and there are already lessons we can learn from.
Crisis policies to support incomes and prevent evictions show that many Australian workers are barely surviving from week to week. Flat wage-growth, under-employment, and declining levels of enterprise bargaining have contributed to the lowest share of national income going to workers in generations.
A greater share of national wealth needs to go to those who create it. We must reject the demands of employers to freeze and cut wages, an approach that removes disposable income at a time when consumer spending is a prerequisite to economic recovery . Taking money out of people's pockets will only make the downturn worse, as it did in the Great Depression.
For too long aged care workers, cleaners, disability workers and early childhood educators have fought for recognition. It’s taken a crisis for many people to acknowledge the important work that these low paid workers do. Many of these workers are women and migrants and it’s time they were given the respect and fair compensation that they deserve.
“Flexible labour markets” have been the mantra of business and political elites for decades, but we now see how deeply dysfunctional this is for workers and society. Insecure work means insecure income, no leave and few workplace protections. It has hit Australia harder than other nations: 1 in 3 working people are in insecure jobs. That the JobKeeper policy deliberately excludes so many casual workers, as if they aren’t workers with families and responsibilities, adds insult to injury.
The scourge of insecure work and inadequate wages has developed because of the relentless attacks on unions over decades. Australia has now the most repressive anti- union laws in the OECD. Under cover of the crisis, the Morrison Government is changing workplace laws. These radical changes demanded by the business lobby will allow dodgy bosses to use the crisis to undermine workplace rights and cut workers’ wages. This must be stopped.
Prime Minister Morrison says “we’re all in this together”. But this “all” has the qualifying “except for you”. Our history shows us we’ve excluded Aboriginal people, non-white immigrants, and refugees on boats. On the one hand Morrison tells migrant workers they are crucial to this country, but when push comes to shove during peak crisis, he says “go home”.
These migrants, like so many before, have built their lives here. They own homes, pay taxes, have married and had children – many of them have no other home and no way to leave to another country while borders are closed. COVID-19 does not discriminate on the grounds of visa status. The Morrison Government has a duty of care to ensure all migrant workers can access financial support through JobKeeper and JobSeeker. We cannot let over a million people who live in this country be deliberately forced into destitution.
Importantly, there is no excuse for involuntary unemployment in a country like Australia. The scale of this economic crisis means that governments need to plan for the recovery at all levels by making job-creating investments. We call for the transitioning of the JobSeeker wage subsidy program into a large-scale employment effort, with jobs that are necessary to tackle the other big crises like climate change - jobs in renewable energy, green hydrogen, electricity grid upgrades, ecosystem repair, public transport construction, greening our cities, fixing waterways and energy efficiency.
We need to be a nation that learns from history. We are learning and adapting at unprecedented speed during this crisis and we need to continue this. Now, the myths about budget surpluses and the fiscal power of the government have been exposed. Old lies about debts and deficits were excuses to prevent access to quality public health, education, full employment and a sustainable economy.
Now is the time to demand that public resources are concentrated on the public good. We won’t go back to the old “normal” of insecure jobs, run-down public services, wage theft, company tax dodges and attacks on workers and their unions. After the trauma of COVID-19, we all deserve better.