The head of the powerful Health Services Union (HSU) has trashed a union-led push to enshrine the right to work from home in enterprise agreements, saying it would damage the mental health of Australians and the economy, and discourage vaccination efforts.
HSU national president Gerard Hayes sided with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s stance that working from home was a decision for employers.
Hayes said the best health measure would be pushing for full vaccination to stop the seriously ill overwhelming the health system “as opposed to just focusing on what some employers are saying is, let’s all just go home”.
“We’ve embarked on this path, and we should be able to walk and chew gum,” he said.
Hayes noted that aged care workers were required to be fully vaccinated, but visitors weren’t. He argued that measures which encouraged withdrawing from the community would risk reducing compliance with health guidelines, as well as creating a fear of going outside.
“It may prevent the spread of COVID, it may go someway to prevent the spread of flu, but it may well go to spread more mental health issues,” he said.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported that the Finance Sector Union and National Tertiary Education Union were negotiating working from home rights on behalf of tens of thousands of workers inspired national debate on Friday, in which the head of the union movement, Sally McManus, foreshadowed it would inspire long-term change.
McManus, the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said employees should be able to work from home even after the latest COVID-19 wave subsided, to boost productivity and reduce stress and living expenses, such as petrol.
“For some jobs, there’s just no reason why everyone has to be together. Where it can be done, why shouldn’t it be?” McManus told ABC radio on Friday morning.
She said it had been a sticking point between businesses and workers during enterprise negotiations, adding: “There’s going to be change, and it’s mainly driven by workers.”
But the HSU chief said that workplace agreements could encourage staff to stay home indefinitely in “lockdown” mode.
Hayes said that while it was important that people undertook practices which relieved pressure on hospitals, it was more important that hospitals and aged care homes were properly resourced.
“My fear is getting to a point where people go back to working from home that the contributions to the community starts to dry up, and we start to drift back to 2021 when we were locked down,” he said.
“Just getting to work, whether it’s a train driver who’s got a job, a barista who’s got a job … just people moving through the community and the flow-on effects for others in the community, if we’re living with the virus, we’ve got to be able to ensure that.”
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said it was a sign that Labor was in power that unions were trying to “insert themselves into every public discussion”.
“But the employers are the ones paying the wages and if they don’t believe that it is possible within their business for that person to work from home, that’s the decision that should be made,” he told Nine’s Today program.
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar described the push as a “complete over-reach” and could kill off CBDs. “I think they’re picking up the ball and running into the grandstands,” McKellar said.
Australian Industry Group head Innes Willox said employers “would be wise” not to lock themselves into working from home arrangements.
He said the union bargaining claims would test the co-operative approach employers had taken to working from home during the pandemic.
The prime minister said earlier in the week it was up to businesses to make decisions about working from home, with Telstra and Westpac advising staff to work remotely, a position backed by Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly.