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Fortnightly Newsletter - Workers must not pay the cost of climate-fuelled bushfire disasters

Happy new year (such as it is). For my first newsletter for 2020, I am sharing an opinion piece I wr
Fortnightly Newsletter - Workers must not pay the cost of climate-fuelled bushfire disasters
By Alex White • Issue #22 • View online
Happy new year (such as it is).
For my first newsletter for 2020, I am sharing an opinion piece I wrote for The Canberra Times about the bushfire crisis and the toxic smoke haze.
There’s no doubt that Australia is facing a massive global-warming fuelled bushfire disaster.
For decades, industry and governments have known of the costs of runaway climate change, but instead of taking action, industry, banks, insurance companies, the property sector and the Big Business lobby decided to spend tens of millions funding climate-denying think-tanks and political parties.
The consequence is that working people and communities are now paying the price – both directly in bushfire ravaged areas, and in communities and regions impacted by toxic smoke.
This crisis – a climate crisis, a public health crisis, and a WHS crisis – was preventable.
And it underscores the scary truth that the reality of the climate emergency is far worse than we could have predicted. For the last 5 years, at UnionsACT, we have been advocating for a rapid Just Transition to a zero emissions economy – but despite the significant policy work we’ve undertake, we never contemplated the impact of months of toxic, hazardous bushfire smoke impacting communities, workplaces and the economy.
It also shows that WHS and industrial laws are not able to cope with the impacts of the climate crisis. With vast parts of the economy shut down in NSW and the ACT, working people are not only paying the price of the health impacts, but are also losing their livelihoods as businesses close their doors.
The union movement must not only continue to strongly push for a Just Transition, but we must also look at a national claim to vary Awards or the National Employment Standards – a variation that guarantees that workers continue to get paid when natural disasters cause businesses to shut down.
We need a claim for a National Just Transition Fund that will guarantee lost income for workers – which could be paid paid for by an industry levy on oligopoly workers compensation insurance companies.
And of course, we need a claim to strengthen WHS laws so that there are clear, unambigious air pollution standards, so that employers cannot get away with poisoning workers through exposure to toxic smoke.

Workers must not pay the cost of climate-fuelled bushfire disasters
The bush fire crisis exposes the failures of the Federal government and industry to prepare for the catastrophic impacts of global warming. And it also demonstrates that well-intentioned governments like the ACT Government, which last-year acknowledged the climate emergency, must do far more to protect workers and communities.
In 2015, UnionsACT proposed a comprehensive job-creating energy retrofit program for the ACT to make Canberra’s housing stock climate resilient. The program would have created over 840 secure jobs, sustained over the course of a decade, with large investments in training and apprenticeships. The energy poverty trap for tens of thousands of Canberrans would have been addressed, and the ACT Government would have saved a minimum of $12 million per year and residents at least $84 million per year from reduced energy and other costs.
But five years on, even a program like this is not enough. The public health crisis caused by the bush fire smoke is also a worker health and safety crisis. Tens of thousands of workers in Canberra (and hundreds of thousands more across the nation) have been exposed to hazardous air pollution. Many workers have reported to UnionsACT that they were bullied by employers to continue to work while exposed to the toxic smoke.
Working people need a ‘just transition’. A ‘just transition’ means that the costs of the climate emergency should be fairly shared, rather than workers and their communities paying the price and corporations paying nothing.
There must be supports made available for impacted workers whose jobs are wrecked by the economic changes of climate change – workers in declining carbon-intensive industries, and also workers whose jobs and livelihoods are destroyed by extreme weather and natural disasters.
Workplaces must be adapted to the warming climate to protect workers’ health and safety during prolonged heat and long periods of toxic air pollution.
And the corporations that have contributed the most to causing the climate emergency must fund the transition – and reconstruction – for workers and communities, so that workers have their lost income replaced and can access training and other support.
In addition to the program UnionsACT proposed in 2015, it is essential that commercial and public buildings also be retrofitted for climate resilience. Schools, childcare centres, hospitals, aged care facilities and large buildings like shopping centres and office blocks must be urgently retrofitted with air purifiers. Workplaces must have air quality monitors that are accessible to workers.
Building codes must be updated to require these and other measures, and the enormously profitable property industry must stump up their fair share to pay for the necessary retrofitting.
The ACT Government must invest more in TAFE and apprenticeships to ensure we have skilled workers trained locally, who can safely retrofit buildings and homes. Increased funding will also be needed for our hospitals and nurse walk-in centres.
The law must be strengthened to protect workers’ health, by setting specific thresholds for poor air quality and heat. Employers must recognise that providing P2 masks does not in any way discharge their current legal duty to protect their employees from the smoke.
Worksafe must prosecute those employers who callously coerced and bullied workers, especially vulnerable young workers and migrant workers, to continue working in the poisonous smoke.
And finally, the ACT Government must establish a Just Transition Fund, to replace lost income for workers impacted by disasters and air pollution emergencies. The fund could be paid by a levy on the monopoly workers compensation insurance companies.
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Alex White

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