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Is this a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create healthier ways of working?

Introduction by Croakey: Over coming weeks, VicHealth is hosting a series of discussions about “life and health re-imagined”, examining how the pandemic has created a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” for addressing critical determinants of health.

The webinar series – to be moderated by Virginia Trioli and Shelley Ware – will generate discussions around reshaping work to benefit everyone, good food for all, making walking and cycling the norm, and putting equity at the heart of recovery. The final topic will be What does the future of prevention look like, in a post-coronavirus world?

Marie McInerney will report on the series for the Croakey Conference News Service, and below previews a panel discussion this Wednesday at 2pm AEST.

It will feature presentations by Anthony LaMontagne, Professor of Work, Health & Wellbeing, Institute for Health Transformation, Deakin University, Dr Jim Stanford, Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work, Emma King, CEO of the Victorian Council of Social Service, and Liam O’Brien, Assistant Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

To join the discussions, register here, follow #HealthReImagined on Twitter and this Twitter list of participants, and see this Twitter tip sheet. Bookmark this link to follow Croakey’s coveage.


Marie McInerney writes:

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, Australians were urged to stay home from work if experiencing symptoms of a cold or other respiratory illnesses.

However, this deceptively simple messaging failed to take account of the realities of life for the many millions of Australians – an estimated one in three workers – who don’t have access to sick pay.

It is just one example of how the pandemic has “shone an unforgiving spotlight” on the extent and impact of precarious work undertaken by millions of workers in Australia and globally through casualisation and the fracturing of traditional employment practices, according to economist Dr Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work housed at The Australia Institute.

In an interview with Croakey ahead of presenting to a VicHealth webinar this Wednesday, Stanford said:

We’ve had employers for a generation trying to find new and creative ways to get more out of their workers for less money … treating them like a ‘just in time’ input to be hired and fired seamlessly with fluctuations of demand.”

Many of those in precarious work are employed not only in the frontline health services that have always been considered essential – such as casual nurses  and hospital orderlies, for example – but also in areas that have provided essential services during the pandemic, from cleaners and child care workers to supermarket stackers, fruit pickers and abattoir workers.

Many are on low wages, often having to work in two or three different jobs or workplaces, and with no sick leave provision, Stanford said.

That’s always been a financial and social risk for those workers, and for the good of society, he says. Now, it’s also a grave risk for workplaces and public health.

“Lo and behold, if you’re working like that in a care or consumer setting, you’re carrying the virus from one location to another as you go, and that proves to be a deadly combination in aged care and home care settings in a pandemic.”

Stanford is reluctant to see the pandemic in any way as an opportunity but is hopeful it will teach us to face and fix problems we already knew about in work and in workplaces and that now loom much larger.

#HealthReImagined

Stanford will join other experts in discussing how to reshape work to benefit everyone during a webinar this Wednesday launching VicHealth’s #HealthReImagined initiative.

Says VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio: “Coronavirus has changed our lives and now we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-imagine our future.”

That includes considering  what’s important to us as a society, “our own health and that of our families, the parks and spaces where we can be active, secure, affordable and healthy food, a stable job, and the importance of helping others and giving everyone a fair go”.

Demaio says:

We want to avoid snapping back to life as it was – how can we ensure we take this opportunity to make life beyond coronavirus healthier for every Victorian?”

The urgent need for all workers, regardless of employment type, to have access to sick leave is a key recommendation of a paper prepared for the VicHealth series by Professor Tony LaMontagne, from the Institute for Health Transformation at Deakin University, and Professor Maureen Dollard from the Centre for Workplace Excellence at the University of South Australia.

That call has also been made by multiple health and social organisations across Australia, including the Public Health Association of Australia and the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), which are urging a national paid pandemic leave scheme, as Canada is proposing. This would provide all workers, including casuals, 10 days leave over 12 months, to enable them to stay home when sick and to self-isolate until tested.

PHAA CEO Terry Slevin said the reality is that people with no paid sick leave are more likely to go to work when unwell.

“That is especially true if their income has been drastically reduced due to the lockdown,” he said in a statement. “This puts the whole community at risk and may increase the prospect of a second wave of COVID.”

LaMontagne and Dollard write that many insecure workers are not only facing income losses in the short term due to working hours lost, but also risk losing hours or their jobs long-term.

They say:

Workers without sick leave are disproportionately lower-skilled, lower-income, female, young, and recent migrants.

In short, this potential loss of income or employment falls disproportionately on those least able to afford it.”

Over the past week that warning has been illustrated in issues emerging, for example, for Pacific Islander workers brought to Australia to fill labour gaps, particularly on farms and in food production in rural and regional areas.

The ABC reported last week about Pacific Labour Scheme workers paying big costs for crowded accommodation as their shifts are slashed during the pandemic shutdown. Similar concerns for workers in Wagga Wagga have been raised on Twitter by academic Steven Caruana.

The United Workers Union recently warned of the risks of a major outbreak among Australia’s large undocumented labour force, including fruit and vegetable pickers, as Singapore had seen when its second coronavirus wave broke out in migrant worker housing.

The union released research showing that, as well as being at risk from substandard living and work conditions, undocumented workers would be unlikely to get tested for COVID-19 because it could lead to their detention and deportation.

“These factors do jeopardise Australia’s initial successes in controlling COVID-19,” it said, renewing calls for a visa amnesty which they said is more urgent in the pandemic.

Jim Stanford says Australia had its eye on a number of at risk workplaces early in the pandemic, including hospitals and aged care facilities.

But it overlooked others, where workers stand “shoulder to shoulder, for hours and hours at a time”, like fruit processing and the Cedar Meats processing plant in Melbourne, which is associated with more than 110 COVID-19 cases.

Strong message to employers

Ensuring all workplaces are taking the prevention of infection very seriously, “as an absolute requirement of doing business”, has to be a priority as the economy reopens, says Stanford.

It can’t just be token, telling people to wash their hands and not touch their faces, Stanford warns. Employers have a responsibility and duty of care to reconfigure their entire workplace, “to think through every step of a worker’s day to ensure they’re not coming into unsafe proximity of fellow workers, customers and the public at large”.

“Frankly, I’m worried about that,” he says, concerned at big pressure from government “to try to look like we’re normalising” and from employers who want to start making money again, “as if there is valour from moving as quickly as possible to get back to normal”.

And it’s not just a case of workplaces being clean. They must also be safe, including from a mental health perspective, say LaMongtagne and Dollard, who warn of the impact on stress and anxiety from the steep and rapid rise in COVID-19 related unemployment.

They say government and unemployment supports like Job Keeper will be critical, and that psychological and other health care providers will need to be alert to patients’ employment status.

Advocating a four-day week

LaMongtagne and Dollard also recommend we look to “novel ideas for sharing the burden of job and work loss at a societal level”, such as New Zealand’s proposal for a four-day working week, to simultaneously reduce job losses while promoting domestic tourism.

“From a bigger picture view independent of the pandemic, reducing the working week could help to address the persistent problem of there being too much work for some and too little for others”, given the current underemployment rate of 14 percent, they write.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s proposal for a four-day week follows the success of a trial in 2018 at Perpetual Guardian, a Wellington-based company that manages trusts, wills and estate planning.

It made headlines around the world for the trial that not only reported lower stress levels, higher levels of job satisfaction and an improved sense of work-life balance for staff, but a boost to productivity for the firm.

The company is now trying to lead debate internationally about the need for change, in association with the Wellbeing Research Centre at The University of Oxford.

“The rise of the gig economy represents a new industrial era, and we have not had a conversation about its implications for our economy and society,” says Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes.

He is co-founder of 4 Day Week Global, a not-for-profit community seeking to “provide a platform for like-minded people who are interested in supporting the idea of the four-day week as a part of the future of work”. (Watch him talking about it here.)

In the wake of that success and the changes wrought by the pandemic, Independent Victorian MP Fiona Patten is urging the Victorian Government to run its own trial of a four-day work week and other flexible work programs.

Patten requested a costing from the Victorian Parliamentary Budget Office for such a trial at the Department of Treasury and Finance, which she said found that even a limited trial in just one department could save nearly $4 million in just 12 months.

And, she says, it could help with a major issue that health and other experts are still grappling with —  about how we get people safely to and from work, now that public transport poses COVID-19 risks, raising more concerns about road congestion and the climate change impacts of greater car use.

“[A four-day week] will mean less cars on the road and extra seats on the train,” Patten says.

This week’s VicHealth webinar is also examining what types of work and industries we want to see created as we try to emerge from the rubble of the pandemic and the “earthquake” it has caused to the world of work.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said there will be just one aim – “jobs” – under the new National Cabinet arrangements replacing the Council of Australian Government (COAG).

That’s raised a number of concerns for health experts worried it will lead to far less focus on climate change and the social determinants of health, such as poverty and food security. So too have the strong ties to the fossil fuel industry of Morrison’s key economic advisory body, the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission.

By contrast, and like others, LaMontagne and Dollard are urging government support for job creation that takes a sweeping approach, simultaneously addressing social, environmental and other needs.

They nominate renewable energy sources and technology, land management for the prevention of catastrophic bushfires, bushfire response capacity, social housing, and public health infrastructure.

They say:

Economic recovery planning – in general – can and should prioritise the greater good by requiring societal benefits in more than one domain: improving employment; reducing social, economic or health inequalities; protecting the environment; fighting racism; addressing climate change and its impacts, and more.

With inequality comes discontent and unrest, and ultimately societal breakdown—we don’t want or need to follow the USA’s lead in this regard.

Even the titans of global capitalism are talking about the need to reduce income inequality and invest in the common good – before the system breaks down.”


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