For so many working Australians, the lives they knew and the plans they had vanished when the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon us and our economy all but ground to a halt.
The widespread loss of jobs and income as the economy took a battering from the necessary public health measures that shut down the country remain almost inconceivable in size and scale.
This health emergency has brought with it an economic avalanche that had the power to sweep away everything Australian workers have fought so hard for over generations: Decent jobs. Secure jobs. Work that delivers security to families and communities and the promise of a bright future to the next generation. Pay and conditions for workers that reflect their value in the economy and as people.
But the pandemic hasn’t been allowed to deliver that knockout blow.
Australia’s strong public health institutions, and the power and bravery of all our essential workers across the economy got us through the initial phase of the crisis. Through their vital work, working people will now take on the responsibility of the recovery.
As we contemplate the enormous challenge of rebuilding Australia’s economy, it’s become clear that there is no going back to business as usual.
Like it or not, this is a very different Australia than the one we knew before the pandemic. Scott Morrison acknowledged as much in his address to the National Press Club on Tuesday. By withdrawing the ill-conceived Ensuring Integrity Bill and retreating from the ideological obsession with union-bashing, the Prime Minister has at last recognised what millions of Australian workers already know — unions are a vital part of a civil society.
That proposed law represented the worst of the politics of the past. That is why it was defeated in the parliament last year. We are pleased that the government has understood this.
Working people and their unions want to be part of building a better, stronger economy, one that puts a premium on valuing workers with a commitment to fairness, job security and work safety.
By having workers at the table as part of Morrison’s working groups on economic rebuilding, we will ensure the government hears the voice of ordinary Australians and what they want from an economic system that has too often failed them.
That’s why we have accepted the invitation to participate in the government’s working group roundtable process.
The first challenge we face is ensuring that we don’t lose focus on avoiding a second wave of infections. After all the sacrifices working people have made in flattening the curve of infection, it would be heartbreaking to see that swept away because we dropped our guard.
Providing paid pandemic leave that would allow any worker presenting with symptoms to take time to get tested without losing pay is a vital measure in avoiding an infection rate setback.
The pandemic has also laid bare the ugly truth about Australia’s reliance on insecure work to power its economy. It’s time to end our dependence on “trapdoor economics”, which has left millions of workers just a crisis away from falling through the trap and into economic distress.
With more than 32 per cent of the workforce in casual or insecure work, including gig economy workers, sole traders and labour hire employees, when the bottom fell out of the economy as the pandemic hit, these workers bit the dust first and hardest.
Women have been seriously impacted by the economic dislocation, as have so many younger Australians, who have had to resort to using their superannuation at this time.
Who will ever forget the images of tens of thousands of workers queuing up outside Centrelink offices across the country as they realised there was no work and they had no entitlements to draw upon — no sick pay, annual leave or family leave.
Here was the trapdoor opening and working Australia falling through it. This can never be allowed to happen again.
Economic and financial insecurity are corrosive elements within families and communities.
We can only secure a better, stronger Australia if working people have permanent, well-paid work and the entitlements that come with it.
Unions will enter these discussions with a clear understanding of what we are looking for in any changes to our industrial relations system.
Will it give people better job security? Will it lead to working Australians receiving their fair share of the country’s wealth?
Will it be forward-looking and allow for the growth of the jobs and industries of the future and ensure that those opportunities are built upon the foundation of fairness and prosperity for all?
As a country, we have been through a torrid few months, and so far we have risen to the challenge.
The truth is, we are not at the end of the beginning of our journey through the crisis.
It will test us all again in ways we likely can’t imagine.
As unionists and workers, we have always believed in the power of the collective to achieve what we alone could not.
That is why now, more than ever, unions matter.
Sally McManus is the secretary of the ACTU