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Speech: Paid Pandemic Leave

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 24 Aug 2020

I rise to speak to the Australian Greens Fair Work Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2020 that I introduced in the Senate during the last sitting. This bill will protect all workers during the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are living through unprecedented times—I don't know how many people have said that or how many times, but it is true: COVID-19 is drastically changing our way of life. This is a global health crisis with no-one left untouched by its impacts. This is a difficult time for all of us, there's no doubt. This is a strange time. This is not a normal time. This is a crisis that touches every aspect of our lives: our wellbeing, our economy, our society and our day-to-day lives.

That's why what we do, how we make sure that we do everything possible so we can keep our parliament going, is absolutely important. People out there, Australians, are relying on their leaders to make sure that no-one is left behind. As our country responded to public health in this evolving situation, the unemployment rate hit 7.5 per cent in July—and that particular survey was completed before the stage 4 lockdown in Victoria. In its mini budget update, the government predicted the rate could hit nine per cent by the end of the year. What is clear is that too many people are being left behind during this crisis, and, whilst JobKeeper provides some support, many people in precarious work, casual employment or on a temporary working visa have been denied access to JobKeeper, and many do not have paid leave to rely on. This makes them some of the most vulnerable workers in Australia. We are on a cliff, and we need the government to make sure that no-one falls off.

This virus is going to be with us for a while. There is much uncertainty around when we will be able to relax restrictions or end shutdowns and reopen businesses. Amongst all this, we must make sure that we act to protect workers. This is our responsibility as elected members, and this is exactly what this bill that is in front of us will do. This bill will provide 14 days of paid COVID-19 leave to all workers, including permanent, part-time, casual and gig economy workers. This leave will be available in full for each 12-month period from the start of their employment, and the leave will not accrue year to year. Paid COVID-19 leave will be available for workers in any of the following scenarios: the employee has been diagnosed with COVID-19; the employee is unable to attend work because the employee's workplace has been shut down because of COVID-19; the employee is subject to self-isolation or quarantine measures in accordance with Commonwealth, state or territory policy relating to COVID-19; or the employee is caring for another person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or is subject to self-isolation or quarantine measures in accordance with Commonwealth, state or territory policy relating to COVID-19. Paid COVID-19 leave is extended to gig economy workers and contractors via a COVID-19 leave order. Workers, unions and corporations can apply for a COVID-19 leave order. In circumstances where the Fair Work Commission is issuing a COVID-19 leave order, the Fair Work Commission must make a determination within two days of the application being made, and the Fair Work Commission must make the order unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. For employees other than casual workers, payment will be made at the best rate of pay for the employee's ordinary hours of work in the period. For other workers, such as casuals and those in the gig economy, payment will be calculated at the daily rate of pay equal to the average of the daily rates of pay paid to the employee over the previous 12-month period.

In addition to the above, I will be moving an amendment to this bill so that paid COVID-19 leave is funded by the government by amending the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Act 2020. Employees would be able to receive payments from the federal government for COVID-19 leave payments to their employees.

And it's not just us saying this. The ACTU and Business Council, on 3 August, urged the government to implement a national paid pandemic leave scheme funded by the federal government and, where necessary, state governments. Their letter to the Attorney-General states:

Regrettably, recent events in Victoria have demonstrated that there are insufficient measures in place to enable workers who should not be attending their workplaces to stay home.

They go on to say, 'Paid pandemic leave is now an essential public health measure.' With unions, businesses and public health experts all backing paid pandemic leave, it's time for the government to show that they are ready to treat workers' health and public health with the utmost seriousness that it deserves and vote for this bill.

This bill is a vital piece of legislation that will protect workers, and it will protect our community. Every worker should be able to self-isolate when required without losing their income or their job. But, right now, over 3.3 million Australians cannot access paid sick leave. This bill is about fairness. The public health crisis has only further highlighted the precarious nature of casual employment and the plight of those who work in casual employment and the gig economy. They work largely without benefits such as paid leave, sick leave and other entitlements that are simply fundamental, basic, to work rights. People should not be forced to choose between caring for their health and coming to work.

Recent events in Victoria have shown the public health and economic crisis posed by precarity. Over 1,100 Victorian aged-care workers have contracted coronavirus. One in four Melbourne nursing homes have had a coronavirus outbreak. Outbreaks in aged-care homes have resulted in complete staff shutdowns at aged-care facilities in Victoria, resulting in the national cabinet last week announcing an aged-care preparedness plan with incentives for interstate workers to travel interstate to work in facilities experiencing staff shortages. It is telling that aged-care workers were the first to be given paid pandemic leave during the second lockdown in Victoria. This highlights their exposure to the virus and the need to protect workers across Australia, no matter which sector they work in.

The Victorian and federal governments' responses in guaranteeing paid pandemic leave to workers in Victoria during the lockdown was an admission that granting workers access to this type of leave is vital to tackle the crisis. The federal government now needs to commit to giving all workers—permanent, part time, casual or in the gig economy—timely access to this essential support to avoid more outbreaks in the future and to take care of the people who live here.

The government will say that the purpose of this bill has been fulfilled by their pandemic leave disaster payment. This is not enough. This payment is only available to states and territories who have declared a state of disaster. Every worker, no matter where they live and work, should have access to paid pandemic leave. This will protect their health and their income. The government needs to support Australia's most vulnerable workers and provide a safety net to ensure that everyone has access to at least 14 days of paid pandemic leave, regardless of whether a state of disaster has been declared. We should be acting to prevent disasters now before we see a repeat of the terrible events in Melbourne. The idea that we would wait until a disaster to support workers in crisis is really perverse. Workers are needing to self-isolate during testing and while they're infected, now. The virus doesn't care whether a government has declared a state of disaster or not.

In these difficult times—or really ever—it simply isn't fair that so many Australians are missing out on vital paid leave, left to fend for themselves in this once-in-a-century crisis. We must pass this bill today and look after all workers. This government must step in and support workers and their rights to fair conditions. When wages have been stagnant and the cost of living is rising—literally, going through the roof—it is absurd that this government denies support to workers who are facing weeks, if not months, of under- or unemployment brought on by a global pandemic that few could have predicted.

This bill not only protects workers; it also protects the wellbeing of our community and our economy and advances public health. It's simple: when a worker has no access to paid leave, they are more likely to continue to work when they are unwell or experiencing symptoms of the virus. We must not push workers to the brink, many of whom have been and will continue to be on the front line and in some of the most precarious working conditions. Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly agreed with this logic back in May, stating:

… there are a number of workplaces around Australia where there are disincentives for people to stay at home when they are sick.

That can be financial or it can be a workplace culture. I just want to make this very clear: people coming to work when they are sick puts others at risk.

We need to ensure that we're not forcing workers into a situation where, by self-isolating, they cannot afford to keep a roof over their head and food on the table. The widespread downturn and shutdown of Australian businesses has caused millions of casual and gig economy workers to be pushed towards the poverty line. We must not stand by and let this continue to happen. The Prime Minister is abandoning casual workers, gig economy workers, university workers and childcare workers. This bill is the government's chance to redeem themselves somewhat—to stand up for working Australians and to protect some of the most vulnerable during this very difficult time. We must emerge from these exceptionally hard times as a society which has shown, without doubt, that we care for each other, that we care for fairness, that we care for equality. The government must lead, support and reassure workers and their employers. Too many have been left behind, and these pressures felt by people with reduced or no access to leave to go to work when the public health advice is to stay home will only continue. We need the government to step in and guarantee 14 days of paid COVID-19 leave to every worker, regardless of their visa status or whether they are a member of the permanent part-time, casual or gig economy workforce.

This bill will save lives. I call upon the government, upon Labor and upon crossbenchers to urgently make this bill law, for the sake of workers and for the sake of our communities. I commend the bill to the Senate.

HANSARD LINK

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