The reluctance of the Liberal state and federal governments to support people in crisis is hardly a surprise. Amidst the second New South Wales lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, government measures to ‘help’ have included payments to landlords and punishing workers for their postcodes. Instead of a government that tries to curb the crisis with police violence and repression, what communities need is support and compassion.
With Treasurer Josh Frydenberg declaring that the government will not reinstate JobKeeper, the lack of financial support has left many workers stranded below the poverty line. In the short term, the current disaster relief payment should be made available to all workers, and should be backdated to the start of their loss of work. The process of means testing is unfair. Employed and unemployed workers, contractors and self-employed people should be able to access the payment. Furthermore, workers should be paid to isolate after getting tested. The NSW members of the United Workers Union (UWU) are campaigning for this, with members of UWU at Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre fighting for paid pandemic leave during the lockdown and encouraging the union movement as a whole to respond to this crisis. If we want to see the lockdown end sooner, a fair and equitable disaster relief payment is necessary to support people to not go to work, where most transmissions occur.
With the income loss that comes with lockdown, many have found themselves struggling with paying rent. The moratorium on evictions from NSW’s first lockdown in 2020 ended months ago, despite calls from housing advocacy groups that the moratorium must remain in place because the COVID crisis is not over. In Victoria, repeating lockdowns have already occurred and the Victorian Renters And Housing Union have linked the need for protections for renters to the reinstatement of JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments. If it is not safe for renters to stay home, they will be forced into precarious and unsafe situations. Therefore, in the NSW lockdown, our immediate demands of the government include fairer social security payments and a continuing moratorium on evictions. There should also be a government implemented moratorium on mortgage payments, allowing for greater equity than the 2020 policy. Rent reductions should be readily accessible and enforced by the government, and any reductions should support renters rather than landlords.
A major criticism of the current lockdown is that people receiving Youth Allowance and other social services such as the disability pension are unable to access the COVID disaster payment. Individuals on Youth Allowance who have lost work are being forced to depend on their already low Youth Allowance payment. This problem calls into question the government’s idea about the age of independence, which is an issue extending beyond our immediate crisis. People younger than 22 are not eligible for full welfare payments because it is deemed that they are not independent, meaning that the most vulnerable young people in Australia receive the smallest amount of payments.
The National Union of Students have been running a campaign around decreasing the age of independence to 18, and while the campaign would be stronger if it also supported the $80 a day campaign, it is a necessary demand to win. Changing the age of independence to 18 will positively affect vulnerable young people across Australia beyond the current lockdown.
It is important that left-wing groups push for changes that will benefit both employed and unemployed workers during the current period of difficulty and beyond. The economic circumstances of many workers before lockdown was tough, and there is great scope for prolonged change. One such change that has immense long-term potential is instating free early childhood education and care. Providing early childhood education has been shown to positively affect mothers who are able to work with less reproductive labour, and an investment in early childhood education is the way forward as it is a green job.
Finally, we must demand at least $750 a week paid directly to workers affected by the lockdown as a COVID disaster payment. $750 is the rate of JobKeeper and is necessary for people to continue to afford mortgage and rent when out of work. The usual rate of social services payment should not return to its current rate, but to $80 per day. Paying unemployed people at least $550 a week or $80 per day has been shown to lift people out of poverty because it is enough to at least afford rent, medication and food. The reversal back to a lower rate after the previous lockdown was a deliberate choice by the Liberal Government to return people to poverty. The Greater $750 a week: Better crisis support is needed from the governmentSydney branch of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union has released a statement of demands during the NSW lockdown, in which they reference many of the aforementioned demands, highlighting that these must be “made permanent policies”.