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Industry and business groups have hit back at union threats of strikes if employees are forced to purchase their own rapid antigen tests to remain at work.
Dozens of unions met on Monday (17 January) to consider a response to isolation requirements for workers in critical industries, that they fear will put employees at risk and accelerate the spread of the omicron variant.
Letters were to be sent to employers across the country demanding free RATs for workers, better quality masks and better ventilation.
However, business and industry associations have said it is an unreasonable demand from unions to place the blame for RAT shortages and expense at the feet of businesses – especially small businesses – when they have been calling on the federal government to provide the tests since last year.
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar, said the organisation had been calling since September last year for national cabinet to make rapid antigen testing freely and widely available, particularly for small businesses.
“Rapid antigen testing is an important tool as part of a broader arsenal (including vaccines, PCR tests, working from home when possible and social distancing) in ensuring employees can safely return to the workplace,” Mr McKellar said.
“Rapid antigen testing regimes are appropriate to some businesses but not all. When many businesses are struggling to keep their doors open due to severe staff shortages, supply chain constraints and a sharp drop in consumer activity, now is not the appropriate time to saddle them with complex testing regulation and extra cost.
“Many businesses, particularly small and family businesses, do not have the funds, capacity or expert skills to implement a functional rapid testing regime.
“It’s not too late for National Cabinet to change its mind and provide free and accessible rapid antigen testing for small businesses across all states so that they can detect cases earlier, limit the spread, and keep their workplaces open.”
The Australian Industry Group said the demand for free rapid antigen tests is unworkable, even once supply pressures start to ease.
AIG CEO Innes Willox said unions clearly do not understand how businesses are currently coping.
“The only thing that is real and practical in the latest union demands related to living and working with COVID is that there should be far greater availability of Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs). The ACTU’s demands divert from common sense,” he said.
“The idea that employers should bear the costs for potentially limitless test kits is unworkable and demonstrates the lack of understanding of the pressures businesses are under. Many businesses are struggling to survive and to preserve the jobs of their employees.
“The ACTU’s claim for all employers to provide free RATs to their employees once supply issues are resolved, in addition to upgraded masks and improved ventilation, fails to take into account that the measures that are reasonably practicable to address WHS risks will differ from workplace to workplace. One size does not fit all.”