Union accuses NSW government of confusing ‘essential work’ definition

By Melissa Coade

Friday July 16, 2021

The SDA NSW union, covering retail, fast food and warehouses, says it's up to the state health department to state clearly who ‘essential workers' are.
The SDA NSW union, covering retail, fast food and warehouses, says it’s up to the state health department to state clearly who ‘essential workers’ are. (Goodpics/Adobe)

It is not good enough for the state government to leave it up to retail workers to decide what is or is not essential trade during Sydney’s COVID-19 lockdown, SDA NSW has argued.

Bernie Smith, the secretary for the SDA NSW union covering retail, fast food and warehouse works, said it was up to the state health department to state clearly who should be classified as an ‘essential worker’.

“Retail workers don’t get to choose. If they’re asked to come to work – they have to,” Smith said. 

“The NSW government can’t put the responsibility of managing the pandemic response onto retail workers. It isn’t up to workers to define what they mean by essential and non-essential retail.”

NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian and health minister Brad Hazzard have resisted questions from reporters at their daily COVID-19 press conferences this week about issuing a clearer definition of ‘essential worker’. 

This follows new public health directions issued on Tuesday that all essential employees in the COVID-19 hotspot of Fairfield would be subject to testing every three days if they wanted to move about the area for work. 

The government simultaneously announced that weekly testing was mandatory for essential workers from Greater Sydney who were travelling into regional NSW for work. 

While the NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant has offered some solid examples of essential workers – all in the health and caring professions – such as nurses and aged care workers, the premier refused to take on the challenging task of offering a definition throughout the week. 

“We’ve seen that when you try and get so technical, there are always going to be exceptions.  People will always think they can cut corners and that’s what we’re asking people not to do,” Berejiklian said. 

“Rather than looking for loopholes, we say to everybody stay at home unless you absolutely have to leave for work or essential shopping.” 

“Exercise good common sense, exercise good judgement, exercise extra caution, and be kind and thoughtful to your fellow citizens,” she said.

Recent modelling from Sydney University has also suggested that government offering a clearer definition of essential work can help to boost social distancing requirements that will see the state exit lockdown conditions sooner.

SDA NSW says the government’s position is leaving workers and business owners in the dark during a very stressful time. 

“It is up to the premier to make it clear,” Smith said. 

Berejiklian has argued that providing a clearer definition would give people loopholes to exploit but then at the weekend announced a list of ‘authorised workers’ permitted to move about and a list of ‘critical retail’ shops that were allowed to stay open. This ruled out clothing, electrical and furniture stores, which were ordered to close except for click and collect or online ordering services.

Construction work was also ordered to stop ‘unless necessary to deal with environmental risks, secure or maintain critical equipment, maintain public utilities, or maintain the safe operation of transport infrastructure’. 

Health messaging also became more clear about the need for employers to permit their staff to stay home if their work did not fall into these categories.

What was compounding the stress for employers and employees across the state was that if a worker elected to stay at home, whether the government guaranteed they would receive a COVID disaster payment, Smith added. 

While the union welcomed Wednesday’s announcement that disaster payments  would be increased for eligible workers who had lost hours, the package offered less than the $750 JobKeeper payment that was instituted in 2020 to support those who had been stood down as a result of the pandemic. 

The vaccination of essential frontline retail workers also remains an outstanding issue for Smith, who says he has written to Hazzard four times since December 2020 calling for priority access. He said the fact his letters were being ignored by the state’s leaders was ‘disgraceful and unconscionable’.

“Retail workers have done an incredible job on the frontline of the pandemic, working day in and day out to keep up an essential service, and they need to be protected from the real threat of COVID-19 exposure,” Smith said. 

“Our calls for priority access to vaccines are being ignored and it’s a national disgrace.

“Shop workers are tired of being called essential by politicians when it suits them but ignored when it comes to actual recognition like vaccine priority,” he added. 

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