Construction is not the only industry in which there is a storm over COVID measures.
Universities are some of the country’s largest employers. When students are included, campuses bring together tens of thousands of people to work and study in close proximity. Staff who teach, or those in public-facing professional roles such as in libraries or information services, will come into close contact with hundreds if not thousands of students over the course of a week or semester. So tertiary education should be recognised as a high-risk industry.
Yet university bosses have been dragging their feet on implementing the full range of measures that reduce the spread of the virus. For the safety of our families, our colleagues and our students, we need to demand more and better of our employers. Our workplaces must be adequately ventilated and cleaned, and workers, unions and health and safety representatives need to be involved in decision-making about COVID safety.
Recent mass exposure incidents at universities that are supposedly locked down demonstrates the negligence of our bosses. Melbourne is in the midst of a surge in COVID cases. We are meant to be under strict a lockdown, which includes a rule that only essential work and study should be undertaken face to face. Yet at RMIT University, more than 400 people have been exposed at just one tier one site (in a single building) alone.
Between 8 and 28 September, there were five RMIT exposure sites. Staff, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and students initially were not told how many people had been exposed.
Similar concerns have arisen at the University of Melbourne. It took the university more than a week to list the buildings that were part of a spate of exposures, rather than just mention that exposures had occurred at “several buildings”.
The lack of precise information is troubling because only those who remember to check-in are told about the exposure. Most university exposure sites are not even listed on the Department of Health and Human Services website. Yet RMIT management had to admit that the mass exposure on that campus involved many people breaching safety procedures.
This lack of information is an appalling act of negligence. How can staff and students make an informed decision about whether they can or should go onto campus if they don’t know the level of risk? Especially when there seems to be such a dismissive attitude to lockdown restrictions.
Every university has had a COVID safety plan for many months now. The current outbreak in Melbourne has not come as a surprise. Yet even when we have been promised ventilation audits of buildings, there have been no details about who will receive the findings and how any issues will be addressed. There is absolutely no excuse for this foot-dragging, which is putting the health and lives of staff, students and their families at risk.
Even with the number of exposures on supposedly locked-down campuses increasing, many universities are planning to send staff and students back onto campus as soon as the reckless state governments’ “roadmaps” allow—at this stage on 5 November in Victoria, while schools will reopen on 5 October in NSW and in stages during October in the ACT.
That is just weeks away. The NSW and Victorian “roadmaps” are based on the premise that cases (and, therefore, hospitalisations and deaths) will increase dramatically after those dates. Since the NSW and Victorian governments are now going to let the virus rip, the NTEU needs to be at the forefront of campaigning for each and every safety measure we can win.
Such measures include (but are not limited to):
- An immediate audit of every campus building for ventilation and filtration. The results of those audits and plans for ongoing monitoring should be shared with all health and safety reps and the union branch, if not all staff. No building should be reopened to staff or students unless it can be shown that a ventilation rate of ten litres per second per person can be achieved in line with Victorian WorkSafe guidance;
- Transparency on cleaning contracts and plans for regular cleaning of all buildings, including those apparently “unoccupied” due to work-from-home arrangements;
- Detailed information on exposure sites, including (where possible) the location and numbers of people exposed;
- Providing health and safety reps with all COVID safety plans and policies relevant or specific to their direct working group;
- Ongoing negotiations with both the union branch and health and safety reps about the implementation of COVID safety plans, which should include providing the union with all relevant information.
These words fill me with dread: without immediate and strong measures to protect staff and students it is only a matter of time before we see the first cases of transmission occurring on our campuses. We know what comes next.
Another important health and safety measure will be a vaccine mandate. The national leadership of the NTEU has released a statement that supports mandates for the industry, but with caveats that may be taken as opposition to mandates in many circumstances.
Obviously, vaccine mandates must be implemented alongside measures to make access to vaccinations as easy as possible and must be accompanied by information campaigns. But there is mounting evidence that, done the right way, mandates can drive up vaccination rates, which will decrease the spread and reduce the severity of the disease among those who still get infected.
Governments are pushing for a reckless return to face-to-face teaching. If we don’t have a vaccine mandate (to reiterate, alongside other measures) we deny university staff and students the right to undertake their work or studies in the safest possible environment.
The right not to get sick and die from unsafe working conditions has been one of the prime motivators building the trade union movement from its inception. It’s time we as unionists recognised the looming threat of COVID and organised seriously to defend ourselves from the negligence of our employers and the government.