Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Labour Market Implications of Australia’s Failed COVID Strategy

by Jim Stanford

As COVID and recession gripped the world, through 2020 and most of 2021 Australia recorded one of the best outcomes: lower infection, fewer deaths, and a faster, stronger economic recovery. That seeming victory has been squandered, however by the appalling and infuriating events of recent weeks. Purportedly in the name of ‘protecting the economy’, key political leaders (led by the Commonwealth and NSW governments) threw the doors open to the virus at exactly the wrong time: just as the super-infectious Omicron variant was taking hold.

The resulting surge in infections has been among the worst in the industrialised world (worse than the U.S. now, as shown in the following graph from Our World in Data). The implications of this massive outbreak for work, workers, production, and the economy have been as predictable as they are devastating. One-third or more of workers in the most-affected regions cannot attend work: because they contracted COVID, were exposed to it, or must care for others (like children barred from child care and soon, possibly, schools).

Our Centre for Future Work team has been active in highlighting the risks of ‘letting it rip’, analysing the failures of isolation and income support programs, and reminding everyone that keeping workers healthy must be the first priority in keeping the economy healthy. Here is a selection of our recent interventions:

New COVID Cases per Million (7-day rolling)

  • Our Director Jim Stanford reminded policy-makers in this commentary in The Conversation that human labour is the critical input to production at all stages of value-added and supply chains, and if policy-makers acknowledged the centrality of work to the economy they would not have made such destructive choices. The article was reposted by the ABC, the Sydney Morning Herald, and other platforms, and viewed over a half-million times.
  • Senior Economist Alison Pennington has exposed the flaws in government isolation and testing systems. For example, she highlighted the perverse incentives created by the NSW government’s punitive $1000 fine for failing to register a positive RAT test — never mind the governments’ failures to make tests available, and support workers (with necessary income benefits) to isolate. Her analysis was shared thousands of times, and featured in multiple news coverage (including, The New Daily, and Yahoo Finance) of the flawed NSW policy.
  • Alison further detailed the flaws in changes to the Commonwealth government’s isolating support payments, in this commentary in The New Daily. By punitively excluding hundreds of thousands from isolation benefits, the policy will accelerate contagion and make supply chain problems even worse down the road.
  • Our experts have been featured in numerous other reports on the supply chain problems arising from the Omicron surge, including these reports on Channel 10, Today, The Age, ABC Online, and The Guardian.
  • Our Economist Dan Nahum linked the surge in Omicron contagion to the spread of insecure work arrangements in Australian workplaces. And the Centre’s previous work on how COVID has accentuated the dominance of casual and insecure work in Australia’s labour market shows that without urgent action to improve job quality, the labour market will be even more vulnerable to the inevitable future disruptions from this continuing crisis.

Our team of experts will continue monitoring the dangerous labour market developments arising from Omicron, and flawed government responses to it. Please watch our site and follow our Twitter feed for regular updates.

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