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Union summit urges action on support for emergency services

February 12, 2020

National and NSW Secretary Daniel Walton, Victorian Branch Secretary Ben Davis, and a number of AWU members and delegates attended a union-wide emergency services summit in Canberra, convened by the ACTU.

The summit was called as a response to the intensity and devastation of the bushfires, which has claimed at least 3 million hectares of bushland, over 2000 homes and properties, at least a billion animals, and 28 lives.

Daniel commended the resilience of these members in trying times. “Thank you to everyone who’s been out there protecting communities and fighting fires around the country. It’s been an incredibly difficult period,” he said. “The AWU is here to support you and stand by you.”

The AWU represents workers in a number of front-line emergency positions in parks and wildlife organisations around the country, and a number of volunteer firefighters working in other industries.

Ben Davis said the summit was a timely opportunity to discuss how unions can assist affected workers. “The 2019/20 bushfire season has been unprecedented in its severity,” he said. “The ACTU Bushfire Summit is an important first step in understanding and responding the impacts on those who fight bushfires, and those who are impacted by them.”

Despite the ongoing disaster, emergency frontline services have in recent years suffered budget cuts, which stretched resources and personnel to their limit. AWU members have also felt the effect of these cuts, as a number of experienced staff have left their roles.

“We’ve recently gone through a restructure,” said Miles, a worker at National Parks and an AWU delegate. “We’ve lost a lot of experienced staff and also gained a lot of newer, lower-grade positions.”

“The impact of losing all those experienced firefighters pre this season has been quite hard.”

The tragic death of Victorian firefighter and AWU member Bill Slade earlier this month highlights the immense danger our emergency service workers endure on a daily basis. Policymakers and the government can and must do more to protect and support these workers with the funding and resources they need.

“The government are talking to business and agricultural workers – as they should – but not to the workers,” said ACTU President Michelle O’Neil. “The government is not ready for the increasing number of disasters.”

Miles agreed, saying the situation is only going to get worse over time. “We should be funding additional firefighters and vehicles and equipment, to follow through with the rest of the season and future-proof national parks.”

People who are currently not working in fire-affected areas as businesses close only receive $40 a day, around the same amount as Newstart. This must be raised to the level of the minimum wage, $105 per day, in order to truly help those affected pay for food and living costs. As well as helping workers and their families, the cash injection will bolster recovery in the community, putting more money in the pockets of impacted businesses.

A third resolution raised by summit attendees is to support changes to workers’ compensation, and to prioritise mental healthcare for those on the front line. Currently, emergency service workers who need to claim workers’ compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder must prove that this came from their work.

Firefighters surrounded by deadly flames, trapped in vehicles, battling to save properties, and constantly finding dead and dying wildlife should not need to justify the effect this has on their mental health in order to receive care. Treatment and compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder should be immediately available to front-line workers, the summit agreed, without red tape.

NSW Police Association President Tony King said the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder can remain with the worker for life. “The trauma of the people, the victims, their families, that resonates right through to the emergency responders,” he said. “That can have a lasting impact on their career.”

At the AWU, we know that more needs to be done to impact our members affected by the bushfires – from the front-line emergency workers, to those who have lost their homes, to the volunteer firefighters who have given up their day jobs, to those who have had their workplaces closed due to fires. We will continue to fight for greater support for all those impacted.

“People are exhausted,” Michelle O’Neil said. “They’re emotional, they’re tired, they’re stressed, but they’re also fighters. And they’re people that we’re incredibly proud of in the Australian Trade Union Movement.”

Daniel Walton thanking AWU members at the ACTU Summit

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