Union News

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update  

As of this morning, there had been 10,880 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed in Australia - an increase of 1,607 since last week, almost all in Victoria. 111 people have died - five more than last week. The number of new infections in Victoria has continued to grow which has led to increased concern and talk of even tougher restrictions.  

Since the last edition of SafetyNet, new arrangements have been put in place regarding Term 3 for students, with only years 11 & 12, students at specialist schools and the children of essential workers physically going to school. This has had implications for principals, teachers, and other school staff (see story below). 

The international situation keeps worsening: the number of people infected is now at 13,457,458  - last Wednesday it was 11,949,281, so this is over 1.5 million more infections - so the rate is still increasing. There have now been 581,221 deaths around the world, with the USA being the worst affected country. 
Read more: For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site. 

New VTHC Guidance: When should workers wear a mask? 

This has continued to be a hot topic of discussion, but there is increasing advice that wearing of masks outside the home is extremely important. Even POTUS Donald Trump has begun to wear a face mask in public!

The state's Chief Health Officer, Dr Brett Sutton, this week made an announcement regarding the wearing of masks (see the latest DHHS Advice on Face masks), a reversal of his previous position. And also this week, the Federal Health Minister announced that aged care workers in Victoria are required to wear surgical masks. WorkSafe Victoria is currently developing guidance on this issue also. 

Taking into consideration the increasing evidence that the coronavirus can be spread by aerosol, the matter of wearing masks is crucial. The VTHC, in consultation with our affiliates, has developed advice specifically on face masks for workers.
See: COVID-19 and face masks  

Limited face-to-face teaching recommenced this week

On the weekend the Victorian Government announced that most students in Victorian schools in areas under Stage 3 ‘Stay at Home’ restrictions will return to flexible and remote learning for the start of Term 3, limiting the number of people moving across our state to help slow the spread of coronavirus.

On the advice of the Victorian Chief Health Officer, students in Prep to Year 10 at government schools in metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire will learn from home from Monday 20 July until at least 19 August, following five pupil free days already scheduled for this week.Onsite supervision will be available for students when they are not able to be supervised at home and no other arrangements can be made – including children whose parents cannot work from home, vulnerable children and children with a disability.This has meant concern and many queries from teachers in the Stage 3 areas regarding what measures need to be taken in schools. The Australian Education Union (AEU) has provided up to date advice to its HSRs, emphasising the need for consultation and what needs to be done to identify and control hazards and risks. 

Meanwhile, The Age has reported that the principal of Gisborne Secondary College, a large regional high school close to one of Melbourne’s COVID-19 hotspots, has urged staff and students to wear face masks in term three, as anxiety about the coronavirus led some parents to keep their children home this week. This is despite the Education Department guidelines confirming the Chief Health Officer’s position that masks in schools were not necessary. The guidelines state that unlike public transport and supermarkets, schools are "controlled settings where entry is restricted to only students, staff and those delivering essential school services", making control measures more enforceable. 

Gisborne Secondary College has more than 1200 students and is close to Melbourne’s metropolitan boundary, with a large number of students who travel from the neighbouring Hume council area. 
Read more: Government media release; AEU advice for HSRs (members only); The Age

International unions call on WHO to revise guidelines

Until the World Health Organisation (WHO) revises its guidance on personal protective equipment, physical distancing and other protective measures in the workplace, workers will continue to die unnecessarily, global unions have warned. WHO has denied repeatedly that there is evidence for the airborne mode of transmission, instead saying the risk was limited to droplet transmission from close contact with infected individuals. This is contrary to the views of over 230 international scientists (see SafetyNet 540).The UN body has devised its recommendations on worker protection accordingly. This has meant WHO has only recommended the higher quality protections, particularly use of N95/FFP3 or better respiratory protection, for a small proportion of almost entirely health care staff involved in a small number of particularly hazardous ‘Aerosol Generating Procedures'. 

However, another UN agency, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), recommends a far more protective 2 metres. ILO, unlike WHO, has a specialist workplace safety unit and consults routinely with employers and unions on its rules and guidance. UK statistics show some of the highest rates of Covid-19 have been in occupations WHO classifies as medium or low risk, including transport, construction, security and food processing workers. Global union organisations have called repeatedly for worldwide reporting, recording and recognition of Covid-19 as an occupational disease eligible for compensation. 
Read more: A safe and healthy return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, ILO policy brief, 22 May 2020.  Key issues on the return to work, ITUC Covid-19 briefing, 15 May 2020. ITUC and Council of Global Unions letters calling for recognition of Covid-19 as on occupational disease. 

Ask Renata  

Hi Renata 

Can I get some advice please? My employer is telling us it is safer to be at work than home during the COVID-19 pandemic. I work in the administration office of a company that provides services to the public. It is very possible for us to do all our work from home.  However my employer is not allowing this. We deal with a large range of 'external' people, including contractors and members of the general community. The amenities are shared, and although we have a good sanitising and cleaning regime in place, we are all very concerned due to the numbers of infections in Melbourne. I, and my colleagues believe that we should be working from home at this point. What do you think? 

Well - your employer is wrong! It is clear that it is much safer to be working from home than going into work for the following reasons:
  • exposure on the trip in to work - especially if using public transport
  • contact with members of the public and contractors in the course of work
  • contact with other workers - and being in an enclosed space for a long period of time
  • the fact that asymptomatic people can be infectious
  • shared facilities

When the Premier announced that Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire were going back into Stage 3 'Stay at home' restrictions, he emphasised the seriousness of the situation and said:

"For six weeks, and if you live in these areas, there’ll be only four reasons to leave your home: 
Shopping for food and essential items. Care and caregiving. Daily exercise. Work and study – if you can’t do it from home
Otherwise: Stay home. Stay home. Stay home.  In case it needs repeating, stay home. We are fighting a global and deadly pandemic."

This is the subsequent advice from the government on the DHHS website:

"From 11:59pm on 8 July if you live in metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire you must stay at home. You can only leave home for one of the four reasons – shopping for food and supplies, care and caregiving, exercise, and study and work, if you can’t do it from home." 

My recommendation: you and the other workers need to support each other and together take the issue up with your employer: you are not prepared to put your health, that of your families and that of the broader community at risk by complying with directions that clearly flout what the government and the Premier are saying. 

Under s 21 of the OHS Act, the employer has a legal duty to all employees to provide safe systems of work. And under s35 he has the duty to consult with workers (if they have elected Health and Safety Representatives then this is through their HSRs, if not, then the duty is to consult directly with employees (see Duty to Consult). What your boss is trying to enforce is nt a safe system of work, and he must consult with you as affected workers. 

If possible, you all need to contact your union for advice and assistance on this matter. In the first instance the union should be able to help, and also, if you don't have one, can assist in starting the process to have an HSR elected. The other thing you and the other workers could consider is contacting either your local member or DHHS and explaining the situation. I am sure they would be prepared to contact your employer to give him appropriate advice. 

Please remember: if you have any OHS related queries, then send them in via our Ask Renata facility on the website. 

Victorian Gig economy inquiry reveals workers underpaid and unsafe

A report into the gig economy released today by the Victorian Government reveals young workers are being pushed further into insecure work and are increasingly turning to the gig economy and working two or more jobs to make ends meet.

The VTHC Young Workers Centre welcomes the report and the 20 recommendations that will improve the lives of young workers in insecure work. These recommendations will mean that workers in the gig economy can be recognized as employees, which is a significant move. There is also a call for a standalone streamline support and advice service which means that workers can easily resolve their issues and enforce their rights.

The inquiry’s own research reveals gig economy workers - who are predominantly young, migrant workers on temporary visas - are being paid significantly below the national minimum wage and do not have safe working conditions. These young workers have gone without the protections that other working people in Victoria enjoy, and the laws need to be changed in order  to ensure they receive fair pay and safe working conditions.

“This report confirms a picture of exploitation that young workers, particularly migrant workers on temporary visas, in the gig economy face. They are struggling with low-pay, unpaid work and their work isn’t covering their bills," said Felicity Sowerbutts, Director of Young Workers Centre. “The rise of gig economy work has meant too often young people are being exploited and are performing work without standard employment protections and are on wages that are below minimum wage."

In its submission to the Victorian Inquiry into the On-Demand Workforce, the YWC called for protections for young workers in the gig economy, including updating OHS laws to protect gig workers. The YWC’s own independent survey of 240 gig economy delivery riders found three in four were earning below the minimum wage for transport workers, some as low as $6.67 an hour and up to 20 per cent had been involved in an accident while at work. The YWC has long advocated for intervention into the gig economy to ensure that all workers in Victoria are paid a living wage, are safe at work and have the ability to collectively organise and negotiate their working conditions.
Read more: Victorian Government media release; The Report of the Inquiry into the Victorian On-Demand Workforce [pdf], YWC media releaseThe Age

Asbestos news  

Reminder: from July 22 watch Devil's Dust miniseries on Stan

Devil's Dust, the 2012 two-part ABC docu-drama mini-series will be available to watch on Stan from July 22. The series is based on journalist Matt Peacock's 2009 book Killer Company. It tells the tragedy of many Australian workers and their families afflicted with asbestosis and mesothelioma in the asbestos mining and processing industries though the true-life tale of Bernie Banton. (Information on the series sourced from Wikipedia)

Australia's APHEDA demands no funding for asbestos

An online petition sponsored by Australia’s Union Aid Abroad (APHEDA) has called on international agencies and lenders – such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which have offered “tens of billions of dollars in grants and additional ‘concessional’ credit to the world’s poorest countries” – to ensure that Covid-19 health and economic stimulus funding is not used to purchase asbestos-containing products for the construction of new infrastructure projects such as hospitals and other public buildings.

APHEDA has launched a Megaphone petition, and is asking you to join this campaign and make sure that the asbestos industry doesn’t profit from this health crisis. It is working with international allies to take this urgent matter straight to the Boards and Presidents of the Banks responsible. They will add the names of everyone who signs to this global campaign to make it even more powerful. Check the petition and sign it: To World Bank, IMF and AIIB: No asbestos in Covid 19 relief. 

International: Non-profits urge Johnson & Johnson to halt global sales of baby powder

Last week more than 170 not for profit groups called for Johnson & Johnson to stop selling its talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder world-wide, citing concerns that it contains asbestos, according to a statement from advocacy group Black Women for Wellness. The groups, which include educational institutions such as Emory University and activist groups such as Greenpeace, among others, also want the company to recall existing inventory in North America.

In May, the company said it would stop selling its talc Baby Powder in the United States and Canada, saying demand had fallen in the wake of what it called “misinformation” about the product’s safety amid a barrage of legal challenges. However,it said it would continue to sell its talc-based products in other markets around the world. 

“Decades of independent scientific studies by medical experts around the world support the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder," J&J said in a statement on Wednesday. "We continue to offer this product in many other regions around the world where there is higher consumer demand.”

A 2018 Reuters investigative report found the company knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its talc. J&J now faces thousands of lawsuits from consumers and their survivors claiming its talc products caused cancer due to contamination with asbestos, a known carcinogen.
Read more: Reuters  

Portugal: National Asbestos Audit Update

On July 8, 2020, Portugal’s Minister for the Environment and Climate Action João Pedro Matos Fernandes released a list of 3,868 public buildings in need of asbestos remediation work to a Parliamentary Commission. The majority (84%) of the affected buildings belonged to the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Justice. Parliamentary Deputies expressed concerns over the disposal of contaminated construction and demolition waste in landfills and the degree of danger to the environment and members of the public from that source. See: Edifícios com necessidade de intervenção e remoção de amianto são 3.868 [Buildings requiring intervention and removal of asbestos number 3,868]. Source: International Ban Asbestos Secretariat

More information on Asbestos: In the workplace and In the Home

International Union news

France: Bus unions strike after driver killed by passengers refusing to wear masks

A French bus driver who was left brain-dead from a brutal assault on July 5 after he ordered a group of passengers to either wear masks or get off the bus, has died. Philippe Monguillot, 58, died in hospital last Friday. His daughter Marie said, “We decided to let him go. The doctors were in favour and we were as well.” 

According to police accounts, the driver was attacked by one or multiple passengers at a stop. He had told one passenger trying to get on the bus that he would not be allowed on without wearing a mask, as required by law on public transport. At the same stop he reportedly told three other passengers on the bus that they would have to get off if they did not put on masks. Two men, aged 22 and 23, have been charged with murder, two others with non-assistance to a person in danger and another with attempting to hide a suspect, the local prosecutor’s office said. 

On Monday, the bus drivers at Chronoplus, where Monguillot worked, announced that they were on strike until after Monguillot’s funeral service. Chronoplus serves bus routes in Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz, a sea-side resort on the south-west Atlantic coast of France. Routes in all three areas were stopped' The drivers are demanding greater protection.

The bus unions met with Chronoplus management on Monday evening, and are seeking to reach a deal to end the strike and return drivers to work. On July 7, Macron administration’s minister for transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, travelled to Bayonne and spoke with drivers, proclaiming the government’s grief at the tragic incident. This is seen by many as cynical as they believe the Macron administration’s policies - including initially denying the pandemic would reach France; not having a testing infrastructure in place; and declaring the wearing of masks unnecessary - are directly responsible for tens of thousands of deaths throughout the pandemic. 
Read more: The Guardian, World Socialist Website. The New Daily.

South Africa: Thousands of miners hit by Covid-19

Mining industry figures show 18 mineworkers in South Africa have so far died from Covid-19, with nearly 3,000 workers testing positive for the virus. The Minerals Council said more than half of the deaths were in the platinum sector, which has seen the highest number of infections as companies ramp up production following the easing of lockdown regulations. Gold mines, which have some of the world's deepest shafts, have reported six deaths, while no deaths have occurred in the coal sector. The number of deaths has been slowly rising, the industry body said, despite hygiene and safety guidelines aimed at curbing the spread of infections, including the daily screening of employees before they enter work spaces. The Minerals Council has previously dismissed claims the mining sector was a hot spot for infections, attributing the rising number of infections to rigorous testing mechanisms. It said so far 290,535 workers have been screened and 21,386 tests conducted. However, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) believes that the explosion of infections in the platinum belt was a result of lack of adherence to safety guidelines during the earlier stages of the lockdown. “Some mines in the early stages of the lockdown applied to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy to be allowed to operate during the lockdown. During that time there was no adherence to safety regulations,” said union spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu. “We are not surprised that this is now happening… it is a result of mines chasing profits ahead of lives.” The NUM now wants the government to shut down mines that fail to comply with healthy and safety regulations, and arrest mine managers found to be flouting the law.
Read more: News 24. Source: Risks 955

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