Critical workers are being harassed, pressured and punished for isolating, survey says

critical workers

Aviation staff are among respondents to a survey saying they did not want to work alongside close contacts of a COVID-19 case.

Nine out of 10 transport workers don’t want to work alongside close contacts of COVID-19, according to a survey of 2500 staff including airline staff, truck drivers, distribution staff, public transport workers, garbage collectors, and food delivery workers.

It comes after national cabinet endorsed excusing essential workers from isolation if they’re a close contact — that’s people working in transport and logistics, healthcare, food and beverage production and distribution, resources, utilities, education, childcare, media, and emergency services.

Workers have to take regular rapid antigen tests to ensure they don’t have COVID-19, wear N95 masks and obey other precautions.

The idea is to speed up the sluggish supply chain and help remedy staff shortages, but some told the Transport Workers Union (TWU) the change is seeing them pressured to work in an unsafe environment.

One respondee says they tested positive on day six but were told to get back to work, while another reports being “harassed” with messages and phone calls while they were still unwell from COVID-19.

Workers also reported instances to TWU where management didn’t alert them to working alongside COVID-positive colleagues, and of losing pay for isolating.

Workplace diversity expert Catharine Lumby says allowing essential workers who are close contacts to work would be “terrible for morale”.

“I do not think it’s fair, in any shape or form, to put the close contact or their co-workers through the extraordinary stress of that,” she says.

“I can see quite serious conflict in some situations — it could be verbal or even physical abuse — and I think it’s very difficult for managers if you’re told it’s government policy.”

Lumby adds that, for some the consequences of bringing home COVID-19 can be far worse than others.

“Workplace culture is not just about a cultural level of respect, it’s also about respecting that people come from different backgrounds,” she explains.

“That can mean different economic circumstances — some may not be able to afford tests, for example — and the family circumstance in which they live. What if they live with an elderly parent or an immunocompromised child?

“Workspaces need to be very clear about understanding that situation, and managers need to be careful of it.”

TWU’s Nick McIntosh says the results from the survey show a “blatant prioritisation of profits over safety”, arguing the relaxing of isolation rules sends a dangerous message to put workplace health and safety last.

“Transport workers who’ve kept us going throughout the pandemic say they’re being told not to bother testing when most likely carrying the virus, and are forced to work in unclean, unsafe environments without even being informed when colleagues test positive,” he says.

McIntosh says the TWU warned Prime Minister Scott Morrison “months ago” that supply chains would fail without free rapid tests, vaccine priority and COVID-safe plans for transport workers.

“These are still the solutions to our supply chain crisis, but Morrison is still refusing to act,” he says.

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