COVID, capitalism and the far-right threat: Frontline workers speak out

Maudie Osborne speaks out about what frontline workers need! Photo by Alison Thorne.
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By the end of 2021, a far right disguised as a “freedom movement” was on the rise in Australia. With Melbourne the most locked down city in the world, Victoria became the epicentre. The movement preys on people’s fears and their justifiable anger at governments’ pro-business, law-and-order measures, which have caused intolerable misery for workers and marginalised communities.

Answering a callout from the Workers Solidarity group, unionists, First Nations campaigners, leftists and feminists, including Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, came together to begin building a fightback. United in agreement that stopping the far right requires grassroots, working class solutions to the COVID crisis, the coalition held a rally on 19 March, titled Fight for Public Health and Workplace Safety, with these demands:

1. a living income for everyone – end casualisation, paid pandemic income support for everyone

2. free healthcare for everyone – free RAT tests, more nurses, fully fund hospitals, full access to PPE

3. Secure housing for everyone: massively expand public housing; stop the selloffs; moratorium on evictions

4. Right to organise:
• right to organise and strike any time
• repeal secondary boycott laws

5. Roll back police powers, drop the COVID fines

6. COVID health and safety for all workers in all industries, especially in frontline healthcare

7. A global solution to the pandemic – remove patents from COVID vaccines and provide free to all countries

Speakers came from the front lines of the COVID crisis, including those directly threatened by the far right.

Below are the speeches of retail worker, Maudie Osborne, and public health worker, Nita Okoko.

Maudie Osborne is a young retail worker and, as a member of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU), she has fought for COVID safety in her workplace. Maudie is also a member of Radical Women.

“My name is Maudie, and I stand here before you today to say that every worker is entitled to having their health protected and their safety guaranteed in the workplace.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve worked for JB Hi-Fi, a multi-million dollar company that has turned over profit tenfold over the last two years. During the initial lockdown in March 2020, the then CEO of the company declared that, as an “essential service,” JB Hi-Fi would not be closing its doors to the public. As the virus continued to rage, many of my co-workers were scared. We were scared for the health of ourselves and our families, and we were terrified of contracting the virus at work.

As soon as JB Hi-Fi announced it would remain open — with no supply of PPE, no masks, no hand sanitiser, no cleaning products in sight — we contacted our union, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, to organise a petition of demands around health and safety. We were not an essential service, and the stores had to be closed to protect the health and safety of the staff working there. Over 1,000 JB Hi-Fi workers signed the petition, and the campaign was a success. Not only did we win our demands for the anti-infection protection we needed, we drew more workers into the union. It showed us that there is strength in numbers and that we overworked, minimum wage workers have the power to take on a multi-million dollar company — whose primary concern is making a profit, not looking after the staff, who actually make their money for them.

The treatment of retail and hospitality workers throughout this pandemic has been disgusting. We have been the victims of far-right violence, just for doing our job. At one of the retail venues I work at, we had someone send us messages over Facebook, threatening arson — all because we were complying with government-required QR codes to track COVID contact. A Dymocks bookstore worker was thrown down an escalator, just a few blocks from here. Shame!

It’s bad enough that we are subjected to wage theft and abuse from our bosses. We now have to also fight off a movement that beats up and terrorises workers — allegedly in the name of a false “freedom.” Some of them are gathering down the road right now.

If there is anything this pandemic has shown us, it is the utter failure of capitalism. Our state and federal governments’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis reflect this. Judging from the increase of case numbers and the fatalities from the virus, our politicians care more about our productivity than our health. In fact, they’ve recently cut paid pandemic sick leave to casual workers, meaning that if we become sick with COVID, we have no financial support for the duration of time that we are unwell. Do they honestly want us to return to work sick, with an airborne virus that becomes seven times more infectious with each new variant?

The pandemic has also exposed the problems of a casualised workforce. Millions were left unemployed and jobless at the beginning of the pandemic, where their only source of income became the Jobkeeper and Jobseeker COVID Supplement payments. These were fundamental in keeping workers’ lives afloat when everything was so uncertain. Now, the federal government has scrapped Jobkeeper and slashed the Jobseeker rate. It is not enough money for people to survive on. Public money — workers taxes! — should be going towards things like increasing Centrelink payments, not huge subsidies to profiteers or more policing! We should demand that everyone have a liveable income — permanently!

We must keep organising hard around workplace safety, around wages, around our right to strike and for a better world beyond this pandemic. We have the power to do this! We all saw what happened when the tidal wave that was Omicron hit our shores early this year. Entire workplaces have shut down and the supply chain stretched to the point of collapse. This was because workers all got sick and could not work. It showed that this profit economy cannot function without us! Let’s use this power: Demand free access to PPE in all workplaces, pandemic sick leave on full pay, the end to casualisation, massive increases in our wages and a guaranteed liveable income. How about free early education and childcare, not for a month, but for good! Let’s demand publicly owned and run vaccine facilities and a fully funded, state-of-the-art public healthcare system — controlled by health workers!

We want a better, humane system that addresses the needs of all of us who are exploited and abused. And we need to fight for it!”

Nita Okoko is a public health worker and unionist, who migrated from Kenya. Currently working in a COVID contact centre, she is a member of the Community and Public Sector Union.

“The COVID pandemic has exposed fractures in the management of the health workforce globally.

From the beginning of the pandemic, health workers and their families have been greatly affected worldwide.

Those at the frontlines providing care have faced extreme overwork. In my country, Kenya, multiple back-to-back shifts, overtime and huge patient loads have become the norm. Indeed, this is the case in many countries, including Australia.

Health workers have also faced significant trauma, with many suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), after witnessing so much death and devastation first hand.

I personally know very many health workers who are unable to walk into a hospital anymore without feeling triggered. They are now seeking employment in other sectors, because they cannot cope with the gruelling work conditions and lack of support that they have received during the pandemic.

Healthcare workers have also been exposed to COVID infection, which has put them, along with their families, at the risk of death and debilitation. Indeed, too many health workers have already been lost to COVID.

So it’s not surprising, then, that many health workers are now leaving their jobs. They are leaving their livelihoods and passions behind. This is a last resort for many of them.

This trajectory of untenable work conditions is continuing, with healthcare workers being susceptible to multiple re-infections with COVID. Now here in Australia, healthcare workers are currently being expected to work while they are close contacts. This completely defeats the logic of controlling COVID, while devaluing the wellbeing of frontline workers and their families.

Nita at the 2020 Invasion Day March in Melbourne. <em>An FSO photo.</em>

Nita at the 2020 Invasion Day March in Melbourne. An FSO photo.

The COVID pandemic has exposed fractures in the public health systems worldwide, and certainly here, too, in Australia. Public health systems have been fragmented and underfunded for decades, and healthcare has been turned into an expensive commodity — provided by private corporations for mega-profits and accessible only to the rich.

We, the public, pay for vaccine and health research through our taxes, only to have to buy it back from corporations like pharmaceutical companies and private hospitals. Why are we paying twice for the right to health?

Efforts to remedy these gaps in light of the COVID pandemic have not gone far enough.

As public health advocates and unionists, our demands are as follows:

1. Free, full vaccination, including boosters, of the frontline health workforce must be provided globally. This includes all heathcare workers, aged care workers, disability workers and carers.

Pharmaceutical companies must stop profiteering from the vaccines, and rich countries like Australia must not hoard vaccines at the expense of low-income countries. Only one in 10 people have received a single dose of the vaccine in Africa, for example, while in other counties four doses have become routine. This vaccine hoarding will only encourage the rise of new COVID variants, which know no borders

Vaccine manufacturing companies must be publicly owned and run by the people for the people. The research that has gone into making the COVID vaccine must not be patented but rather be shared, for the sake of all workers worldwide.

2. Governments everywhere must continue COVID control measures to protect those most at risk as well as the more vulnerable. This must include paid pandemic leave for the quarantine of health workers who have been exposed to COVID.

3. We, as unionists, demand the provision of safe working conditions, including PPE and reasonable working hours with sufficient staffing and sufficient breaks, and paid leave. Job security for health workers must be guaranteed.

4. Free and comprehensive mental health support must be provided for health workers working at the coalface of the pandemic. Many workers have experienced burnout and PTSD over the course of the last two years — this is ongoing.

5. As unionists, we demand that healthcare and COVID vaccines be publicly owned and run by the workers, whose research and labour provide them. Healthcare must be publicly funded and accessible to all!

We need global solutions to solve this global problem!!”

The Freedom Socialist Party advocates a united front to combat the far right. Contact us at for a copy of the points of unity developed by PUSH: Organising and educating to build a united front against fascism.