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Aussie essential workers toil to keep Sydney going during lockdown

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By NS Desk 18-Aug-2021

Sydney, Aug 18 (IANS) There is little doubt that essential workers have kept the wheels of Australia's largest city turning over the course of its almost two-month lockdown.

But for those who stock supermarket shelves, drive buses, deliver the mail and provide care to the elderly and disabled along with a myriad of other services that hold the city together, adapting to the changing health guidelines, maintaining a steady income, and keeping their communities safe has become a constant balancing act, the Xinhua news agency reported.

Australians in casual and low-paid industries are often forced to work multiple jobs and have little access to paid sick leave and other entitlements of full-time employees.

The pandemic has only exacerbated this trend and left more workers and their communities vulnerable. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, about 32 percent of Australians held multiple jobs by March 2021, a sharp increase from 24 per cent for the same time in 2020.

David Smith, a 26-year-old man living in Sydney's western suburbs, is one of the Aussies that has had to adapt to a community under siege from the virulent Delta strain of Covid-19.

Smith had planned to live off his savings for the duration of the lockdown, but as stay-at-home orders continuously extended, he was forced to re-enter the workforce.

After a month at home, Smith took a temporary job in a designated essential industry, so now from Monday to Friday and sometimes on Saturdays, he wakes up just before sunrise to make his 7 a.m. shift at his new job in a factory that processes deliveries for Japanese clothing retail giant UNIQLO. At work, he is required to check in with a QR code, wear a mask the whole day, and take staggered lunch breaks.

Smith told Xinhua that with his partner recently losing her job he had little choice but to look for something new.

"I need to get out of the house and pretty soon we are going to need the money," he said.

Smith got his job through a recruitment agency, many of which have come in to try and meet the surging labor demand across essential industries.

He was hired to replace a score of employees who were flagged as close contacts of COVID-19 cases and required by the government to isolate at home for 14 days.

"The people have been put on a two-week leave, and because it's through an agency that the leave is unpaid... but heaps of these guys have a second job," Smith said.

Natasha Cortis, associate professor at the University of New South Wales and expert in employment and workplace issues, told Xinhua that the practice of agencies providing surge labor capacity was problematic at a time when increased movement could spread the virus.

"There are kind of these gaps in the rules that were intended to end this practice of working across sites, but those gaps haven't been filled," Cortis said.

Essential industries are having to adapt by quickly turning over staff to remain in operation and casual workers are left to either pick up the cost or move on to another job regardless of their contract status.

Cortis commented on the effectiveness of the 320-Australian-dollar (about 230 U.S. dollars) isolation payments introduced in the state of New South Wales (NSW) last Friday, which would have on incentivizing the workers to stay home.

"It's definitely better than nothing, and it's a symbolic recognition as well as a material incentive to stay home," she said.

Around 18 percent of workers with multiple jobs are in Australia's health care and social services industries; jobs with the risk of spreading the virus may be especially catastrophic.

Camille is one of the workers in Sydney's aged and disability care industry. Supporting clients in Sydney's epicenter in the city's west, she told Xinhua that although she has been vaccinated, infecting a client remained a constant worry.

"We have to limit our exposure in the public. I've stopped taking public transport to make sure when I go to our client's place, I'm not carrying the virus," she said.

Under the government's restrictions, she is required to take a Covid-19 test every 48 hours, and under her companies' advice, she has also begun using rideshare services such as Uber to get to work to avoid additional exposure on public transport.

She has been left to foot the bill both in time spent going out to get tested and additional transport costs.

Cortis said while the pandemic has put extra strain on people in essential and low-paying industries, it has also highlighted the fact that they were crucial to the functioning of the society.

"I think last year there was quite a lot of celebration and recognition of the importance of essential workers, and also how dependent we are on them, and how dependent we are on groups that have traditionally been seen as low status, low pay, or low prestige."

She said it was important to consider how the pandemic has disproportionately affected different members of society.

"The costs of the pandemic are kind of being pushed on to those low-income, essential workers," she said.

--IANS

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