Premier Daniel Andrews believes Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks are linked to a workforce that is becoming more casualised or what he calls “the structural weakness in our economy … insecure work”.
So why would the Premier say this and more importantly if it is true what can governments and employers do to mitigate this risk going forward?
To answer these questions we need to look at what took place within the three industry sectors hardest hit by Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks i.e. meat processing, aged-care and private security.
And examine what regulatory changes are likely to take place within these and other industry sectors hardest hit by COVID-19 post the pandemic.
At the time of writing this article, Victoria’s meat-processing industry accounted for 594 or 4 per cent of Victoria’s 16,764 total diagnosed COVID-19 cases.
Like many other countries, Australia’s meat-processing industry has become very casualised over the last 30 years with many of its workers now indirectly employed through labour-hire companies. But Australia is not alone.
In the US its meat-processing industry recorded over 16,000 cases of COVID-19 between April’20 and May’20, almost twice the national infection rate; with other major outbreaks in Europe and Latin America.
A recent ABC report points the finger at these outbreaks at the industry’s high rate of casualisation and low wages, which “explains why many workers still showed up for shifts even if they had symptoms”.
Victoria’s aged-care homes have been hardest hit by its second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks with 1,682 cases and 282 deaths recorded at the time of writing this article.
In an effort to reduce the virus’s rate-of-infection the Victorian government has introduced a ban on aged-care workers moving between facilities and implemented a COVID-19 sick-leave payment.
A few weeks later the Federal government announced the introduction of support payments to help providers “restrict aged-care workers to one centre and to reduce the risk of COVID-19 being transferred”. Link
In 2016, an Australian government census of residential aged care facilities showed 10 per cent of the industry’s direct workforce was employed on a contract or casual basis.
Even more concerning is the link between the Victorian government’s failure to enforce its strict quarantining rules on returning overseas travellers and the State’s second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks. Link
Although the cause of these failures is currently the subject of a judicial inquiry early reports indicate that the private security guards hired to enforce these rules were given minimum infection training by their employers and the government.
The Victorian government recently released an issue-paper into the State’s highly casualised private-security sector which details “an industry characterised by poor hiring and training practices, relatively low-pay, and contentious subcontracting policies”.
The evidence supports a clear link between Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks and industries with high levels of workplace casualisation.
This premise is further supported by other highly casualised industries that have experienced COVID-19 clusters in the past 5 months including hospitals, health-care centres, call-centres, cleaning contractors, distribution centres; just to name a few.
This connection shouldn’t come as a surprise to governments and employers as the health and safety risks associated with highly casualised workforces have long been known, including;
- Poor occupational health and safety standards and training
- Suboptimal tools and equipment
- Poor lines of communication between management and workers
- Unwillingness of workers to report OH&S problems and breaches
- Creation of a two-tiered workforce i.e. haves and have-not’s
It is now clear that many of these factors contributed to Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks.
As Victoria starts to recover from its second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks and the government starts to examine what can be done to prevent and control future pandemics it is important that workers don’t get blamed.
In Australia, workplace law makes it very clear that “the contracting, organisation and management of safe work is the responsibility of those doing the contracting, organising and management”, not the workers.
With this in mind, it is highly likely the Victorian government, as will other governments, move to introduce new legislation that will make it compulsory for large employers to implement pandemic plans.
In the aftermath of COVID-19 any new legislation requiring employers to implement pandemic plans is almost definitely going to require them to details on how their contractors and casual workers are;
- Actively involved in preventing and controlling the spread of viral outbreaks in the event of a future pandemic
- Supplied with appropriate tools, PPE and training to carry out their prevention and control responsibilities
- Able to report pandemic prevention and control breaches to top-management
- Compensated for lost-wages in the event of infection or the closure of their workplace
As part of any new legislation, employers will also be required to undergo regular audits to determine whether their pandemic plans comply with regulations and whether have been correctly implemented.
Despite the long-term health benefits of any future pandemic legislation, the cost of implementation and management is likely to come at a time when governments and employers can least afford it.
Accordingly, there is a real risk any legislation could be watered-down to the point where it is no longer effective and is therefore confined to a dusty shelf awaiting the next 100-year pandemic.
This is where regulation technology could help.
The role of Regtech
Regulation technology or RegTech for short represents a new suite of technology solutions that leverage recent advances in cloud-based information technology to reduce regulatory costs and improve compliance oversight.
RegTech has the potential to significantly reduce the time and effort needed to implement and operate any new pandemic legislation by;
- Ensuring organisation policies, plans and procedures align with specified regulatory requirements
- Recording evidence of worker recruitment, onboarding and training; including contractors and casual-workers
- Analysing and reporting employee compliance with specified work procedures and instructions
- Analysing and reporting safety incidents, near-misses and customer complaints
- Helping identify and correct non-compliances before they can result in a major risk event
- Providing government regulators better insight into an organisation’s compliance performance at less cost
A recent survey conducted by Deloitte found that improvements in the combination of compliance management processes and IT systems not only optimise effectiveness but also reduce costs by up to 15%.
As the Victorian government begin to recover from its second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks and starts to examine what went wrong the compliance risks associated with its increasingly casualised workforce cannot be ignored.
New legislation requiring large employers to implement pandemic plans is one possible outcome, but the high costs of implementation and management could limit its effectiveness and long-term benefits.
RegTech’s ability to lower regulatory costs could hold the answer but until now governments and employers have been slow to embrace the new technology.
Hopefully this will change before we experience our next pandemic, which is sure to come.