Australia

'Do you starve or do you work?': Calls for casuals to get paid leave if they need to self-quarantine

Lina Cabaero says migrants in precarious work need more support against the economic pressures of the coronvirus outbreak. Source: Supplied

Unions and advocates want more support for casual workers against the economic pressures of the COVID-19 outbreak with fears culturally diverse employees without leave entitlements are among those most at risk.

Sydney-based Asian Women at Work coordinator Lina Cabaero says migrant workers in casual employment are among those most at risk amid the economic pressures of the coronavirus outbreak.

Unions and advocates will meet with the Federal Government on Tuesday calling for casual workers to be compensated for time spent away from work if they need to be self-quarantined.

Uber has already promised drivers diagnosed with COVID-19, or placed in quarantine by authorities, will receive compensation for up to 14 days.

Asian Women at Work is a support service for about 2,000 migrant women.

The majority of their members are from China and working as casual employees.

Ms Cabaero said the precarious nature of many women's work had intensified with one casual let go by her employer following time in quarantine.

“How do you decide really – do you sit at home and starve or do you work and expose people or be exposed?” she told SBS News.

“Some workers will be forced to go to work even if they are at risk – if they don’t feel well because it is the only way they can bring income to the family.”

There are some 3.3 million casual workers in retail, hospitality, health and aged care across Australia who will lose pay if they get sick.

The Federal Government is poised to announce a multi-billion dollar response this week amid growing calls for it to take into account its impact on these workers.

But Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has remained tight-lipped as he finalises the details of the economic stimulus.

"I'm very conscious that Australians in employment, be it casual or permanent, will be concerned about their job security,” he said.

“Our focus is on getting a cooperative workplace. Our focus is ensuring that businesses are flexible, given the stresses and the strains that we will see of - as a result of the spread of the coronavirus.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra.
AAP

ACTU secretary Sally McManus told SBS News that one in three workers in casual employment face the prospect of entering quarantine periods without sick-leave entitlements.

“If they don’t receive that money – they can’t pay the bills – they won’t be able to support themselves – their families as well,” she said.

She said people of culturally diverse backgrounds make up a higher proportion of workers in the aged care, health and community services sectors, which have a high-rate of casualisation.

“We need to fill the gap for casual workers to make sure they have got basic security when they have to self-isolate,” she said.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus.
ACTU secretary Sally McManus.
AAP

The Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation is behind calls for nurses and age care workers to be given special leave considerations.

Acting federal secretary Lori-Anne Sharp told SBS News that existing leave entitlements should not be eroded if workers get sick while helping others infected with the virus.

“Given that it is extraordinary circumstances ... they wouldn’t be required to use their own stocks of their sick leave that that would be paid for in a special consideration by the employer,” she said.     

“The government is going to have to respond and be on the front foot in making sure this workforce isn’t unfairly economically disadvantaged.”

Uber has already taken steps towards providing special provisions for those workers impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.

Senior Vice President of Rides and Platform Andrew MacDonald said drivers and delivery people diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in quarantine by a public health authority would receive compensation.

"Drivers and delivery people in these situations will receive compensation for a period of up to 14 days,” he said.

“This has already begun in some markets and we are working to implement mechanisms to do this worldwide. We believe this is the right thing to do.”

The Council of Small Business Organisations and the Australian Council of Social Services have also called for an increase to Newstart to be included in the stimulus measures.

“Not only is an increase to Newstart the right thing to do for people,” Charmaine Crowe, ACOSS Senior Adviser told SBS News.

“It's also the right thing to do for the economy we know that if we boosted Newstart it would inject around four billion dollars into the economy in the first year.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will deliver a speech on Tuesday outlining some details of the package suggesting 'existing payment systems' will be used to boost the economy.

Labor’s treasury spokesperson Jim Chalmers said the stimulus measures need to be “big enough and fast enough” and of “sufficient quality” to be worthy of their support.

Ms Cabaero said she hopes this will help those most affected.

“It’s a question of how do we survive and go to work – but at the same time we want to be safe from the virus – so it is a very thin line.”

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