ACTU on vaccine mandates

Ever since the One Big Union (OBU) a century ago, unions have been involved in big issues confronting humanity and the environment. The Assistant Secretary at Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Liam O’Brien when asked on the Paradigm Shift about vaccine Mandates said this:

“… That’s not to say that individual employers can’t introduce vaccine requirements on staff. But in those circumstances, they must do them in accordance with Work Health and Safety law. And the Fair Work Commission has recently upheld that decision. And that means they must sit down with workers and discuss COVID risks in the workplace, and discuss how they’re intending to control those risks, including using vaccinations.” – Liam O’Brien interviewed by Andy Paine on the Paradigm Shift (4ZZZ fm 102.1 Fridays at noon.

Meanwhile on the waterfront in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle, stevedore DP World has sacked over 32 wharfies for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The wharfies are taking unfair dismissal action but at least one source was skeptical about their prospects.

“DP World have not properly considered the reasons provided by the very small number of our members who’ve not yet been vaccinated and rather than work through the individual circumstances with those few workers in a reasonable timeframe, DP World have instead decided to go on a brutal sacking spree via email,” – MUA national assistant secretary Adrian Evans reported in the AFR @ https://www.afr.com/work-and-careers/workplace/wharfies-sacked-for-refusing-covid-19-jab-20211031-p594mx

Meanwhile the Fair Work commission’s president, Iain Ross, said in the ruling in the Mt Arthur mine dispute that the company’s vaccine mandate was not “a lawful or reasonable direction” mainly due to the mine management’s failure to consult with its employees about whether such a site access requirement was necessary. The company’s management is obliged to consult with employees over site access requirements under the Work Health and Safety Act.

On the face of it, these two cases have exposed the contradictions in dealing with the Fair Work Act under Covid. The full interview with Liam O’Brien is below.

Ian Curr
4PR – Voice of the People
11 December 2021

Recording of Paradigm Shift (4ZZZ Fm 102.1) 10 Dec 2021

Transcript – ACTU on vaccine mandates

Today Andy speaks with Liam O’Brien from the Australian Council of Trade Unions

Fri, 12/10 2:02PM • 1:00:0

SPEAKERS

Liam O’Brien, Andy, song by Phil Monsour – Our Union Our Voice, song by Gordon Koang – Coronavirus

Andy 

Welcome to the Paradigm Shift 4 Triple Zed on 102.1 FM where we challenge the assumptions of our current society to resist oppression and investigate alternative ways of living for a world based on justice, solidarity and sustainability.

Andy Paine: “Today’s Paradigm Shift (4ZZZ fm 102.1 10 December 2021) is on trade unions and how they can tackle big issues – from COVID-19 in Australian workplaces to authoritarian governments in the Philippines.”

Andy

There was a couple of big union actions here in New South Wales this week, the Teachers Federation was on strike over increased workload for teachers over concerns about a lack of young teachers. And what that means for the future of education. And over a pay raise as well. And bus drivers went on strike the same day on Monday over the strange, semi privatized situation of New South Wales buses. So though both out on the streets, taking strike action, which is good to see, of course, a bit of a inconvenience, but work is using their power as the the ones who do the jobs in our society. And the ones who can stop doing the jobs that make the society go around is one of the ways in which we have traditionally bettered the world and so good on those people for standing up for their own industries, and for workers everywhere. And so today, we’re going to be talking about unions, not so much in standing up for their own working conditions. But the broad ideas of how unions can be used to tackle some of the big issues in our society.

First off, Coronavirus, which is, of course, a big issue, as anybody who’s read the news in the last 18 months can attest to, I spoke with Liam O’Brien from the Australian Council of Trade Unions, they’ve just put out a report about how workplaces can be more COVID safe. And I think this is a worthwhile approach. Obviously, there’s a lot of things out of our control when it comes to COVID-19. But a lot of things we can affect and we need to work out how we can do that. And so trade unions, a traditional way that people have organized together is a way that we can try to make society a bit safer for vulnerable people and one where we have the power to protect our own health.

I also spoke to him about something that’s going to be a recurring issue for workplaces, unions and our society that is vaccine mandates. And so, we have had one union CFMEU go to the Fair Work Commission last week and overturn a vaccine mandate at BHP mine in the Hunter Valley. So I chat about that with Liam as well about whether this is something unions are concerned about what they’re planning on doing about it, it certainly is going to be an issue that isn’t about to go away quietly.

Andy

Can you start off by introducing yourself?

Liam O’Brien 

Yes, I’m Liam O’Brien. I’m Assistant Secretary of the Australian Council trade unions.

Andy 

Now, the Council of Trade Unions obviously does many things. But one of them recently is to have written a report about making work COVID safe. What was the need for this report?

Liam O’Brien – Assistant Secretary at Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) 

So as internal borders around the country, and indeed international borders start to come down as Australia begins its path three opening, we know that we will see a significant increase in COVID transmission, both in the community and obviously there is a significant risk that that happens in workplaces. We know that in order to ensure that our health system is not overrun and the people don’t get seriously ill, we need to make sure that our workplaces are as safe as possible. And employers have got a legal obligation to ensure that work is safe when it comes to COVID.

Andy 

Unions in this country have pushed Workplace Health and Safety over the years. And that’s had a real impact especially on on dangerous industries. I mean, this changes somewhat the nature of Workplace Health and Safety doesn’t in that we’re not talking about workplace injuries or accidents here. Really what just that being at work presents a risk.

Liam O’Brien 

Well, I think what what we’ve got to understand about workplace health and safety is that it is there to prevent both serious injury but also serious illness and COVID is a very serious illness. We know that even amongst vaccinated people that you still have a high risk of both contracting COVID And indeed, getting ill from it. So employers must ensure that they are that they are putting in place the strongest possible protections to keep workers safe from contracting COVID. So whether that’s ensuring that there is good ventilation in the building, whether it’s ensuring that workers are supported to isolate when they’ve either been a close contact or indeed have COVID themselves. These are the controls that are going to ensure that we minimize transmission of COVID and that we stay open in the future.

Andy 

So there’s two of the recommendations there. There are other recommendations in the report.

Liam O’Brien 

Obviously, there’s a range of controls that workplaces can put in place. What’s really important about understanding COVID Is that employers should be sitting down with workers and understanding the types of COVID risks that they have in the workplace. What are the interactions that staff have with each other and indeed have with the community? And how can we minimize the risks of exposure to both workers and customers as businesses start to open up and indeed as community transmission increases?

Andy 

Oh, one of the things that presents an interesting challenge here, of course, you’ve talked about the requirement for leave for isolation or to get COVID tested or things like that, we’ve seen a casualisation of the workforce. It’s actually chipped away at at paid sick leave. Is this something that needs to be addressed on a broader scale than just a COVID leave?

Liam O’Brien 

COVID highlighted a lot of the faultlines in our workplaces over the last two years and one of the most important areas has been around the issue of insecure work. We’ve seen both in Melbourne indeed in Sydney, that where workers do not have access to basic things like sick leave the increased risk of COVID is really significant. The basic things like being able to stay home while sick and the fact that you know a third of the work do not have access to paid sick leave, really hamstrung both Melbourne and Sydney’s ability to get on top of the virus. So when we think about going forward, some of the big issues that Australia does have to confront is the significant increase in insecure work. And we’ve got to ensure that we take active steps to reduce that, not just because of the COVID risks, but indeed, because generally in relation to health and safety, but also the social and economic reasons, insecure work is not good for us.

Andy 

Work has changed, the shape of work has changed over the pandemic, in a lot of ways with people working from home. a big one, but in lots of ways that it’s changed. Do you think that …. what’s been the effects of that hasn’t been good for workers has that been bad for workers?

Liam O’Brien 

But undoubtedly, there have been some benefits that have flowed from the pandemic and indeed work from home. And, you know, busting that myth that workers cannot do their work from home has been one of them, we’ve seen a significant number of workers be able to do their work from home. And that’s something that I know a lot of people are looking to the future and ensuring that something like that can continue. But we’ve also seen in particular, in terms of the recovery, some of the worst aspects of our labor market come to the fore. And if we think about the recovery, and indeed, you know, the serious impact from COVID, there are a couple of key features that really need to be called out. The first one, as I said before, has been around insecure work. And insecure work was a real problem in this country leading into the pandemic. And it made us more vulnerable. When we saw community outbreaks, as I said before, with the absence of sick leave being available of such a significant proportion of the workforce. But what we’ve also seen in terms of the recovery is that an increase in those numbers of insecure jobs has been a real feature of our recovery, we are not building back more secure jobs in this country. In fact, we are building back with even more precarious work into the future. So that’s a real problem.

Liam O’Brien 

There’s obviously also been a really significant impact on gender. And what we saw at the start of the pandemic is that most of the jobs lost, were in industries, predominated by women. And we saw women largely especially as we move to issues like homeschooling, and remote working that women bore the brunt of a lot of those paid a lot of that unpaid work. So I think those are the really two key features when we think about the impact of COVID on the workforce, and it’s something that we must correct as we start to recover.

Andy 

At the beginning of COVID, the ACTU was one of the groups that sat down at this kind of roundtable to talk about the government response. But it does seem in a lot of ways that the response and COVID has been a very kind of top down process, I guess that a lot of us have had to go along with these decisions as they’re made. What do you think, have workers that everyday people and civil society like unions been able to shape in some way, this country’s response to COVID?

Liam O’Brien 

But I think, at the outset of the pandemic unions put aside their differences with the federal government, and said that we want to work together to ensure that we protect the lives and livelihood of all Australians. Unions worked really hard, including with business to push the federal government to introduce schemes like Job keeper, to make sure that job seeker, then called Newstart, was increased to a rate that ensured that people could survive. And I think what we saw in 2020, was a situation that where we imagined what government could really do and were able to achieve it.

Liam O’Brien 

I think it busted the myths in this country that we could do things like end poverty, provide a living wage to every worker in this country. So, you know, I think from my perspective, what 2020 showed was how Australia could work together. Unfortunately, what we saw throughout 2021 really was a failure of the federal government to continue to build consensus across the community. We saw a federal government that was intent on undermining the rights of workers with its industrial relations legislation earlier this year, we saw a federal government that didn’t act quick enough to secure enough vaccines for Australians and rollout a program of vaccination that would have ensured that we’d not had lockdowns through 2021 and I think most importantly, we saw a federal government wasn’t prepared to take its responsibility to managing the COVID pandemic and in particular our borders and our quarantine system.

Liam O’Brien 

So, I think it has been a story of two paths. I think in 2020 we saw a real effort of all parties to cooperate to keep Australians safe and in jobs. Unfortunately that has not been the way in which 2021 has unfolded. And I think that’s disappointing because it’s come at the significant expense to both the social outcomes for Australians but indeed our economic prospects as well

[Song – Phil Monsour – Better work, better life]

Nurses and midwives, someone who came, the first people you meet, in the union we stand faces challenges one risk respect dignity. Our union Our voice, we are united better life, our heart our soul not for sale, health is not for profit …. not for profit. Nurses and midwives, the voices of old, government’s once forgotten ….

Andy 

From his album One song One union that is Phil Monsour with better work better life. Before that we were speaking with Liam O’Brien from the Australian Council of Trade Unions about how workers can organize to help combat COVID 19 … let’s go back to that chat.

Andy 

Okay, I want to move on here to a bit of a divisive subject, but one that certainly affects workplaces around this country. And that is vaccine mandates. So first off, what’s the council of trade unions stance on vaccine mandates.

Liam O’Brien 

So unions support achieving a high rate of vaccination across the country. We know that the only way in which we will end this pandemic and keep Australians safe is by achieving a very high rate of vaccination. We also know that in some workplaces In particular high risk workplaces where the risks of contracting COVID are higher indeed, the risk of contracting COVID and potentially passing it on to vulnerable people that we work with is also something that we need to consider. And there are those workplaces where we need to achieve 100% vaccination rates.

Liam O’Brien 

We’ve said from the start that we want to build trust and competence in vaccination, and that where mandates are required that they should be done through public health orders. That’s not to say that individual employers can’t introduce vaccine requirements on staff. But in those circumstances, they must do them in accordance with Work Health and Safety law. And the Fair Work Commission has recently upheld that decision. And that means they must sit down with workers and discuss COVID risks in the workplace, and discuss how they’re intending to control those risks, including using vaccinations.

Liam O’Brien 

So we’re not opposed to mandates, we’re not imposed necessarily to even employer mandates. What we want to ensure is that we build high public trust and confidence in vaccines, because we know that we’re in this for the long haul. We’re already talking about boosters. And indeed, with new variants we may be talking about even fourth vaccinations. We know that in the long term, keeping a high rate of public trust, and confidence in vaccinations is really critical. So that’s been our approach to vaccinations. We’ve worked with employers regarding those programs. We’ve worked with state and federal governments regarding the introduction of public health orders.

Andy 

You’ve mentioned there, the Mount Arthur mine in the Hunter Valley, that Fair Work Commission has sided with the CFMEU and said there wasn’t enough consultation. So obviously, that’s one case where union members have complained to the Union about vaccine mandates, and the union has done something about it. Is that something we’re seeing across the board at different unions?

Liam O’Brien 

I think in many workplaces where employers are seeking to talk to workers about vaccinations, unions are actively involved, and each workplace is going to be different. What’s really important about the Mount Arthur decision is it places that primary importance on the employers legal obligation to consult with workers about COVID risks and how they intend to control them.

Liam O’Brien 

There is no predetermined outcome in relation to the introduction of mandatory vaccinations at a workplace level. Employers must sit down, talk with workers and the unions about these issues, and try to come to an agreement about how best to control COVID Because one thing is really clear about COVID. Vaccines are not silver bullet. No vaccines do not eliminate the risk of COVID. And you have to introduce other controls. employers that are seeking to manage COVID appropriately will look at all of the levers that they can pull in workplaces to make sure that they keep workers and the community safe.

Andy 

Certainly, it’s going to be an ongoing issue like you’ve said, What do you think unions are looking forward? Why do you think people should be involved with unions in trying to combat COVID?

Liam O’Brien 

Like I said at the start No. COVID is a work health and safety risk. Unions are extremely effective at making workplaces safe and healthy. Workers have rights in workplaces to ensure that they’re provided with the best possible protections. So when it comes to COVID, we know that workers are concerned about the risks of getting COVID. And they want to ensure that their workplaces are applying the highest possible protections.

Liam O’Brien 

And we see many workers joining unions because they’re concerned that their employer is not taking COVID Seriously. So what we think it’s really important, as we start to open up is really a few key things have to be considered. Firstly, we must make sure that workers are supported to ask the …. if they are other exposed, or indeed have COVID. Because the most effective way of keeping workplaces safe is actually keeping COVID out.

Liam O’Brien 

The second thing we’ve got to do, and this is good, not just in relation to COVID. But indeed in relation to a lot of other illnesses is we need to improve ventilation in workplaces. I think what COVID has really done, there’s been a paradigm shift about how we think about workplaces and the air that we breathe, whether it’s COVID, or indeed the seasonal influenza, we know that we can reduce the illness by improving ventilation in workplaces. And this is something that we’re very hopeful that it going forward. We can see significant improvements in ventilation and workplaces because that’s not just good in terms of keeping people safe, but it’s going to be good for productivity as well as reduce sickness and absence from the workplace.

Liam O’Brien 

So as we open up in 2022, and indeed borders come down, it’s so important that we have a federal government But that’s conscious of these issues. And he’s seeking to make sure that workers are supported through the pandemic.

Andy 

You mentioned division. We’ve seen that within the union movement, I mean, big protests outside of CFMEU building and things like that. We’re in a divisive time a fractious time, aren’t we? And we need, we need some models of civil society where people can work together towards a better end. And I mean, unions are an example historically of that aren’t they?

Liam O’Brien 

Absolutely. And I think what we’ve seen, you know, through some of those protesters unions being targeted, what we know what unions have always known, is that in order to keep workplaces safe, we need to keep COVID out. And there are a range of measures that we can be putting in place in workplaces to do that.

Liam O’Brien 

But you’re right, there have been some agitators out there that have been trying to undermine those efforts, or actors that are anti-vaccine, and have been really trying to undermine unions efforts to make workplaces safe. We’re very conscious of that. But we’re also very committed to ensuring that workers are afforded the highest possible protections when it comes to COVID. We only need to look at the outbreaks that we’ve had in Melbourne and Sydney but indeed around the world. It has been working people that have borne the brunt of COVID whether that be those that have actually been infected with the disease, but indeed also those on the frontline that have had to deal with everyone from you know, our health workers in our hospitals as they’ve been overwhelmed throughout the pandemic or indeed our frontline supermarket workers who dealt with serious issues of occupational violence and aggression. It’s been working people that have shouldered the load through this pandemic and unions are committed to making sure that work is safe and healthy going forward.

Andy 

Okay, thanks Liam

Gordon Koang – Coronavirus 

Song … We don’t like you (coronavirus), you are being difficult …

Andy 

That is good and Gordon Koang  there. We’re that Coronavirus. We don’t like you, you are being difficult as some of the lyrics of that song go and certainly well deserved there for Coronavirus. I think.

Andy 

Before then I was talking with Liam O’Brien from the Australian Council of Trade Unions, about what workers can do to keep our workplaces COVID safe and how we can organize towards that end. And we also in that little bit, we did speak a bit about vaccine mandates. It’s certainly been in the news. And I think, I think it’s something that unions and the left of politics in general needs to formulate a good response to.

Andy 

I personally am vaccinated, and I think people should, because the people who study epidemiology and diseases are all saying I should get vaccinated, but also respect people’s freedom over over their own body. And I’m not a big fan of government enforced medical procedures. And so we need to balance these things, somehow. And I think the there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Of course, there’s a lot of pretty crazy beliefs.

Andy 

And there’s a lot of Grifters in the anti vaccine, seeing people who maybe are mining billionaires, or maybe far right groups with an agenda that goes far beyond vaccines that are winning over people on the basis of vaccines. And whereas the left is stuck to a pretty solid oh, you should just get vaccinated thing. And so it’s a question that we will need to ask. And as vaccine mandates come in for a lot of public service jobs they’re already in but we’ve, as we’ve seen mining sites and things like that, it’s a question worth asking. And as Liam O’Brien was saying, the important thing is that there’s consultation with people about or how do we keep each other safe, and to combat the distrust and misinformation and things like that we do need some kind of more open society.

Andy 

Of course, I mean, COVID had a massive effect. And it won’t be the last who, you know, a lot of predictions of climate change that there’ll be more infectious diseases and more natural disasters and more society wide crises like this. And one thing I’m certain of is that we require some level of cooperation to make sure that our response to these crises is fair and just and takes into account those people who are most marginalized.

Andy 

And I personally think that were a kind of left wing political idea of collective society is much better equipped to deal with that, then right wing individualist philosophies. And so to see those right groups are using a crisis like this to gain a foothold is a concern. And so hopefully, those who care about cooperation and working together can win back that ground. And of course, trade unions are an example of that and hopefully something that can be used to do that.

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