Senators Statements – Essential Workers

01 December 2021

We're here today in the last sitting week of the year, and I want to take this opportunity to express my deep thanks and appreciation to Australians after what has been an incredibly tough year. Of course, different states have experienced it differently, and individual Australians have experienced it differently, too. But it has been tough for many—indeed, for all of us, in different ways. It has been tough for those of us who have had our lives impacted: those Australians whose livelihoods have been impacted and those who have missed special moments, and final moments, with those that they love. It has been tough for families struggling with changing work requirements, schooling from home, caring arrangements changing at the last minute, insecure work and, often, not keeping up with the need to adapt and shift the caring arrangements for those they love and care for. It was been tough for our elderly, who have been kept away from those that they love, for too long and for too much of the year.

Today I want to acknowledge our essential workers especially, because their experiences, wherever they live in Australia, have been really, really tough. I want to start with our health workers because, from day one of this pandemic, they have been on the front line of the fight against this virus, going above and beyond to keep our communities safe. In hospitals, nurses and doctors volunteered without question to staff COVID wards, even as we were just learning what this virus was and what it meant. We all remember the images of doctors removing their protective equipment to reveal faces marked or imprinted with lines from their goggles and masks, the scars from their service. Nurses stood by the sides of patients who could only see their families through video feeds, while the patients were given oxygen or, in the worst cases, put on ventilators or put into comas. Testing clinics were staffed around the clock by teams of individuals who worked well beyond their rostered shifts to keep the queues moving during times of increased testing and need. Our pathologists have worked around the clock, too, testing Australians and helping us to track and contain the spread of the virus. In our medi-hotels, Australian workers served as receptionists, cleaners and security guards, doing their best to support people and to keep them safe in facilities that were never built for quarantine. In the early days, many of these workers had zero training in managing potentially COVID-positive guests. We saw time and time again outbreaks due to leaks in these hotels and the blame placed at the feet of workers—workers who were within a system which was already fatally flawed.

Our early childhood workers were sent to work early on, caring for the children of essential workers without personal protection equipment and without proper protocols and guidelines in place to keep the children they care for safe, to keep the families of those children safe and to keep themselves safe. They were crying out and saying, 'We're essential workers, too,' but no-one was listening to them, no-one was stumping up with the PPE and no-one was stepping in to make sure that they felt safe and supported.

Our retail workers, our workers in DCs, fronted up, and continue to front up, to work every single day during the pandemic to keep the shelves stocked and the check-outs moving. These workers could not work from home, and we would have been absolutely lost without them. The workers in our supermarkets—many of whom are young, many of whom are women and many of whom have significant and, indeed, unproportionate caring responsibilities to others—turned up each day, even when their leaders weren't turning up for them. They have been some of the most vulnerable and some of the most exposed to the risks of COVID, but they turned up and did the work and they weren't given the acknowledgement that they deserved for this work for far too long.

Of course, while many Australians worked from home, our transport and delivery drivers and our truck drivers fronted up each day as well, meeting the increased workload and meeting the increased demand from a growing number of parcels, from growing online shopping and from growing deliveries. These workers stepped up, working longer hours or extra shifts in an industry which is already characterised by excessive hours and by dangerous conditions. Then they had challenges in crossing borders, waiting for testing and huge delays in a job which can already be far too unsafe.

For so many of our essential workers, this pandemic has highlighted what they already know—that the impact of casual and insecure work can be devastating for families. Indeed, in a situation like this, it can be dangerous. If we learn one thing from this pandemic, it must be that we need to urgently tackle the crisis of insecure work in Australia. And we must fight the growing Americanisation of our industrial system and conservative efforts that seek to undermine the hard-fought-for rights of Australian workers.

Our essential workers have been through a lot these past two years. They deserve our thanks and they deserve our acknowledgement, not in words but in action—action that sees them paid what they deserve; action that sees their workplace rights protected and advanced; action that helps keep them safe, as they have worked so hard throughout this pandemic to keep us safe; and action that ensures they're treated with the respect that they deserve.

A recent study by the University of Sydney and the ANU found that more than half of retail workers reported having been abused at work during the pandemic. The study found that women workers from a non-English speaking background and younger workers bore the brunt of this abuse more than others. We all remember the images across our television screens of individuals refusing to wear masks, of retail workers being the ones forced to enforce this, of our check-out operators being abused, of team members abused and the horrific scenes in the aisles of supermarkets—unacceptable behaviour and un-Australian behaviour. As we head into the Christmas period—with all the joy and rest that that brings for so many of us but where, too, stress and tension can run high and where our retail workers are under as many pressures as ever—I fear this will get worse. Our retail workers are essential workers. They deserve respect. There is absolutely no place for the abuse or harassment of retail workers. As we lead up to this Christmas period, I am so proud to support the SDA's No One Deserves A Serve campaign, and I urge all senators in this place to support it too.

As I have said, acknowledging our frontline workers is about more than thanks and it's about more than acknowledgement. It's about making sure they are safe at work and making sure that they're paid what they deserve. That is why it is just beyond belief that in my home state of South Australia the Liberal Marshall government are denying these workers Christmas Day penalty rates. In every other state and territory Christmas Day is a public holiday, no matter which day of the week it falls on, but in South Australia it is not. That means, while office workers—indeed, state government workers—get a public holiday on the Monday, and that's great, they should, our retail workers, our hospitality workers, who turn up to work on Christmas Day won't be guaranteed penalty rates.

Make no mistake, the Liberal government could have fixed this. They still can. Parliament in South Australia is still sitting. For goodness sake, in the year that we have had, in the year that our essential workers have had, surely this isn't beyond even the South Australian Liberals. Our frontline and essential workers have kept us safe throughout COVID. They have worked tirelessly around the clock. It's a great sacrifice to themselves, to their families, to the people they love and care for.

They have looked after our relatives when we've been kept apart due to lockdowns or border closures. They've kept the shelves stocked, the supermarkets open, the distribution centres manned. They've kept Australians moving throughout this pandemic. They've kept our freight and our stock and our goods moving throughout this pandemic. They've kept our early learning centres open. They've helped our doctors and nurses go to work. They've helped our children learn from home. They've been manning our medi-hotels. They've been caring for our sick. They've been caring for our elderly in some of the most difficult circumstances those in our caring workforce have ever had to endure.

It's time now that we repay their service with the respect, the acknowledgement and the deeds that they deserve, both in words and in action.