Communication is indeed vital for the safe return to work. However, the prevalence of precarious employment (insecure jobs on casual and fixed-term contracts or labour hire agencies) undermines the prospects for a safe workplace. We have already seen the double standards in many companies where casual workers do not receive the same Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and entitlements as regular workers. It is also common in certain industries for contract workers to be required to provide their own PPE or for the cost of PPE to be deducted from their wages. Workers on zero hour contracts or casual workers on standby (“no work, no pay”) must work whenever possible, regardless of being sick. Not reporting due to illness means no wages at all. It also risks never be being called to work again. This creates a powerful compulsion to hide being sick. More important is the climate of fear.
The ease of being fired through the non-renewal of short-term contracts (or simply not being called back to work), combined with low wages, means that workers in insecure jobs are too afraid to to speak out. The extensive outsourcing of room cleaning in hotels, for example, means we have an entire workforce of housekeepers on low wages and insecure jobs who face a high risk of exposure to COVID-19, but who face an even greater risk of unemployment if they speak out. Insecure jobs not only undermine livelihoods. Insecure jobs undermine the confidence needed to communicate – to speak out.
Yet insecure jobs are widespread in cleaning and housekeeping, as well as in essential roles in the food supply chain from harvesting fruit and vegetables to cooking and serving in canteens and restaurants, and in food processing, food logistics and food delivery. As vulnerable frontline workers in the COVID-19 era, the ability of these workers to contribute to and be part of a safe workplace depends on one essential condition: secure jobs.