Staff at airports across Australia are threatening to walk off the job unless they are allowed to do more to protect themselves from the deadly coronavirus.
The security workers’ union said contractors at Australia’s major airports had dismissed requests from workers – including facility staff and officers at security checkpoints – to take protective measures against the rapidly escalating virus.
Workers had been told masks would make customers feel “uncomfortable”, the United Workers Union said on Friday, adding that some staff who wanted to wear masks had been threatened with disciplinary action.
“The coronavirus is a life-threatening disease … To threaten disciplinary action for a request to wear a mask is not only irresponsible but immoral,” union spokesman Damien Davie said.
“It is appalling and dangerous that the safety of airport staff is not being prioritised because employers are worried about spooking customers.
“The safety of our members and the public must always come first.”
The UWU’s demands came as the Transport Workers Union called for flights to Australia from China to be suspended.
“There is no clarity coming from the federal government about safety measures to protect aviation workers and the public from the coronavirus outbreak,” it said in a statement on Twitter.
“Until that certainty can be provided, flights from China should be suspended.”
There is no clarity coming from the Fed Gov about safety measures to protect aviation workers and the public from the #coronavirus outbreak. Until that certainty can be provided, flights from China should be suspended. #AusPol #AusUnions pic.twitter.com/u4JCxuXgrx
— TWU Australia (@TWUAus) January 31, 2020
The World Health Organisation declared the virus an international emergency on Friday. It came as the death toll from the coronavirus reached 213, with nearly 10,000 people infected worldwide.
Among them are nine in Australia – four in NSW, three in Victoria and two in Queensland. The Queensland patients are Chinese tourists – at least one of whom travelled on a Tiger Airways flight from Melbourne to the Gold Coast with coronavirus symptoms.
On Friday, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk blasted the federal government, saying it had failed to share flight records that would reveal the locations of Chinese travellers who might be of concern.
“We need to know where Chinese nationals are, people who have travelled from Hubei province, where they are currently located in Queensland,” she said.
“They have the details on the incoming [passenger arrivals] card, which says very clearly where they are staying and also their contact number so contract tracing is a No.1 priority. We do not have that information.”
The UWU said its members were putting themselves at risk to keep Australia’s airports open.
“It’s public knowledge that a coronavirus patient has travelled on a domestic flight in Australia,” Mr Davie said.
“Employers need to recognise this by providing all staff with the protective gear they need to do their jobs with minimal risk to their well-being.”
He said workers would stop work if their demands were not met – “even if it means grounding every flight in the country”.
Many airlines – including British Airways, Cathay Pacific, American Airlines and Jetstar Asia – have grounded or dramatically reduced flights to and from China as the virus threat escalates. However, Qantas has said only it is “monitoring the situation” and will allow passengers to rebook or get refunds on tickets.
The federal government’s official advice is that Australians should “reconsider” travel plans for China – and avoid Hubei province, the epicentre of the virus outbreak.
We now advise you to ‘reconsider your need to travel’ to #China overall, due to the outbreak of novel #coronavirus and travel restrictions by local authorities. ‘Do not travel’ to #Hubei Province. Contact your doctor for symptoms of respiratory illness. https://t.co/27tan96N3z
— Smartraveller (@Smartraveller) January 28, 2020