Metro Train’s attempted coronavirus cover up backfires


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Bosses at Flinders Street Station attempted to cover up news of a sub-contracted cleaner testing positive for coronavirus last week. Workers are angry that they weren’t told immediately that the cleaner attended Melbourne’s main station while potentially infectious.

Many workers only became aware of this information on Tuesday evening after union members notified their officials. Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) officials then wrote a letter to Metro Trains management which they shared with members.

In a defensive email to staff, Metro Chief Operating Officer Catherine Baxter tried to downplay workers’ legitimate fears about workplace safety by portraying the matter as an invasion of the worker’s privacy.

Baxter also made a misleading claim that the cleaner did not perform any ‘work’ on the premises and that “there is no risk to our people”. This conflicted with an email from a rostering coordinator employed by cleaning contractor ISS which confirmed the person spent at least 30 minutes at Flinders Street Station.

This arrogant and reckless concealment of information could potentially impact the safety of thousands of railway workers and daily passengers at Melbourne’s busiest train station. Many workers’ are rightly angry and understandably have heightened fears of being exposed to the deadly virus.

Whistle blowers gave information to the media about the case which led to news coverage and put pressure on management. A few days after the first cover-up attempt, a second worker at Flinders Street Station, a Metro employee, tested positive.

Managers this time admitted at least thirteen other staff were close contacts requiring self-isolation and testing. But reports from workers indicate that several more people were also sent home to isolate after the initial thirteen.

Essential workers have for months witnessed private companies like Metro feign concern and display signs urging social distancing without really implementing it. While public transport has seen lower patronage, away from public view workers are crammed into close quarters for meals and office work.

Fearing a further loss to their already low revenue the bosses’ main objective is to keep workers running the system and ordinary people paying fares to commute. They put profit over health.

One of the major problems is the huge numbers of casual and precarious workers with no sick pay who may turn up to work with minor symptoms desperately trying to avoid poverty.

Labor Premier Daniel Andrews announced a $1500 payment for workers required to self-isolate who do not have sick pay. These partial measures will be welcomed but government provision of sick pay means less pressure on employers to provide safe, quality working conditions.

Ultimately workers pay for these measures because we pay disproportionate tax. Government grants won’t solve the problem of individual casual workers having future shifts withdrawn for reporting sick, something casual workers know well.

This situation highlights the need for workers to organise against subcontracting and for high quality permanent jobs with holiday and sick leave to match. All cleaners should be directly permanently employed by Metro immediately. RTBU members should help fight for this alongside their essential colleagues.

Given the dishonest approach of Metro and so many employers, no wonder that workers don’t trust Metro’s claims of “robust” safety measures on the railway network. The response to this outbreak from RTBU officials needs to go much further than it has.

Many workers are being prompted to think about safety at work. It can only really be looked after by taking matters into our own hands.

Intuitively many workers have boosted vigilance around physical distancing, hygiene and protective equipment, all of which employers often make very difficult.

Metro staff have informed The Socialist that management keeps face masks under lock and key, creating intimidating barriers for workers seeking this basic level of protection.

Rather than wait for action from above – from union officials tied to the Labor Party, from the government or from the bosses – the real way forward is for workers to discuss and agree on immediate concrete measures we can take together to protect ourselves during shifts.

Stop-work meetings should be urgently convened on health and safety grounds for workers to discuss such measures. This is the socially responsible course of action for any credible report of a positive corona-virus test linked to the workplace.

Measures that can be discussed and demanded would include immediate shut down and deep cleaning of any exposed areas and fully paid up-front pandemic leave for those required to self isolate. On-site testing during paid working time for all concerned workers and provision of free and mandatory masks for commuters, like in Canada, could be discussed too.

In the absence of regular formal union meetings discussion can also take place informally via social media, group chats and in person. This can assist in rebuilding a culture of democratic rank and file decision making and action.

We need to go beyond the approach of many of today’s union leaders. Writing letters and seeking closed-door negotiations between officials, management and government ministers with little to no worker involvement won’t achieve the measures we need. With a deadly virus that risks getting out of control, these methods are dangerous and put public safety at risk.

By a Railway Worker

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