In July, the Federal Government announced changes to the JobKeeper program. JobKeeper payments of $1500 per fortnight to eligible employees were scheduled to finish at the end of September. The government has now announced that JobKeeper will be extended until March 2021.

However, there will be several changes to the program after September. First, employers will need to requalify for the program by demonstrating the necessary loss of revenue (30 per cent with for-profit companies, and 15 per cent for not for profits) – they will have to do this in October and again in January.

The payments will also decline, from $1500 per fortnight to $1200 per fortnight, and again to $1000 per fortnight from January. Part time workers, who may have enjoyed a small pay rise due to the one size fits all nature of the original JobKeeper payment, will now only be eligible for $750 per fortnight ($650 per fortnight from January). This is likely to mean a drop in pay for many ELICOS employees currently on JobKeeper.

There is no doubt that JobKeeper has been a crucial lifeline for just about all private colleges, so IEU members will welcome its continued operation. The union notes, however, that there are still some holes in the program – some casual workers are missing out, along with some workers in particular industries such as universities and the arts – and we are advocating for eligibility rules to be widened.

The IEU is also concerned about the reduction of the JobKeeper rate. Nevertheless, the extension of the program to March will hopefully give members some peace of mind over the coming months.

Pandemic leave

The pandemic has highlighted the fact that thousands of workers do not have paid sick leave – an acute issue in the ELICOS sector, which depends upon casual workers.

This issue has created huge public health risks for broader society, as casuals are often reluctant to call in sick (as they don’t get paid), and are probably equally reluctant to get tested for COVID-19, owing to the time lag before getting results (when people are required to self isolate).

This has led to disastrous results in Melbourne, where workers in insecure jobs have continued going to work despite being sick, and despite testing positive for COVID-19 – indeed, this was a major contributory factor in Melbourne’s so-called “second wave” and consequent lockdown. Given insecure work has become endemic across the Australian workforce in recent years, such a scenario is entirely possible in other states.

Because of this, the union movement has been lobbying for paid pandemic leave, so people can get tested and self isolate without taking a financial penalty they cannot afford. This campaign is starting to have an effect. Awards were varied some months ago to allow for unpaid pandemic leave. Then in July, the Federal Government announced it would fund a pandemic payment for some workers who do not otherwise have access to paid sick leave.

While these developments are welcome, they still fall well short of the optimal outcome, which is paid pandemic leave of at least two weeks to be a standard entitlement for all workers. “No worker should be left considering if they should go to work with mild symptoms to pay the bills,” said ACTU Secretary Sally McManus. “Only the Federal Government can step up and deliver paid pandemic leave to protect all workers.”

The future of ELICOS

The English language teacher sector (ELICOS) has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, as the industry is almost entirely reliant on international students. Australia’s borders have been slammed shut to non citizens and non residents since March, and there is no clear indication that they will open again soon. It’s likely that international students will be excluded from Australia for at least the rest of this year, and probably into early 2021.

The government is aware of the industry’s uncertainty, and has made encouraging noises about what the future might hold, though what colleges want most of all is clarity around when borders will reopen: “All we want is a date!” is a line the union has heard from more than one employer. JobKeeper and other government pandemic programs have provided some crucial support for colleges and ELICOS workers over the past few months, but time is running out.

Colleges are starting to close, and if some indication of when students are allowed back is not provided soon, the union fears the industry may reach a point of no return.

International students (and for that matter, refugees, who also access English programs) are probably among the easier groups to allow in, as they would stay for many months (at least) and so can be compulsorily quarantined on arrival. This should minimise the risks of outside infection coming into the country.

A pilot program was planned for international students in July, only for it to be deferred following the Melbourne outbreak. With numbers stabilising, it is now time to make plans for it to commence.

Kendall Warren