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Car convoy for workers’ rights takes to the streets in spite of police repression

Protestors demanded increased income support payments and vaccine, test and isolation leave for all workers.

This afternoon, approximately fifty people in cars and on bikes participated in a COVID safe convoy to the Liberal Party headquarters to protest the lack of income support and health protections for workers and the vulnerable in Sydney’s worsening COVID outbreak.

Participants included members from the United Workers Union, Australian Unemployed Workers Union, USyd Casuals’ Network, Health Services Union, Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, Teachers Federation, along with students and community members. 

The ‘Safe from Covid, Safe from poverty’ protest convoy was initiated by stood-down pool workers at Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre (AKAC). Members of the United Workers Union, the workers have been fighting for pandemic pay since the 26th of June.

The convoy called for increased income support and paid pandemic leave for stood down workers and the unemployed, as well as increased safety provisions for workplaces, including leave for vaccination, testing and isolation for all. 

The convoy was disrupted by a high-visibility police operation involving around 200 police officers including the Public Order & Riot Squad and Traffic and Highway Patrol Command. After police stopped them from assembling on Mrs Macquaries Road, protestors attempted to drive past the Liberal HQ.

However, police pulled over a number of cars, took nine protestors’ details and issued five on-the-spot fines for breaching public health orders. Cooper Forsyth, one of the organisers of the protest, said “It’s disgusting to see [police] fining stood down workers for having a sign on their car while lack of support is leading to more COVID deaths.” 

In contrast to the anti-vaccination protest on 24 July, participants were wearing masks and did not leave their cars so as to avoid any risk of transmitting the virus.

“The car convoy was COVID safe,” Forsyth said. “The lack of income support for workers and unsafe workplaces where workers are at risk of getting the virus are the real threat to our health. People shouldn’t be forced to travel, chasing extra work or assistance from charities while the city is in lockdown.”

Evan Van Zijl, the Sydney Coordinator of the AUWU, said “We have the cops and now the army targeting Western Sydney, and today they targeted people standing up for the social support needed to keep us safe from COVID-19 and poverty.”

Although the government increased the disaster payment on 28 July, the latest support package still leaves hundreds of thousands without enough to survive. 350,000 people in Greater Sydney will remain on payments that are below the poverty line. 

Like many others, some workers at AKAC have been left with no extra support after five weeks of lockdown. A lifeguard from AKAC, Niko Chlopicki said:

“I am on a Centrelink payment and lost my shifts when the pool closed. But I worked less than eight hours a week. Now I can barely pay rent. The owner of Belgravia Leisure is on the BRW Rich List and the company has billions in assets. No one should be in this position. That is why we are demanding $80 a day for everyone on Jobseeker and pandemic leave from Belgravia.”

Protestors argued that the government has gone to great lengths to scapegoat and demonise ordinary people for the spread of the virus, singling out migrant communities in Western Sydney by launching police and military operations.

An overarching message of the convoy was that the lack of income support, workplace safety provisions and insecure working conditions are what is driving the spread of the pandemic, not migrant communities of “selfish” individuals. 

Stood down lifeguard Adam Tanazefti and protestor at the convoy noted how companies have skimped on safety precautions, putting the lives of workers at risk:

“We have seen hospital cleaners forced to strike for PPE, bus drivers on privatised bus routes still don’t have vaccination leave, there is no access to test and isolate leave in NSW and a complete lack of on-site testing for many front-line workers. These things could have been in place months ago. The Liberals have caused this disaster. Workers need to be protected immediately, not blamed for the government’s failures.”

Despite the disruption from police, the convoy re-assembled at Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre at Enmore park, where Forsyth spoke to the press: “Just yesterday we heard a man in his 60s died because his whole family who had symptoms did not want to come forward for fear of losing income. We have no choice but to keep fighting. And despite the public health order being opportunistically used to stifle dissent, we have shown it is possible to fight back.” 

Follow AKAC Members of United Workers Union to keep updated with actions to fight for paid pandemic leave, increase social support for all, test and isolate and vaccination leave for all.