Union News

Fatality in Victoria 

On Saturday, on a property at Jindivick, a farmer was killed when his quad bike overturned. The 80-year-old farmer was found unresponsive under the quad bike, which did not have rollover protection fitted. It is believed he was spraying a paddock at the time of the incident. WorkSafe is investigating.

This is particularly tragic as the Victorian government has on a number of occasions offered subsidies to farmers to fit rollover protection to their vehicles. The VTHC sends its sincerest condolences to the man's family. 

The death brings the workplace fatality toll to 34 for 2021. 

Coronavirus Update

Victoria: Over the past week we have seen new community infections in Victoria increase with the numbers being too high for the government to end the lockdown on September 2 as had originally been planned. The number of new infections reported on Wednesday September 1 was 120 - a worrying increase from the 76 reported on Tuesday. Unfortunately, Victoria recorded its first deaths since October last year: two deaths related to COVID were reported on the evening of August 31. There have now been 822 COVID-related deaths in Victoria. 

The number of active cases in Victoria on September 1: 900 (52 in hospital, 16 in ICU - 15 on ventilators).  Of the 16 in ICU, none had been vaccinated - this underlines why it is crucial to get vaccinated as soon as possible. By this week more than 1000 exposure sites had been listed. It is crucial to keep up with these, and comply with the directions (eg to isolate and get tested). Go to this Victorian government page.    

In news from around Australia:

  • NSW: the state has continued to have the highest numbers of new community infections since coronavirus first arrived in Australia. Over the past week, the numbers have been over 1000 daily. There were 1,116 new community infections in the state in the 24 hours before Wednesday morning. Of these the state confirmed that 106 cases were in isolation during their infectious period, 18 were in isolation for part of it, 37 cases were infectious in the community, and the isolation status of 758 cases was under investigation.  

    Unfortunately, there have been 24 more COVID-related deaths in NSW the past week, including the first death of an indigenous person - of huge concern because the indigenous population, despite having  been identified as a priority group, still has a very low percentage of vaccination. There have now been 100 deaths related to the current outbreak, and 22,308 locally acquired cases reported since July 16 (14,673 last week).  There were 917 COVID-19 cases in hospital, with 150 people in intensive care, 66 of whom require ventilation. This is putting a huge amount of pressure on the State's hospitals and health care workers. 

  • ACT: the territory's lockdown, initially to September 2, was this week extended to September 17. On Wednesday there were 23 new cases, bringing the active cases to 265.

As at September 1, Australia has had a total of 55,111 cases of coronavirus diagnosed (46,726 last week). We also reached a terrible milestone: there have been over 1000 deaths - 1012 (but not all states had reported yet). 

Worldwide: as at September 1, there had been 218,540,994 infections (last week it was 213,948,124). This is again almost 4.6 million new infections in the past week. The total number of COVID-related deaths around the world is now 4,533,609. (Note these figures are updated constantly - check the Worldometer website for latest figures and trends). Read more information on Coronavirus   

Vaccinations update

According to the ABC Vaccine tracker 35.03 per cent of Australians are now vaccinated (58.71 per cent have received one dose). This is a great improvement - we are slowly creeping up the OECD ranking: but according to The Guardian, we have dropped back to 35/38, so there is still a long way to go.  According to the paper, Australia's system has some glitches (Australia’s vaccine certificate system can’t recognise people with mixed Covid jabs as fully vaccinated)  

It is increasingly important that everyone who is eliglible be vaccinated as soon as possible. And remember: if you know anyone who is hesitant, check out the VTHC's new guide to help you navigate challenging conversations about vaccines and help address some of your workmates' concerns. It's free and fabulous! Get your copy of Talkin' 'bout My Vaccination  

Vaccinations and the airline industry

Earlier this month, Qantas said it would mandate cabin crew, pilots and airport ground workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID from 15 November 2021, while the remaining workforce will have until 31 March 2022 to get the jab.  

The Transport Workers Union criticised the company, saying Qantas failed to consult with its workers before making the move. The union said employees are still concerned about the difficulties in accessing a jab or losing pay as a result of taking time off.

This week Virgin Australia announced that it is planning to make vaccines mandatory for its customer-facing staff also by 15 November and office-based employees by 31 March, 2021. Unlike Qantas, however, Virgin said that it would first consult with unions before deciding a final policy. In welcoming this, the TWU said of Qantas that its similar announcement “jumped the gun” by not speaking to or consulting with staff first.

Ask Renata  

Hello Renata,

My son, aged 22, works in automotive retail. Last week, without consultation, a manager took the stools away from the bench which is also the employees' workstation.  The reasons he gave were because they were 'lazy' and they had 'young legs' and should be able to stand while at work.

Yes, they do stand sometimes, however they are also reaching above their heads for parts and attending customers when they enter the shop. They have fatigue mats, but now their legs are hurting and they are experiencing lower back pain because they are standing all day. When they reported this, management said they were young and should be OK! Is this right? 

Well, you've picked up a few issues with what the manager has done - and certainly I agree that the action was not warranted and needs to be challenged:

  1. Standing all day, or for long periods, puts all workers at risk, irrespective of their age. It also leads to fatigue. See: Working standing up 
  2. The manager is engaging in discriminatory behaviour, which is totally without basis. That is, that "it's OK for young people to stand all day because they have young legs". This is a ridiculous statement/assumption! 
  3. There is a legal duty under the OHS Act to consult with affected employees and their representatives (if they have any), when proposing changes to the workplace or the system of work - which this clearly was. Note, the consultation must happen before the changes are made. By just arbitrarily making this change, the employer is in breach of the OHS Act. See: Duty to Consult  
  4. Does your son have an elected HSR? If so, then the HSR needs to take this issue up immediately with the employer (this may or may not be the manager). The HSR has rights and powers to make the employer address this issue. 
  5. Is your son in a union? If he is not, then he needs to join one, as the union helps its members.  OHS is an area where unions provide advice on issues, guide workers through the process of electing a rep, and provide training to ensure they are supported with any future OHS issues. 
  6. In the meantime, your son can take the issue up directly with the employer/manager under s73 of the Act. Under this section, if there's no elected HSR, then a worker can take an issue up with the employer. The employee cannot issue a PIN, but s/he can take the matter up directly with WorkSafe, the regulator, and an inspector can be sent out... See: Resolution of issues  
  7. The other thing he can do is contact WorkSafe directly and seek advice and assistance there.
  8. Finally - if your son, or any of the other workers, finds that their pain increases, they need to consult their own doctor, and if necessary lodge workers' compensation claim. 

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

VTHC Migrant Workers Centre Survey

Have you ever stayed on a visa in Australia? How has your visa impacted your life?

If so, then you probably know first hand the many problems with Australia’s migration system. The Migrant Workers Centre research survey to assist in its campaign for more pathways to permanent residency and a fairer visa system is still open. It is collecting responses from anyone who has ever stayed on a visa in Australia. 

Responses will inform the MWC policy recommendations and most importantly, help drive its campaign for pathways to permanency. Not only this, but many of those who have already filled in the survey ended up getting real assistance from the Migrant Workers Centre to get their particular issues resolved. Responses will be confidential. Take the survey now 

Senate inquiry vindicates TWU criticism of federal government

A Senate inquiry has found that regulatory strategies aimed at curbing drug use, speeding and driving while fatigued in the heavy vehicle sector are doing little to address the systemic causes of this behaviour, highlighting the urgent need for an independent body empowered to eliminate unsafe economic practices.

Such a body had been established by the Gillard Labor government - the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT) - but it no longer exists. In July this year, the Transport Workers’ Union blamed Federal Government inaction for the deaths of 200 truck drivers in five years and warned that death rates would increase as deadly pressures would be exacerbated by extreme demand during the pandemic. In April 2016, the LNP Government abolished the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, less than two weeks after its first ever minimum pay order, and despite its own report concluding that truck crashes would be reduced by 28 per cent. In its press release, the union said "the abolition of the tribunal brought down investigations into safety in deadly sectors such as the transportation of oil, fuel and gas and tore up regulation guaranteeing owner drivers payment within 30 days of completing a job."

The Senate inquiry backs much of this up: it found the heavy vehicle industry is one of the most dangerous sectors in Australia, causing about 180 deaths per year and recording an "increasing number of hospitalisations".

Compounding many safety issues are working conditions – long hours, sedentary practices, poor nutrition, social isolation, shift work and time pressures – which "mean road transport drivers are more likely to experience chronically poor physical and mental health", it found. These factors were confirmed by a major study by Monash University which revealed chronic health problems in trucking, including over 80 per cent of drivers overweight or obese, one in five suffering from depression, over 70 per cent living with chronic pain and almost a third with multiple chronic health conditions. 

"Scrutiny of the road transport sector is largely focused upon the risk-taking behaviour of drivers... [but] there are insufficient efforts to address the underlying systemic causes for such behaviour," the report says. "The underlying economic and contracting pressures are the leading causes of this safety crisis. These pressures are often caused by the major clients of the transport supply chain who set rates of pay, and the terms and conditions through tendering cycles. This behaviour has resulted in a 'race to the bottom' on prices."

The report concludes that the April 2016 abolition of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT) "resulted in little or no regulatory protection for all commercial operators against low and incentive-based rates, which create a structural environment for unsafe work practices". Among its 10 recommendations is that the Government "establishes or empowers an independent body that will, in consultation with industry, set universal and binding standards (including binding standards with respect to pay) which ensure the safe performance of work and eliminate unsafe economic and contracting practices".
Read more: TWU press releases: 200 truck drivers killed since Road Safety Tribunal abolished and Monash study reveals shocking health problems; Senate Inquiry and final report. Source: OHSAlert   

Amazon: 'No way to live'

SafetyNet subscribers may remember articles on the terrible treatment of Amazon workers and delivery drivers around the world, and the company's efforts to avoid scrutiny (see: SafetyNet editions 254, 566, 571, and 590). This week an ABC investigation revealed what life is like for these drivers in Australia, including one who depends on getting work from the international behemoth to survive. 

Melbourne driver Alex Ayliff delivers parcels for Amazon Flex: he uses his own car, pays for his own petrol, insurance, car maintenance and parking costs. Drivers must also pay their own superannuation and workers compensation insurance. And he is worried Amazon will cut him off from the Flex app. He earns $108 to deliver between 30 and 40 packages in a four-hour block (although apparently the company pays a higher rate on weekends and public holidays).  

Yet Amazon is now the world's richest retailer earning $1.1 billion in Australia last year. Profits helped fund its founder Jeff Bezos’s history-making trip into space last month. With no apparent sense of irony, Bezos told a news conference after stepping off the spacecraft developed by his company, Blue Origin: “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this.” 

Of course, there are safety concerns - like cars packed too tightly, not being able to see clearly, and very tight timeframes. “This is the kind of work we saw in the 19th century, before the development of minimum standards under employment protection regimes,” Michael Rawling, a senior lecturer in employment law at the University of Technology Sydney told the ABC. “This is a David and Goliath battle between vulnerable workers and large, multinational tech companies breaking into the Australian market and making conditions worse.” Read more: 'No way to live' ABC investigations

Asbestos news

NSW: man fined for dumping asbestos
A man has been fined $270,000 after the NSW Environmental Protection Authority uncovered building and asbestos waste buried at a rental property in Sydney’s southwest — alongside 1500 tyres, car parts and 240 vehicles.

Fouad Arja, was convicted and fined over the offences following prosecution by the NSWEPA. The convictions come after a complex investigation conducted by the EPA which relied upon covert surveillance footage obtained from drones and CCTV, as well as a search warrant conducted with NSW Police. Read more: The Daily Telegraph 

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

International union news

SE Asia: Open letter to keep workers in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka safe

Garment workers' lives are put at risk by exempting workers from lockdown measures and making them work at full capacity in garment factories to meet orders of brands headquartered in countries with high vaccination rates. Currently this is happening in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh during the wave of the delta variant. Over 50 organisations from around the world have written an open letter urging brands, governments, and employers to take immediate action.

The current wave of COVID-19 and the spread of the Delta variant in South Asia is leading to a surge of severe illness and death in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In August, Bangladesh saw a 20 per cent positive rate and its largest single day death toll to date, while Sri Lanka faced doubling infection and death rates.

As both countries are key exporters of garments, workers in the apparel industry, who have little access to medical infrastructure or vaccines, have been especially hard hit with little support if they fall ill. For economic reasons, the governments of both countries excluded garment workers from lockdown measures by categorizing them as essential workers; therefore, they must report to work in crowded factories where the virus can easily spread. Read more: Clean Clothes Campaign

UK: England reopening came at a cost  
A month after England dropped most of its coronavirus restrictions, experts have confirmed fears about a high human cost. The government went ahead with the changes despite thousands of scientists warning it was a “dangerous and unethical experiment.” In an open letter published in the July 7 Lancet medical journal, they argued that a rising number of COVID-19 cases, the new Delta variant and the fact that a large part of the UK population was not yet fully vaccinated made the move too risky. Since then it has becoming clear that while vaccination has had a big impact, the pandemic is continuing to claim lives.

“The UK is averaging around 90 deaths a day from COVID. Our reopening has been far from an unqualified success,” said Kit Yates, co-director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath. “If there was one lesson I wish other countries would take from watching the UK's attempt to reopen is that vaccines are not the whole solution to the problem,” Yates told CNN. “Yes, they make a huge difference, but if you want to keep on top of this disease then you need to back vaccines up with other tried and tested public health measures: Mask mandates in indoor public spaces, ventilation in schools and work places, a functioning, locally-driven test, trace and isolate system in combination with support for isolation.” With children unvaccinated and about to return to school, “we should expect to see further rises in transmission when this happens, which will inevitably lead to more cases, more hospitalisations and tragically more deaths,” Yates said. 
Read more: CNN News. Deepti Gurdasani, John Drury, Trisha Greenhalgh and others. Correspondence. Mass infection is not an option: we must do more to protect our young, The Lancet, Online First 7 July 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(21)01589-0. Source: Risks 1011

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