Recent comments by Victorian Premier Andrews, suggest that the current COVID-19 outbreaks have emanated from community transmissions, insecure work and 9 in 10 people not isolating when they felt sick.1

The Victorian State Government has announced a Worker Support package for workers to stay at home, if they are required to stay at home while waiting for results or have been instructed to work from home while they are being diagnosed or have been in contact with someone who has been positively diagnosed for COVID-19. Clearly what’s driving this policy initiative is a concern that casual workers or many workers in general, feel forced or compelled to go to work to meet their financial and personal commitments rather than having a choice to forgo shifts for a short period of time.

This highlights a few flaws in our current industrial landscape including –

  1. The widespread use of casuals or contract work in industries as the rule rather than the exception;
  2. The vulnerability of many other non-permanent employees in employment even during a health pandemic including short term, fixed term and lower paid employees;
  3. The over exaggeration of benefits for casuals and fixed term employees such as flexibility and wage loadings.

Recent Federal Court decisions have recognized that casuals by name only, with an ongoing and firm advance of ongoing employment, are in certain circumstances, entitled to annual leave.2 However, is it time for Federal leaders to look at the broader issue of a vulnerable and insecure workforce?

There have been recent reports that outbreaks have been caused within the aged care setting by casual health workers attending work and by meat processing workers.

However, casualization does not only exist in health care and meat processing industries.

The State Government has faced some criticism about its quarantine procedures during the first outbreak in March/ April 2020. We know this issue will be considered by a judicial enquiry.3

However, it may well be that the real issue is not any lack of procedures the State Government failed to implement but the casualization and insecure work of the security industry and the broader workforce. There have been reports that security contractors engaged or sub-contracted work to third parties to carry out the quarantine.4 If this did in fact occur, this very much exposes the extent of job insecurity for many staff in this industry.

We recently investigated an employment relationship where an employee with a non-English background was dismissed from their employment by one employer only for the employer to argue that they were in fact employed for most of their engagement by another company – with whom he had no previous contact. Our case may be only one example, however, it is likely these arrangements are widespread.

If we need to scrutinize the State Government’s actions relating to the quarantine of persons in our hotel system as part of its response to the pandemic, perhaps a Federal Government enquiry could also simultaneously,  review the extent of the engagement of casual workers and fixed term employment or contract engagements in our workforce to assess any  impact such engagements have hampered genuine efforts to contain a pandemic.

[1] Premier of Victoria Press Conference regarding Coronavirus update on 22 July 2020

[2]  Workpac Pty Ltd v Rossato [2020] FCAFC 84 & Workpac Pty Ltd v Skene [2018] FCAFC 31

[3] Judicial Inquiry into Hotel Quarantine Program announced by the Premier of Victoria on 2 July 2020

[4] The Age, Peter Sakkal and Clay Lucas dated 4 July 2020