Quarantine cave-in reveals power of people united 

28 January 2021

Article from January 2021 edition of INPractice

Mt Gambier nurse Tanya Clarke is happy to testify to the power of the unions. After her quarantine plight became public in October, she was “shocked” to be inundated with calls from around Australia from people who had watched her on the nightly television news.

Aged care nurses Ms Clarke and Julie Wigzell, from Adelaide, had braved eight weeks of strict Stage 4 restrictions to tend to COVID-19 victims in Melbourne, only to be told in October they would not be paid by their employer for their time in mandatory 14-day quarantine on their return to SA.

“All we are asking is that our time in quarantine be recognised, we don’t have a choice, we understand it’s necessary.

We were told we would be paid and then all of a sudden the goal posts changed,’’ Ms Clarke, a Registered Nurse, said at the time.

“We helped nurse them (their patients) back to health … we just want the value of our service to be recognised by being paid while in quarantine.’’

The ANMF (SA Branch) quickly entered the fray, with CEO/Secretary Adj Associate Professor Elizabeth Dabars AM describing the treatment of the nurses as “appalling”.

“The fact is they went over to Victoria, essentially risking their lives and toughing it out under Melbourne’s Stage 4 restrictions, to help elderly Victorians recover from coronavirus,’’ Ms Dabars said.

“To be denied payment while in quarantine after making such a huge sacrifice just beggars belief.’’

The upshot was the nurses’ employer quickly backpedalled and agreed to pay their wages. But by then the story had gone viral on websites around the country, as well as broadcast and published on mass media outlets.

After the ordeal – albeit it one with a happy ending – Ms Clarke changed agencies and, at the time of this article being written, was about to embark on a 10-week aged care contract in Devonport, Tasmania.

She said she was “hugely surprised’’ by the media blitz.

“I’ve had a lot of people from all over the country contacting me, so it was a big shock. It was nice to hear from everyone.’’

Ms Clarke said she was “absolutely” a fan of the ANMF. “We got the result we wanted and I was really happy with that.

“I’ve got my union t-shirts, I go around telling all younger members that I work with … younger staff that are not with the union, they’re all very interested in the story and my message to them is ‘Go join the union, be a member, get your insurance … and know that someone’s got your back if your employer is not doing the right thing’,’’ she said.

“I think it’s really important for younger members, new graduates, and such to know that the union is there for them when things don’t go right. It definitely means you have a voice, and that’s what I’ve been telling people.’’

To quote social justice advocate Dr John Falzon AOM: “No progressive social change that I can think of (workers’ rights, women’s reproductive rights, climate justice, marriage equality) has come from above’’.

“They come from ordinary people on the ground … always a collective movement under the guiding star of struggle and hope,’’ he says.

The issue of workers’ rights again came to the fore - around the same time as the quarantine drama was being played out.

This time an Adelaide aged care worker was threatened with the sack - simply for following an SA Government Directive prohibiting personal care workers from working at more than one site.

She was temporarily forced to choose between two employers and the one she didn’t choose took the rejection badly, asking her to resign and, finally, giving her notice of termination.

Again, the ANMF (SA Branch) stepped in, filing an industrial dispute with the Fair Work Commission.

The Commission almost immediately convened a conference and made its views about the employer’s conduct clear.

Within a week, the aged care provider withdrew the notice of termination and the ANMF member’s employment now remains “frozen” while the Directive is in place, the understanding being she will recommence her employment after the Directive ends.

“This negated threat of termination again underlines the strength of the union in advocating for and protecting the rights of our members,’’ Ms Dabars said.

Despite the year’s challenges due to COVID-19, the ANMF (SA Branch) managed to secure its fair share of wins alongside our members.

One Adelaide nurse was so impressed by the support she received from the ANMF (SA Branch) during a moment of high stress under duress she said she was keen to become a union rep herself.

The nurse, who wished to remain anonymous, found herself “called into a meeting without any notification of what the meeting was about and no time to prepare or have a representative with me’’.

“I was initially very scared and intimidated, I felt quite bullied … in all my years in nursing I never thought I would be in this situation,’’ she said.

“My union rep said that the union will be there for you, they will back you and she was 100 per cent correct.

“It gave me the confidence to proceed. They’re there to fight for our rights and they do it very well.

“I was very, very happy. I’m not religious but I was thanking the Lord I was a union member.

“I’ve even discussed with the union rep about becoming a union rep myself because I thought without them being there to turn to when I needed the help, I wouldn’t have known what to do. I would have felt very lost and alone.’’

A new poll by Essential Research mid last year revealed that for the first time since the series began in 2012, half of all Australians believe Australian workers would be better off with stronger unions.

A further 3 out of 4 Australians believed unions provide essential services to ensure members are paid properly, have a safe working environment and provide a strong collective voice.

The ANMF (SA Branch) and the ACTU welcomed the results, saying they were a reflection of the crucial role unions have played during the pandemic, and the important role unions play in giving workers a voice.

“Against a backdrop of trauma, hardship and uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus, the ANMF (SA Branch) professional staff and its 21,000 members have worked hard to promote, protect and  improve working conditions for health care workers across the state,’’ Ms Dabars said.

“We have rallied for workers in the face of unjust adversity and achieved significant gains in a chaotic COVID environment.

“The power of the unions lies in our numbers. As the biggest union in South Australia and indeed the country, the ANMF continues to tirelessly champion the cause and interests of society’s single most important asset – you, our hard-working and dedicated health professionals.’’

Ms Dabars also applauded the courage of nurses like Tanya Clarke for speaking out. Her actions resulted in a positive outcome not just for herself but many others.

Ms Clarke says after the October media storm, her former employer began explicitly advertising “that we’ve got your back through quarantine’’.

“If it’s helped other people that’s wonderful, that was also the attention,’’ she said.

As for life in quarantine? “I did a lot of study, I did some ANMF units on the education site, so I managed to fill that time,’’ Ms Clarke said.

If you would like to inquire about ANMF (SA Branch) membership please call 8334 1900 or visit the membership page on our website.

Click here to read the January 2021 edition of INPractice.