Government bungles during the COVID pandemic created a lasting impact on essential workers – from lost careers to reduced incomes, gaps in education, the loss of connection with loved ones and greater exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace, according to a new report by Australian Catholic University (ACU) and the United Workers Union.
The report was based on interviews with essential workers across the childcare, home care, manufacturing and warehousing industries.
It examined the impact of COVID lockdowns on essential workers in Western Sydney during the Delta wave in late 2021.
The report found that the health crisis was worsened by government policies at a state and federal level which saw a winding back of JobKeeper and the Coronavirus Supplement.
The NSW Government response meant that people in less affluent, working-class suburbs of Sydney were treated very differently to people elsewhere.
The Government imposed the harshest restrictions onto residents of ‘Local Government Areas (LGAs) of concern’. All but two of the 12 LGAs of concern were in Western Sydney, where the highest proportion of essential workers lived and worked.
“[Every] street you [drove] down, there was police. [It] did feel terrible; we had curfews and had to be in by 9 o’clock and couldn’t go out,” said Paula, from Parramatta.
“[We] found the politics about shutting down Canterbury-Bankstown [LGA] was particularly hard. I know I felt discriminated against. Lots of the families are [tradespeople]. They’re people that can’t work from home. They are people that have to leave their home to go to work… I found that my neighbours were really labelled as people that weren’t doing the right thing [because they’re] from another part of the world,” highlighted Marie, from Canterbury-Bankstown LGA.
Report author Dr Tom Barnes said the report highlighted widespread policy failures which allowed workplaces to mistreat and underpay employees.
“Most of these workers lacked the option of working remotely or working from home; but these are the workers who kept Sydney functioning during the crisis,” Dr Barnes said.
“The total labour force decline in southwest Sydney during the Delta Wave in late 2021 was three times higher than during the first wave in mid-2020.
“In addition, the greater concentration of blue-collar work across Western Sydney led to higher COVID-19 case numbers due to a lack of protection from workplace transmission.
“Statistically, every 1 per cent increase in the proportion of blue-collar workers per LGA led to an additional 850 COVID cases. This problem was concentrated overwhelmingly in LGAs like Canterbury-Bankstown, Blacktown and Liverpool.”
The report also confirmed that the pandemic response imposed an increased burden on women, who were burdened with the additional stress of school closures and home schooling.
“The report frames these problems as ‘risk dumping’ in which already-existing problems were made worse by government mismanagement during the Delta Wave,” Dr Barnes said.
“Risk dumping by government exposed workers to the practices of irresponsible employers.
“These problems have not gone away; for example, in terms of severe staff shortages, low pay and poor morale among educators in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) or casualisation and excessive use of temporary labour agencies for workers in warehouse logistics.”