9 urgent actions needed to address the social and economic impacts of COVID-19

 

Our thoughts go out to the people, families and communities impacted by the spread of the COVID-19 virus here in NSW and across Australia and the world.

Health professionals and, increasingly Governments, are warning us on a daily, if not hourly basis, that if we cannot rapidly contain its spread, the virus will have serious public health impacts. As we’re starting to see already, it will also cause a multitude of social and economic impacts (such as business closures, job losses and evictions and foreclosures due to inability to pay rents and mortgages). These impacts will disproportionately harm the people and communities that community legal centres make it our core business to support: people living on low incomes or with insecure work, people with disabilities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, renters, people experiencing domestic violence, and more.

It is critical that the potential social harms caused by COVID-19 are minimised to the greatest extent possible. To that end, we have worked with expert specialist community legal centres within our membership and other organisations across the broader community sector to develop a set of critical social policy measures that will help to protect the community at this time. This list is not exhaustive and will be updated as the situation changes, as the Government implements various new policy measures, and as we and others identify further measures to protect and support our people and communities.

Community Legal Centres NSW recognises and welcomes the measures governments have already announced to lessen the impacts on our communities, particularly supports for people reliant on Centrelink payments and people who have already lost their jobs as a result of the crisis, as well as measures designed to support jobs in exposed industries. However, in order to mitigate the emerging social crisis threatened by COVID-19, we call on federal, state and local governments and private companies (where relevant) to implement the following additional measures as a matter of urgency:

  1. State governments should place a moratorium on tenancy evictions during the crisisFederal and State Ministers should urge landlords to refrain from starting eviction proceedings and show leniency to tenants who fall into rental arrears.

There is a real risk that people on low incomes or in insecure work will face acute financial hardship if they lose their jobs, lose hours, or simply get sick and are unable to go to work. In a worst-case scenario, they may be unable to pay their rent and face eviction. People evicted into homelessness may face difficulties implementing recommended hygiene practices and social distancing and therefore be at greater risk of exposure to infection.

We welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement from 20th March that states and territories are working together to develop model rules to provide relief to tenants in ‘hardship conditions’. We eagerly await further announcements on what those rules will look like and hope that leaders will swiftly adopt measures to protect vulnerable tenants from eviction and other hardship. In particular, we urge the government to act to suspend evictions proceedings against tenants as has already been done in many cities and states in the United States for the duration of the pandemic.

To protect renters through this crisis, we support the Tenants’ Union of NSW calls for:

  • Governments to direct police and court officers not to carry out or allow any evictions 
  • Public and community housing providers to immediately cease eviction proceedings against their tenants
  • All relevant state and federal Ministers to make public statements calling on landlords not to begin eviction proceedings against tenants and to offer leniency on arrears
  • State housing departments and local councils to work with shared accommodation providers, like boarding house operators, to make sure people are not evicted into more severe homelessness and that their accommodation complies with all relevant public health advice
  • Governments to develop a plan to ensure that once the crisis has passed and the stop on evictions is lifted, the whole community can recover, and no one is left burdened with accumulated debt.
  1. The Federal Government should make permanent the increases to Centrelink payments and removal of waiting periods, extend the suspension of mutual obligation requirements, halt debt recovery actions (particularly those related to robodebts), and ensure income support is available to migrant workers and asylum seekers.

We welcome the announcement from Sunday, 22 March, of a COVID-19 income support supplement available to Jobseeker (formerly Newstart) recipients, that would effectively double the amount of income support available to all recipients for six months. In the short-term, doubling the payment rate will help alleviate the suffering that people already living in poverty currently experience, as well as the suffering that will be experienced by the hundreds of thousands of people who have newly lost their jobs through this crisis.

However, we strongly believe that this increase of income support payments should be made permanent. Doing so will help to address rising rates of poverty and inequality in Australia and answer consistent calls from all sectors of the community to raise the rate. It will also protect people, stimulate the economy and generate jobs through the longer-term economic recovery from this crisis.

It is also positive that the increases have now been extended to Youth Allowance Student, Austudy, Abstudy and Apprentice payments. However, the Government must also immediately increase the Disability Support Pension (DSP).

It is unacceptable that while the government imposes increasingly strict social distancing measures on the community, there continues to be a lack of clarity for people already on Centrelink payments about their mutual obligation requirements. Despite the government’s announcement that mutual obligations would be temporarily suspended until March 31, some job service providers have told Centrelink recipients their payments would be cut off if they failed to report.

In our view, a suspension of mutual obligations to March 31 is utterly inadequate and should be extended for the duration of the crisis.

We acknowledge that the government has relaxed the mutual obligations to allow people to request meetings online for the duration of the crisis. However, many people do not have access to smart phones, computers or home internet, and libraries and community centres are closing down due to increasingly strict social distancing measures. This means some people may be forced to continue attending face-to-face meetings or lose their income, which is clearly dangerous.

Instead of half-measures, mutual obligations should be suspended entirely for the duration of the crisis, as has happened in the United Kingdom. The economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis will almost certainly extend long beyond its immediate health impacts. Thousands of people have lost their jobs in just the past week and thousands more are expected to before the crisis is over. There is clear evidence that, even in ordinary times, mutual obligations are ineffective at supporting people into meaningful work. Requiring people to meet mutual obligations at a time when job vacancies are decreasing overall and unemployment is rising is pointless and will simply increase the stress, humiliation and hardship for people already struggling to make ends meet.

Centrelink should immediately stop pursuing debt recovery. At a time when people are already struggling economically, and Centrelink staff and resources are stretched, energy should not be directed towards pursuing people for debts that have very often been found to be wrongly calculated. Nor should people’s income support be automatically garnisheed due to Centrelink debt recovery actions. Many debts have already been frozen due to a finding that the robodebt program was unlawful. This freeze should be extended to all Centrelink debts, at least for the duration of the crisis.

Income support should be extended to workers on temporary visas and to asylum seekers. Up to 1.6 million workers on temporary visas face being trapped and unemployed in Australia due to the COVID-19 crisis, without access to social security benefits, and unable to fly internationally. Many of these temporary workers are in some of the hardest hit industries, such as hospitality and tourism. It is positive that migrant workers already on the ‘pathway to citizenship’ have had the formal waiting period for citizenship waived so that they will be able to more quickly access welfare payments, but income support must be made available to all workers regardless of citizenship status.

In addition to new Centrelink call centre workers, there should be additional Centrelink workers to assist people to complete forms and evidence requirements. Many Australians, including people who will now be accessing Centrelink assistance for the first time, have difficulty completing forms. Additional Centrelink workers should be hired and trained to assist people to accurately complete forms in order to ensure access to necessary financial support.

  1. Utility companies should suspend disconnections, debt collection and bankruptcy proceedings. 

More than 30 community service organisations across Australia have called on energy, water, finance and telecommunications companies to halt disconnections, pause debt collection and legal/bankruptcy proceedings, and waive penalty and late fees throughout the COVID-19 crisis to help households manage the financial uncertainty already being felt as a result of the outbreak.

Further, the NSW Government should follow Western Australia’s lead and freeze all household fees and charges, including electricity, water, vehicle registrations and public transport fares until at least July 2021.

In the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal and small claims courts, council rates and strata title levies recovery actions are the main types of civil suits. There should be a moratorium on these suits and recovery actions, and no interest on these fines for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

  1. Federal and state governments should urgently allocate additional resources to remote Aboriginal communities’ health facilities, including for culturally appropriate medical care, and for health campaigns in First Nations languages. 

The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) has warned that if COVID-19 reaches remote Aboriginal communities the result will be devastating. Those communities are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 due to the prevalence of comorbidities like diabetes and renal failure, and other factors like high smoking rates, housing overcrowding and a lack of access to sufficient hygiene.

Federal and state governments should adequately resource Aboriginal-controlled health services to support First Nations communities through this crisis.

  1. Federal and state governments should provide additional funding to domestic violence services, including shelters, to ensure people impacted by domestic and family violence can stay safe through periods of necessary self-isolation. 

Domestic violence experts have warned that the advised self-isolation measures at the core of a responsible public health approach to containing COVID-19 could be dangerous or deadly to people experiencing domestic violence. Staying home in enforced isolation will make it harder for people experiencing domestic abuse to escape it. This risk is compounded by the well-documented fact that the rates and severity of domestic, family and sexual violence spike during and after disasters. Domestic violence reports in China have doubled since cities went into lockdown, and in one locked down county, domestic violence reports tripled during February 2020 as compared to February 2019.

We support calls by domestic violence services and refuges for governments to urgently fund:

  • emergency accommodation for women fleeing abuse
  • additional resources for the increased burden on specialist support services
  • measures that can enable victims to stay safe in their own home.

Federal and state governments should ensure domestic violence services are equipped to deal with additional demand, and to keep women and children safe from domestic violence through this crisis.

There should also be additional support for Family Mediation and Dispute Resolution services (through additional funded Family Dispute Resolution practitioners) in order to mediate additional parenting and contact arrangements disputes that may arise through this period of physical isolation and health and economic crises.

  1. State governments should reduce pressure on the prison system and infection risks by releasing people in prison for non-violent offences, including people being held on remand for lesser charges, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

We welcome NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman’s announcement on Tuesday, 24 March that some people in NSW prisons may be released as part of harm mitigation for the COVID-19 crisis.

If COVID-19 enters a prison in NSW, it could have a devastating effect.

The prison population in NSW grew by 40 per cent between 2012 and 2018. The NSW Department of Justice has relied heavily on temporary responses to accommodate this growth, such as simply adding extra bunks into existing cells, leading to dangerous overcrowding. COVID-19 spreads at its quickest in closed environments, and prisons are particularly dangerous due to communal facilities like shared bathrooms, laundry and eating areas, as well as over-crowding and often inadequate healthcare facilities. Evidence of the impact of other infectious diseases on prison populations strongly suggests that if COVID-19 enters prisons, it will spread much more quickly than in the general population, and that the rate of death will be higher. In Italy, prisoners’ fears that their imprisonment meant a potential death sentence because of COVID-19 resulted in riots in 23 Italian prisons and the deaths of 12 prisoners.

The emergency powers legislated in NSW give discretion to the corrections minister to decide which people, and how many, will be released or paroled early. This means there is no guarantee that a significant number of people, including very vulnerable people, will actually be released. For instance, it is unclear whether or not the legislation will apply to youth detention centres. The legislation similarly does not make specific reference to remand prisoners. It is vital that the potential danger of COVID-19 entering prisons is taken seriously and mitigated. Globally, governments are using early release from prison as a COVID-19 mitigation measure. Ireland, for instance, is planning to release prisoners with less than 12 months to serve. As are some US and UK jurisdictions.

As a result, we do not believe that the legislation goes far enough.

There must be immediate early release of significant numbers of people from prison. People held on remand or sentenced for lesser offences like fines and public order offences, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, women who have experienced family violence, young people, and those at most risk of contracting and transmitting COVID-19 such as older people and people with health conditions should be prioritised for release. Some prisoners may have previous charges for violent offences but may be currently imprisoned for non-violent offences. These prisoners should also be eligible for release under these provisions. This would reduce prisoner numbers and allow many people to return to their families and communities where they can more easily follow public health advice and practice social distancing or isolation.

The Federal Government should also raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14. This will reduce the number of children who will come into contact with the criminal justice system. The government should clarify that the emergency powers to release people who are imprisoned apply to juvenile detention centres as well as adult prisons  and release significant numbers of children and young people as a matter of priority.

  1. The federal government should reduce pressure on immigration detention facilities by releasing all immigration detainees who do not pose a security or health threat to the community.

The devastation that would result from the entrance of COVID-19 into prisons would also result from its entrance into immigration detention centres.

There are currently around 1400 asylum seekers and other non-citizens being held in immigration detention in crowded conditions that make social distancing or self-isolation difficult. A Brisbane Serco officer working at a place of immigration detention in Kangaroo Point recently tested positive for COVID-19, and yet the Kangaroo Point facility remains so overcrowded that detainees must share small rooms and bathrooms and line up for meals and eat those meals in very close quarters.

Infectious disease experts from the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases and the Australasian College of Infection Prevention and Control have called for all immigration detainees who do not pose a significant security or health risk to be released into suitable housing in the community: the government should implement this recommendation immediately in the interests of safety for detainees, detention staff and the broader community.

  1. The federal government should legislate to protect employees stood down from employment due to COVID-19.

The COVID-19 crisis is already causing significant disruptions to the labour market. These disruptions will have a disproportionate impact on workers earning low-wages or in insecure jobs, including casual employees and migrant workers. Many employees, particularly in exposed industries like retail, hospitality and tourism, are already being ‘stood down’ (placed on leave without pay) for the duration of the crisis. In addition to the financial hardship this will cause some employees, there is also a lack of clarity about what being stood down actually means for people’s employment status and legal rights.

We support calls by Redfern Legal Centre and Marrickville Legal Centre for the Federal Government to enact legislative changes that make clear:

  • For the purposes of the Fair Work Act 2009:
    • being stood down does not constitute a termination of employment, and does not break continuity of employment
    • the economic, personal and health impacts of COVID-19 on employees and their immediate family constitute ‘exceptional circumstances’ under sections 366(2) and 394(3)
  • Employees who are stood down are entitled to access the Centrelink Jobseeker Allowance.

These changes are particularly important to protect workers on temporary visas. At present, a temporary visa holder is only allowed to work for the employer who sponsors them, and if they are dismissed, they only have 60 or 90 days to find alternative employment before their visa expires. The proposed legislative changes will protect the thousands of temporary visa holders who would otherwise be forced into poverty by the current business approach to the pandemic.

While legislation is being drafted, the government should issue a policy statement which makes clear to employees stood down during the crisis what their rights and entitlements are.

  1. The federal government should guarantee two weeks paid special leave for all workers affected by COVID-19.

Nobody should have to make the decision between going to work sick and potentially spreading COVID-19, or self-isolating and not being able to pay their rent or bills. As highlighted by Australian Unions, 32% of working people in Australia have no access to paid leave. Many casual or hospitality workers are already being forced into quarantine or self-isolation and losing shifts and income or even being stood down without pay.

The Federal Government must ensure that all workers have access to paid leave.

We also broadly support demands from the union movement and the aged care and disability sectors around workers’ rights and safety for older people and people with disabilities, including: