In late June the second wave of coronavirus infections spread through Melbourne, peaking at the end of July. At the time of writing, the vast majority of Australia’s 20,000 confirmed infections and 897 deaths are from Victoria’s second wave. Most deaths have been from infections caught in aged care, where there have been large clusters of cases, but the youngest victim was a man in his 20s.
The second wave began at the Rydges Hotel on Swanston St. It then spread to staff members and security guards involved in the hotel quarantine program. The reason for the spread has been blamed on the poor management of hotel quarantine.
The Andrews government gave contracts to three private security contractors, MSS, Wilson and Unified Security, to staff the hotel quarantine program. Unified Security was involved at the Rydges Hotel, and they paid five subcontractors to handle the workload.
United Workers Union organiser Kazim Shah has said, “Some guards are saying they had no training. Some were saying they had three minutes’ training.” Facemasks were missing or worn incorrectly, guards initially worked shifts at multiple locations – increasing the risk of spreading any infection, there were insufficient medical waste bins, and there was a lack of oversight from trained medical professionals in handling the risk.
The private security industry is notoriously badly regulated and known for poor working conditons. Private operators sacrifice training, safety, wages and conditions for the sake of profit. While bigger companies have to pay legal wages including penalties, subcontractors often underpay migrant workers.
In June 2018, the Fair Work Ombudsman looked into 23 local councils and their arrangements with private security companies, and found that 14 of them were not compliant with workplace legislation. Fair Work reported that some businesses bidding for local government tenders were asking a lower price than would be required to properly pay their employees. Councils would still award contracts to these bidders. Instead of hiring people directly, all levels of government routinely outsource to the cheapest bidder.
All levels of government are to blame for the state of the private security industry, which the Andrews government has now leaned on to run the hotel quarantine program.
The scheme is run for profit, and this is the reason behind the poor conditions, poor training, lack of equipment and lack of medical oversight. Fixing these issues would cut into the profits of private security. Hundreds of people have now died as a result.
Hotel and security staff contracted Covid-19 at work and then took it home, spreading it to their family members and other contacts. The second wave of coronavirus took hold throughout the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne – home to large working class migrant communities.
These communities were exposed first because they are forced into work with poor conditions, such as that provided by dodgy security contractors. The virus then spread further, notably to aged care homes, another industry known for terrible working conditions and insecurity.
The insecurity of work is as much to blame as poor workplace standards. Casual workers often can’t afford to take sick days, or to quarantine themselves when they have symptoms that they know may or may not be Covid-19. The Andrews government offers to pay casual workers to self-quarantine, but this doesn’t account for the fact that workers know their boss might stop giving shifts to them if they take time off sick.
Any lockdown is always going to be inadequate unless people are properly paid and secure in their positions. The insecurity of work has been fought back by the union movement in the past, but this insecurity is crucial to capitalism, and will always return.
We are told that work is a matter of free choice, and insecure work is sold as being ‘flexible’ for workers. But even though we might not be slaves to a single boss, the fact is that our working lives are the property of the whole capitalist class. Capitalism is a system in which we are not fully free, but have to submit to exploitation to survive. We work to produce profits for bosses, who are less concerned with public health than they are with having flexible exploited labour.
This is not a system that can properly fight a pandemic, or any other catastrophe that requires a society capable of pulling together. The system itself needs to go, and be replaced with a democratic socialist society run by workers instead of bosses.