As the latest strain of COVID-19 continues to have a severe impact on supply chains of essential items including food, the union movement has been demanding urgent Omicron risk assessments, free rapid antigen tests and N95 masks, and upgraded safety protections. They have also warned that employees will go on strike if their bosses do not meet these demands. The ACTU insists workers have the right to cease work where there is a serious risk to health and safety.
The National Employer Association responded by saying that businesses could not afford limitless tests and threats of work stoppages were not appropriate when employers were already struggling to preserve jobs.
'The rapid antigen tests are in short supply all around the world. This is not something that is unique to Australia going through it. It’s part of dealing with Omicron,' Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Sydney radio station 2GB.
Australian Industry Group Chief Executive Innes Willox said industry was being asked to do too much testing without enough tests. 'It’s like being asked to fight a battle without bullets. Until we get many millions of more tests into circulation, we need to look at reducing the testing requirements. The idea that employers should bear the costs for potentially limitless test kits is unworkable and demonstrates the lack of understanding of the pressures businesses are under,' he adds.
Adelaide University Employment Law Expert Andrew Stewart however says that it may be legal to stop work if the workplace presented an imminent risk to an employee’s health and safety and there was no alternative work that could be done. Labor Treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers shared the unions’ view that the tests should be made free. He says,'If you look at that announcement made out of the national cabinet, the whole thing is contingent on people being able to access these tests that they currently can’t find or can’t afford.'
Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano said the state government’s announcement on Sunday of the rollout of 3 million RATs to sectors such as health and aged care did nothing to ease pressures on the food supply chain. She said the industry needed “a clear procurement pathway” to know when rapid antigen tests would become available.
Monash University lecturer Shanfei Feng, who specialises in distribution channels, said she expected it would be weeks before supply chain problems were likely to be resolved. As most retailers depend on a lot of staff in Australia, Dr. Feng emphasises that rapid antigen tests were caught up in the same global supply issues leading to shortages of other products.