So once again winter has rolled around in the neoliberal paradise that is Australia. This means big wool coats, scarves, beanies—and sick people not taking time off work. Cue the privileged scolds ‘helpfully’ reminding people that they need to stay home instead of spreading their sickness around the office and on the bus and train if they’re one of the 20% that use public transport to commute.
Aside from the garden variety colds (I am still recovering from one I caught two weeks ago), the klaxons are being sounded that this is going to be the worst flu season we’ve ever had. It makes sense to really impress upon people the importance of not ‘soldiering on’, not going to work sick. But SO MANY PEOPLE simply do not have the option of staying home, whether it’s through working somewhere with a draconian attitude towards the use of sick leave, or just plain not having access to it in the first place, due to being a casual worker/contractor or even in some cases, during their probationary period. And yet we’re still being encouraged to blame the workers who have no choice for spreading illness, rather than the system that gives them no choice in the first place.
I used to think this way too, I understand the mentality, but it’s just another example of the owners of capital slyly shifting blame & responsibility for a broken system onto the workers so they don’t demand change. Because they’re too scared of losing what little they have.
Talk to literally anyone working a ‘normal’ job and they’ll have a story about being disciplined for taking leave, knowing someone who lost their job for it, having to ‘soldier on’ because 10 days leave per year is a joke for some people who get sick easily (they need to get paid like everyone else). Then, of course, there’s sick building syndrome and open plan offices, and cost cutting measures which contribute to the spread of illness like wildfire. Along with this comes the policing of sick leave use with onerous demands on obtaining medical certificates to prove you were actually sick. This is something that has gotten stricter and more expansive over time, as anyone over the age of about 40 could tell you. Most workplaces will make you get a medical certificate if you have consecutive sick days, many will only give you a certain number of single days where you don’t need a cert (my last workplace gave you three), if your sick day falls on a Monday, Friday, either side of a public holiday or annual leave—off to the doctor you go to get a piece of paper confirming what you already know, wasting your time, their time, and the time you need to be resting.
This idea that people’s use of sick leave needs to be so heavily policed because a small minority—let’s be generous and say 10% though it’s probably far less than that—regularly abuse it. I say regularly because most people have taken a mental health day once a year; that doesn’t count.
But this attitude from employers carries a real, quantifiable risk of contributing to a flu pandemic because people are forced to go to work or to a clinic and/or a pharmacy, spreading the virus everywhere. Especially on public transport. Yes in an ideal world people could take the option to stay home and rest, without fear of losing their job or being unable to pay the bills. But we don’t live in an ideal world, we live in a late capitalism hellscape. The further down the job ladder you go, the worse this attitude and its enforcement gets. You need only to speak to anyone who’s worked in an entry level call centre to hear some frankly terrifying dystopian stories of what the big bosses, who hold all the power over people who have nothing, are capable of doing to their employees.
You see this pattern repeated over and over in places where neoliberalism reigns—the holders of capital are so fucking paranoid about anyone getting a free ride or gaming the system, they’ll waste more resources than the ‘loss’ trying to police it. Because the initial loss is not the real issue, it’s the idea that someone, somewhere, might be ‘stealing’ from them. Robodebt, the cashless welfare card and drug testing of welfare recipients are all prime examples of this phenomenon. And the rest of society in turn is encouraged to think this way, hence every blind consumer of right wing media has a story about their neighbour’s cousin who knows someone who’s TOTALLY cheating Centrelink for a starvation-level handout. And in the call centres mentioned above, there are well told tales of people having their bathroom breaks timed, only being allowed five minutes away from their desks for an eight-hour shift with written warnings for breaching this, all with the threat of having their hours taken away from them.
And thus we see the propagation of the idea that sick people are the ones to blame for spreading illness, in a society that literally does not allow them the ‘luxury’ of being sick. Increasing casualisation of the workforce means there are more and more people out there who get NO sick leave at all. Their higher hourly rate was ostensibly devised to cover for this, but it’s cold comfort indeed knowing at any moment you could be told your job is gone. Because there are no protections for the ever-swelling ranks of the precariat class.
This post was first published at Emotionally Interesting Gender Neutral Cat Enthusiast.