A plague of the working classes

Every pandemic starts in its own peculiar way. Every pandemic ends up as a plague of the working classes. And so it is for COVID-19. 

In Melbourne, and parts of regional Victoria, the second-wave of the virus has been driven primarily by workplace transmission. In late July, the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews stated that ‘about 80 per cent’ of Victoria’s COVID-19 cases since mid-May came from workplaces. The Victorian government itself identified high-risk workplaces in private sector aged care, distribution centres, call centres and meat processing facilities. Common to all these diverse industries is a large reliance on insecure work. 

These vectors of transmission themselves can all be traced back to privatised, contracted and subcontracted security arrangements in Victoria’s quarantine hotels. 

Many of the workers involved in quarantine hotel security, contact centres, private sector aged care, meat processing facilities and distribution centres don’t qualify for JobKeeper or JobSeeker. A lot of workers in these industries are casuals who generally don’t enjoy regular hours, or are unlikely to have been with a single employer for 12 months or more. Still many other workers do not meet the citizenship and permanent residency requirements to qualify for the income support measures. 

This precarity is a feature of the system, not a bug. The federal government was warned very early in the pandemic that leaving some workers unprotected would come with significant public health consequences.

Our media shines a daily spotlight on how individual behaviours undermine the efficacy of the lockdown, but not on how COVID-19 exploits the structural weaknesses of the capitalist system. Stories of a person driving from Melbourne to Wodonga for a Big Mac or a person driving to Ballarat for some fresh air may entertain but they do little to inform.

The relatively high rates of COVID-19 infections in Victoria of people in their twenties and thirties are not due to an underground party culture. They’re a reflection of who is in insecure, precarious work. They’re an indication of who doesn’t qualify for meaningful income-support. 

The workplace transmission pipeline of COVID-19 can be read into the postcode level data of active cases in Melbourne. Broadly speaking, the more affluent the suburb, the lower the active cases as a proportion of the total population. The virus spreads among those who do the dirty work – the tasks that must be done to keep society running. 

This is a global phenomenon produced by patterns of exploitation. 

Many of the countries that managed to actively suppress the spread of COVID-19 in February, March and April are now finding COVID returning along vectors of exploitation. In Israel, it was aged care facilities and overcrowded schools. In Singapore, it was the overcrowded accommodation of temporary migrant workers. In Germany, it was the meat works. COVID enters through the affluent and returns through the oppressed. 

On a global scale, it is not so much that Melbourne has been unlucky, it is that to date other parts of Australia have been particularly fortunate.

The heavy police lockdown ordered with little notice in some of Melbourne’s public housing towers mirrored how employers were already responding to COVID-19 out of the public glare and behind the factory gate. Here they were installing new surveillance devices in lunch rooms, policing workers’ interactions with each other, locking up fridges, removing amenities like tea and coffee and generally warning workers they would be subject to disciplinary action for not complying with management’s directives. 

COVID-19, however, cannot simply be policed away at work or in the community. The case numbers were always going to stay high while some employers were more worried about punishing workers for not turning up to work than about workplace safety. 

For every extra day of lockdown, for every extra quarantine measure, and for every additional restriction placed on Victorians, it is the corporations pushing insecure work and forcing workers to turn up to work who must bear ultimate responsibility. 

There is no doubt that insecure forms of work themselves played a role. Many workers were faced with the choice of getting paid or not going to work. Others were genuinely fearful of losing their jobs altogether and not finding any form of work. 

Ultimately, however, the extreme imbalance of power between employers and workers is the root cause of the swift spread of COVID-19 through Victoria. 

The ways in which JobKeeper reinforced and heightened corporate power in the workplace contributed to the COVID-conveyor belt. Temporary migrant workers felt like there was no support for them. Even those who otherwise qualified for JobKeeper knew that the power rested with the bosses. JobKeeper gave their employers even more power to alter their rosters, stand them down or change their duties. 

After face coverings became mandatory, some bosses were still disputing whether or not they had the legal responsibility to provide them to their workers. Other managers would provide some face masks, but not enough to ensure work safety for a whole shift. Yet other employers would not provide even the most basic of training around their use. 

At workplace after workplace, employers failed to disclose the news of positive COVID-19 cases. At one factory in Melbourne’s western suburbs, management attempted to keep the news from workers that one of their managers had tested positive. Even when such news was disclosed, there was no consultation around how a close contact would be defined. 

Confusion reigned, and workplaces mainly remained opened. 

The idea of managerial prerogative ran up against its physical limits. Often managers thought they knew better about every potential vector of transmission than the sum total of the experience of their entire workforce. They were wrong. One case would become three, three would become nine and then there was an entire workplace cluster. And then it was a plague for the Victorian working-classes. 

The initial spread of COVID-19 in Victorian workplaces is only part of the story. United Workers Union members in warehouses, contact centres, laundries, and manufacturing decided to take a collective stand. These workers are fighting back, striving to go from vectors of transmission to agents of history. 

Godfrey Moase

Godfrey Moase is an Executive Director, United Workers Union. He’s previously written for the Guardian, Overland, Jacobin and New Matilda.

More by Godfrey Moase ›

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  1. Excellent article!!!

    Our managers are also forcing us back to work in my sector, unnecessarily…

    Those UWU workers (and others) who’ve walked off the job are inspiring!

  2. This pandemic has given workers a real chance to restructure the economy and they are. It has been so inspiring to see workers take back the power, standing with you all from WA.

  3. It is perverse that Covid “as a plague of the working classes” should be the necessary vehicle for action. The extent of minimal wages and casualised labour throughout our economy is shameful. Currently political rhetoric and public acceptance of mono dimensional aspirational growth dominates our discourse. It is time for change.

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