The workers at risk of redundancy in COVID scam

Indigenous and elderly workers have been singled out for the sack by brutal bosses citing COVID-19 health hazards.

Employers are being investigated over allegations they made workers declare their Indigenous status - then stood down staff who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Unfair dismissal claims have soared 35 per cent across Australia since the start of COVID-19 lockdowns in March, when millions of workers were stood down or forced to work from home.

Now dumped staff have complained of discrimination on the grounds of age, race or pregnancy, after being made redundant during or after lockdowns.

Several employers have sacked Aboriginal workers, for fear they are at higher risk of COVID-19 complications.

The Federal Health Department says people at "higher risk of severe illness'' are the over-70s, cancer patients having chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and people with a suppressed immune system.

But the Queensland Human Rights Commission yesterday revealed that it was conciliating cases in which bosses allegedly sacked staff on the grounds of age, race, pregnancy or impairment.

An Asian woman claimed she was fired because of her racial background, on the assumption she "might have COVID-19''.

Pregnant women and older workers have claimed discrimination after bosses ignored medical certificates clearing them to work.

Queensland Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall
Queensland Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall

One worker was stood down as high-risk after being asked to fill in paperwork to confirm if they were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Queensland Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall yesterday warned employers could be forced to pay compensation to workers unfairly targeted for redundancy.

"Some older people have complained they've been let go because their employer feared they could succumb to coronavirus,'' he told The Sunday Mail.

"In one case, an employer sent around an email to all staff saying that those over 70 were not able to continue work.

"One worker was terminated because they have a compromised immune system, as the employer said it was too much risk to them to keep them in the workplace.

"An Aboriginal person said he was told he had to cease work during COVID-19 pandemic restrictions (after) being identified as a particular risk because of his racial background.

"A pregnant woman (said she was) told she could not work on the frontline any longer, despite this being against the advice of her own doctor.''

Mr McDougall said a frontline worker had been ordered not to wear a mask, "despite being an older person and feeling at risk''.

He said workers must comply with an employer's "lawful and reasonable directions''.

"But it is important that if the person has a relevant medical condition or disability that prevents them from complying with the rule, that exceptions are made,'' he said.

The Fair Work Commission yesterday said unfair dismissal applications had surged by one-third since the start of the pandemic, with an extra 1901 applications between March and the end of July, compared to the same period last year.

Unfair dismissal claims lodged in April - during nationwide lockdowns - were 67 per cent higher than in April last year.

The FWC can order compensation of up to six months' pay, as well as job reinstatement.

Mr McDougall said employers "may find themselves in a risky position and vulnerable to a discrimination claim'' if they ignore medical certificates.

"To dismiss a worker because they are at risk of COVID-19 could be discrimination, particularly if the risk is associated with an attribute like age, impairment or race,'' he said.

"Some employers may be able to argue they're exempt from the requirements of the Anti-Discrimination Act on the grounds of public health, or a workplace health and safety issue.

"However the onus is on the employer to prove that their actions were necessary to help protect workers or the public.

"Employers have a duty to consider reasonable alternatives like the wearing of PPE (personal protective equipment such as masks), enforcing social distancing, working from home arrangements, reduced hours or change of shifts.''