- Interview by
- Sukanya Ananth
Victoria’s second coronavirus wave has revealed a stark pattern. Outbreaks have occurred in meatworks in Gelong, in Melbourne’s north and southwest, and across the state. Clusters have emerged in food and liquor warehouses servicing major retailers, among cleaners and security guards and, tragically, in residential aged-care facilities across the state. Schools and hospitals, particularly in lower-income suburbs, have also been hit.
COVID-19 has exploited existing weakness, taking hold in workplaces where precariousness, labor hire, and casual work are endemic. Where workers lack sick leave, where union power is low, or where employers rely disproportionately on hyperexploited migrant labor, the second wave has made headway. Many of these employers failed to provide workers with safe working conditions or adequate PPE (personal protective equipment). Some refused to reorganize rosters or the shop floor to minimize exposure between shifts.
These employers were already obsessed with maximizing profit and productivity — it’s little wonder their workplaces have been the main vector of transmission in Victoria’s second wave of the coronavirus. By disregarding workers’ health — and that of their families and communities — these employers have reduced labor to the status of just another objective factor of production, like equipment or raw materials. This is why COVID-19 has become a “plague of the working classes.”
In this context, at twelve different workplaces, members of the United Workers Union (UWU) have taken action. Confronted with growing numbers of confirmed cases on site, they fought for strong safety standards. One such workplace is the Spotless Laundry in Dandenong, which launders and processes linen from Melbourne’s major health care and aged-care facilities — including those with active COVID-19 outbreaks.
On Saturday, July 25, the workers at Spotless were informed of a positive case. Instead of implementing controls to stop the virus, management insisted on keeping the site open. By Wednesday, July 29, there were two additional cases and a total of three sick workers. It was at this point that the predominantly migrant workforce took matters into their own hands, ceasing work and refusing to return until all workers had been stood down with pay, so they could be tested.
The walkout lasted two days. It was a challenge to all employers who would dare to place profitability over the health of their workforce, and an act of defiance against insecure working conditions that added to the workers’ vulnerability. After two days, Spotless backed down, conceding to the workers’ demands.
Gurinder Singh and Douglas Chol (note: the names of these two union activists have been changed to protect them from harassment) are two UWU activists at Spotless who helped to lead the action. Sukanya Ananth, an official with the UWU, spoke to them about how the action was organized and how it has served to build workers’ power — power that was wielded to take greater control, strengthening safety at work.
What safety concerns did the pandemic raise for you at work?
Our workplace is very big, with approximately 200 people working there. Already, that’s a bigger risk than most people would be exposed to working from home. We are putting ourselves at risk every day, just by coming into work. Given that, the employers need to take stronger measures to keep us safe. But they didn’t — no additional measures were genuinely being taken.
Social distancing on-site was not taken seriously. If anything, the so-called safety measures that the employer put in place were designed as an opportunity to discipline us. For example, they installed cameras in our lunchroom, to monitor whether we were observing social distancing. That would let them blame us if anyone got sick.
But the second we left the lunchroom and returned to the production floor, their emphasis on distancing went out the window. Social distancing gets in the way of the need to get the work done, and to get it done quickly. And anyway, in a production environment, you can’t always maintain social distancing — it depends especially on the kind of equipment and machinery on site. Along the production line, we work with fixed machines and equipment — and I have not heard of any employers in Australia shelling out money to adapt machinery to allow workers to socially distance.
We were concerned about being required to move around the workplace, and sharing machinery and equipment. The cleaning was also concerning. Spotless didn’t hire any additional cleaners — just one cleaner was responsible for disinfecting the whole facility. It’s also the employer’s responsibility to provide cleaning equipment necessary to do the job properly. But the one cleaner was only given a dirty rag and a spray bottle.
We would see him walking around, using the same dirty cloth to wipe down all the surfaces. That image doesn’t instill a lot of confidence. It was shocking to us that there would only be one cleaner for a facility this big, and that he wasn’t even given decent equipment. If we were worried about our safety, you can only imagine how worried he must have been.
Then there was an outbreak on site. It started with just one case. But that case was discovered just as all the cases in the meatworks were coming to light. We all knew that one case could easily become ten and then twenty. And if we didn’t act, it could keep spreading.
But that’s not how our employer saw it. They shut down the site for less than six hours for a full deep clean. But that’s just not enough time to clean the whole site properly. Then, they wanted us to keep working as normal. We were expected to turn up the next day as though nothing happened, as though we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic.
That’s just irresponsible. This is a bigger problem than workers who haven’t done the right thing by staying at home if they’re not feeling well. By trying to continue business as usual, it’s the employers who have acted with the greatest irresponsibility throughout this pandemic.
The really horrible thing about the whole experience was that we weren’t given any information about the positive case. Keeping us in the dark gave management full control. They used this power to minimize the issue. They kept repeating the line that “everything is fine,” that “it’s safe to come back to work,” so we would keep producing profits for them.
They also used the DHHS [Department of Health and Human Services] as cover, saying that the authorities had declared the workplace safe. But if our employer wasn’t telling us anything, we thought there was a good chance that they weren’t telling DHHS everything either. So the DHHS advice didn’t mean anything to us.
We knew that what was going on was wrong, and that more people were going to get sick. We very quickly worked out that the risk of transmission was high. The worker who tested positive had interacted with several workers and shared equipment outside their immediate work area. From there, the web of interactions kept expanding to include more workers who were potentially exposed.
How did everyone feel about the danger of contagion and about being required to go to work the next day?
We were all really scared. Our workforce is almost entirely newly arrived migrants. If any of us gets sick, it’s a financial death sentence. We don’t have access to the same welfare support that other workers have. Many of us have partners who have lost their jobs or who have been furloughed without pay.
If we get sick at work and lose income, it will be impossible to pay our rent or even put food on the table. Our wages are very low — we’re on the minimum award [legally mandated] wage. That doesn’t really give us a lot of room to build up savings, especially when we’ve got families to feed and bills to pay.
And a lot of us live in extended family households. Many of us have elderly parents, or in-laws that we care for, who live with us. And most of us have children — mostly young children. So our employer was asking us to take a huge risk. We replied that it wasn’t acceptable for them to ask us to sacrifice the health of our children and our families.
It was just so horrible the day after the first case, when we had to go back to work. We all felt sick about it. We were messaging and calling each other, trying to find some comfort in an impossible choice between risking our families’ health or putting food on our table and keeping the lights on. But without other financial support, we didn’t really have a choice. We need money to live, so we have to work – even if it could kill us and our families.
When did you decide to take action and stop working under these conditions, which posed an immediate risk to the health and safety of yourselves and your families?
In just a couple of days, one case became two and then three. There was an outbreak in our workplace, and we knew that we couldn’t keep going as normal. We had to do something to protect ourselves and our families. And we had to fight for the people who became sick at work. It’s not right that someone can get sick at work just because our employer didn’t do the right thing.
After the second case came to light, we gathered in the parking lot before our shift to hold a union meeting. This was where we put together our demands. At the time, we insisted that everyone should be stood down with pay, so we could be tested without being financially disadvantaged while waiting to receive the results. That’s the only way to make sure that everyone gets tested. We knew everyone was already struggling to make ends meet, particularly the casual workers, who don’t even have annual leave or sick leave.
At the meeting, we found out that under common law, we have a legal right to cease work if there is a threat to our health and safety. We didn’t know that before. There are so many casual workers on site who were worried that if they refused to come to work, they may not receive more shifts. So it was reassuring to know that we all had the legal right to cease work to defend our safety — permanent or casual, it doesn’t matter. It helped to know that our employer couldn’t take action against us for it.
That was such a relief to know. People were coming into work who really didn’t want to. Although they were scared, they were still coming in, because they were worried that they would be fired or wouldn’t be given more shifts. Just knowing that we have the right to take action to protect ourselves was a really powerful thing. We decided together that if Spotless didn’t stand us all down with pay to get tested, we would cease work.
What happened on the day you ceased work? And how did it feel?
We asked Spotless if they would agree to stand everyone down with pay to get tested. They flat-out refused. They kept bringing out the excuse that because the DHSS didn’t order it, they didn’t have to.
But we knew that the time for asking was over — Spotless was playing with our lives. Why didn’t they take measures to protect us? “Because they didn’t have to.” So we had to make them.
We had no choice, we were not going to risk the safety of our families anymore. Because the actions of Spotless could hurt more people than just us, we all agreed that we felt a moral obligation to make Spotless do the right thing. Some of us have husbands who work at big factories in Dandenong as well. If we got sick and took it home to our partners, they might go to work the next day, possibly infecting hundreds of other people. That’s just not right. We weren’t going to let Spotless put hundreds of people in our community at risk.
So the day after the union meeting in the parking lot, we all got together for another meeting outside work, before our shift. We agreed that we would not go in for our shift. A lot of the workers were scared. They day before, Spotless had told people that if anyone refused to come in to work, they would be disciplined and fired. And in this climate, losing our jobs could mean that we lose everything. But we stood together and we stayed strong. It was the right thing to do. We made each other brave.
The casual workers who joined the action were the bravest — they were even more vulnerable than us full-time, permanent workers. Before, we saw casual workers lose shifts for really small things. Often, if they stood up for themselves, or sometimes just because a manager didn’t like them, casual workers weren’t given shifts. Or they were put on call, which means you have to call every single day, to ask if there is any work. Or sometimes, casual workers were only given a few hours a day, forcing them to drive all the way out to work and back for just four hours of work. When the employer has all the power, they can use it to punish workers. It’s a bad situation.
That’s why we think the casual workers were the bravest. Even though they were really scared, they stood with us, and we stood with them. We were all fighting for the same thing, and it was powerful to feel that solidarity. Once the casual workers walked out, we all knew that we had to stay strong for them, too — if they were going to put everything on the line to do the right thing, we had to as well.
As soon as our managers realized that we were not going to come to work, they all came out and started telling us that we had to go back in or we could be fired. They told us that if we came back in, they would give us more information about the cases. But we weren’t interested. We knew that if we went in, we would lose. We were refusing to go in because the workplace was unsafe. Why would we go into an unsafe place?
The managers were also going up to people individually to tell them to go back inside. That can be pretty scary. We were all standing in a socially distanced way. It’s intimidating to have a manager come up to you, individually, stand next to you, and tell you to go in. But we kept refusing. When they realized that they couldn’t make us come back in, they gave up and changed tactics.
There were some workers who weren’t in the union, who had gone inside to work. When they saw us refuse to go in, they wanted to leave as well. They sent us text messages telling us that they were going to leave. They have families, too, you know. But just as they were about to leave, the managers told them that they would be fired if they left. They threatened to indefinitely lock out anyone who refused to go in. When you hear these things from your manager, it can be really scary. But we were taking action to take control of the situation. That’s why they threatened to lock us out — so they could be in control. To show that they have power over us.
Then we found out that Spotless were handing out $50 vouchers to everyone who stayed inside and continued to work. We were so angry and so insulted. Spotless was basically saying to them — and to us — that our families are worth $50 . That’s the price they put on our lives. That’s just wrong, plain and simple.
We told them they were risking our health and safety by requiring us to continue work without getting tested. And there they were, handing out vouchers for working during a pandemic, even when there’s an immediate risk. How is that a responsible thing to do? You know why they felt comfortable doing that? Because it’s only our lives on the line. To them, we don’t matter. Most of our managers are working from home now. So they don’t care.
Although that was really insulting and difficult to hear, we were all feeling great when we left to go home. It was such a powerful moment when we showed our employer that they couldn’t keep pushing us around. We showed them that we would stand up for ourselves and for each other. That collective power really makes you feel good.
How did the employer respond? Did they agree to meet your demands when they realized that you were going to stand together and stay strong?
They took the United Workers Union to the Fair Work Commission. They argued that the union had organized illegal industrial action and that we had participated in it. But we weren’t worried. We knew that in the end, we would win, because we were in the right. We were doing the right thing. We were fighting for each other, for our families and our communities. What was the employer fighting for? To make a bit more money off our backs.
When you fight for something bigger than yourself, you always win. We knew that. Even when it doesn’t look like we’re winning, we still are. The first morning we took action, when Spotless told us they wouldn’t agree to our demands and that they would lock us out, we already felt like we had won, because we did something. We showed them that they can’t treat us like we’re nothing, like we’re not people or like we don’t matter. We do matter. Our families matter.
You know, a lot of us came to Australia to make a better life for our families. A lot of us fled oppressive regimes or religious persecution back home. It’s all about our family for us. When they started putting them at risk — that’s when they went too far. We had to show them that wouldn’t take it lying down.
Because what comes after that? We already make very little money. Our working conditions are very difficult. We have to meet very high production targets. How much more can they take from us? So, in our minds, when we took a stand and said “no more,” we had already won.
But in the end, we also won our demands. There was a lot of public pressure against Spotless. The day after we took action, a lot more workers took leave or said they couldn’t come in. Spotless knew this wasn’t going to be a one-day thing. It was like the floodgates had been opened — once we did it, more and more people started doing it, too.
We also asked for DHHS to come into our workplace, to see the conditions we saw every day at work. We knew that if DHHS came in, they wouldn’t keep saying that everything was fine, like they first did. The day after we took action, a DHHS inspector came to inspect our workplace. They said that the site had to be shut down for fourteen days, so we could all get tested. We felt very vindicated — it was good to have the health department agree with our concerns.
But our fight didn’t end there. It’s all well and good for an inspector to shut the site down. But he didn’t care about how we were going to put food on the table for those fourteen days while we were away from work, self-isolating.
It was going to be especially bad for the casual workers who had no leave. Those of us who could access sick leave or annual leave were at least able to use that, in order to be paid. But the casual workers had nothing. So we kept fighting — we all signed a petition, as did many more people in the community.
That public pressure got to Spotless. In the end, we were paid for the day we took the action. And Spotless agreed to pay any worker who couldn’t access government support payments for whatever reason.
Have things in the workplace been different since you took action and won?
When we went back to work after receiving our test results, everything was different. That first day we returned to work, everyone was in such a good mood. People were smiling and laughing and happy to go to work — because we knew we had won. Spotless had been forced make all the changes we demanded.
It was like walking into a completely different workplace. The workstations and equipment looked shiny and brand new; they were taking their obligation to clean and disinfect the place a lot more seriously. Everything was just so clean. They had also installed many more hand-sanitizer stations and made masks and other PPE more readily available to us.
Most important, they took on board our recommendations, and they put measures in place on the floor to minimize our exposure to other workers outside our immediate work areas. We feel a lot safer going into work now.
None of this would have happened if we hadn’t taken action. We had been asking for safety measures for nearly five months — since the start of the pandemic. For five months, nothing happened. Once we took action, in less two weeks, we had won everything we were asking for.
The power dynamic at work has changed, too. Now our managers know that they have to listen to our concerns and take us seriously. They now know what the consequences will be if they don’t. We are the workers who keep the business going. We are powerful because we have each other, and we are fighting for something important.
We have always known this; we always support each other at work, even with little issues. But this action made that real — you know, now if someone asks us about what collective action is and why the union is important, we can remind them about this. We won’t have to say anything more than “we stood together and we got everything we wanted.”
The union has also grown since we took action. Many more have joined, even people who refused before. Because we fought and won, everyone is so proud to be in the union now.
For those who were scared, it was really powerful to see all of us who took action come back to work. Now they know that they can also stand up for themselves. Because we’re all doing this together, nothing will happen to them.
Before this action, I think a lot of people at work felt disposable. They were worried that if they said something against management or caused trouble by asking for their entitlements, they would be gone the next day, replaced by someone else. Especially in this economy, with so much unemployment, it makes a lot of workers scared of losing their job.
But there’s no reason to be scared. We are doing important work. We clean a lot of linen for health care and aged-care facilities. That work needs to be done, and they can’t get rid of all of us. So as long as we are united and we all collectively stand up for ourselves, they can’t treat us like we’re disposable.