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Australian News

Workers will not be forced to get vaccine


Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared “we have beaten the third wave” of COVID-19 as he revealed for the first time whether high risk groups including aged care workers face mandatory jabs.

Despite the deadly risk of COVID-19 taking hold in the nation’s nursing homes the Prime Minister has confirmed the states have agreed it won’t be illegal to work in aged care without being vaccinated.

“At this point they’re not recommending that that be the case,’’ the Prime Minister said.

But that doesn’t mean “no jab, no job” rules won’t be invoked by some of the big providers in work contracts, with the Morrison Government effectively leaving it up to employers to work through the issues.

“That doesn’t mean that that mightn’t be a position in the future. We’ll take this step by step. I have no doubt if there were concerns about the wellbeing of vulnerable Australians, particularly elderly Australians, then they would make those recommendations,’’ the PM said.

It will be “strongly encouraged” for all workers and residents to take the vaccine and they are among the First Australians to secure the Pfizer campaign in coming weeks.

Hall & Wilcox partner and health law leader Alison Choy Flannigan told news.com.au that it was ultimately a health and safety issue.

“Obviously an employer can’t physically ‘force’ an employee to get the vaccine. No one suggests doing so,’’ she said.

“It’s also worth noting that many employees will probably get the vaccine voluntarily. The more challenging legal question is whether an employer can direct their employees to get the vaccine. For example, can an employer say ‘get the vaccine or you’ll lose your job’?

RELATED: Why Aussie vaccine rollout shouldn’t be paused

Ms Choy Flannigan said this ultimately depends on whether the direction to be vaccinated is lawful and reasonable.

“Employees have a legal obligation to comply with their employer’s directions if those directions are lawful and reasonable,’’ she said.

“Whether a direction to get vaccinated is lawful and reasonable will vary depending on the circumstances. For example, what is reasonable in the context of an aged care facility or a hospital is likely to be different to reasonableness in the context of a construction site.

“This is fundamentally a health and safety issue. Consequently, a direction to get the vaccine is more likely to be lawful and reasonable for businesses that face higher risks of an outbreak. Examples include hospitals and aged care facilities, businesses that involve working with children who are too young to have been vaccinated themselves.”

Deputy chief medical officer Michael Kidd said it was the strong preference that anyone coming into contact with aged care facilities is vaccinated.

“Can I make very clear we are actively encouraging the residents of aged care and people working in aged care, both the staff at the facilities but also the people coming into the facilities around the country to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it start to rollout into their area,’’ he said.

“We’re anticipating a very high uptake among both residents and staff in order to protect the residents from COVID-19. At this point we’re not looking at a recommendation of mandatory vaccination. The rationale behind is this is, firstly, we have not yet rolled the vaccine out from across the country so we don’t want to exclude people from aged care because they don’t fall into the priority groups.

“We want our loved ones to see relatives in aged care. But also we’re still learning a lot about the vaccine and how effective vaccines are at preventing the transmission of COVID-19.”

The Prime Minister also revealed there was nothing to suggest a delay in the planned rollout of the Pfixer campaign but they were carefully monitoring supply issues in Europe.

RELATED: How mutant strain infiltrated Australia

“There is no doubt in the held discussions I had with European prime ministers, and others, earlier in the week that there are some difficulties that they’re encountering,’’ the Prime Minister said.

“And so we’re watching that very closely. We’re able to provide as much update as possible today to the premiers and chief ministers. They know what we know. There are some things in our control and some things that are not.”

Mr Morrison said it was another reason why the AstraZeneca vaccine had huge advantages because it can be manufactured in Australia.

“One of the reasons that we saw and paid a premium for ensuring we could produce the AstraZeneca vaccine here in Australia was that throughout the year we would not be exposed to those vulnerabilities to the supply chain like other occurring in other countries,’’ he said.

“At this stage we’re relying on the delivery of the vaccines from those producing countries at this early stage. I think we’re being very careful to be clear about expectations here.

“There are huge demands across Europe from other clients. So we’ll just continue to work through that and we’ll update the Australian people, as we have information available to us.”



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Local News - Victoria

Quarantine deal opens door to Pacific Islander seasonal workers


Yet fears remain within the industry that demand for fruit pickers will easily outstrip the number of workers arriving over the six-month period.

Mr Littleproud lamented that Victoria was the last state to recruit Pacific Island workers but said the federal government would work with the Victorian and Tasmanian governments to facilitate the flights as soon as possible.

The Victorian government and agriculture industry will pay for the costs of quarantining the Pacific Island workers. The Tasmanian government will foot the bill for the 330 returned travellers, as part of its commitment to bringing Australians home.

Fruit pickers at work in the Goulburn Valley this week.

Fruit pickers at work in the Goulburn Valley this week. Credit:Justin McManus

The horticulture industry has been sounding the alarm about a major shortage of Pacific Island seasonal farm workers, amid fears large amounts of fruit may be left to rot on trees.

The picking season for apples and pears has just begun at many orchards in Victoria.

Victorian Nationals leader Peter Walsh singled out a lack of detail on how much the agriculture industry will have to pay for the workers’ quarantine and said farmers were “demanding an explanation of why [Premier] Daniel Andrews didn’t act sooner”.

“Our growers needed these workers months ago, but today the Andrews government confirmed workers will only be made available ‘over the first half of 2021,’ ” Mr Walsh said.

“Industry is predicting a further eight-week wait for these workers to actually arrive in Victoria, meaning more growers will have to make the heartbreaking decision to destroy their livelihood and leave high-quality fruit and vegetables to rot.”

Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas called on the federal government to expedite the processing of visas for the workers. But she said local workers must be encouraged to help fill the labour shortages.

Ms Thomas insisted Victorians would not have to wait longer to arrive in Melbourne because of the agreement to take on more returning Tasmanian travellers.

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The state government has launched a campaign targeting students, migrants and grey nomads to take on seasonal work, but some growers say many Australian-born workers are unwilling to do the work.

Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano said the announcement was a small step in the right direction.

“We still need to know exactly what cost will be borne by the farmer,” she said.

Ms Germano said the timing of the workers’ arrival was also crucial. “If you miss a crop by a week you can have missed the crop entirely.”

She said 1500 workers were a “drop in the ocean” compared to what was needed but they would be very welcome for the growers who took them on.

Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein said his state’s quarantine program would focus solely on arrivals who presented a lower risk of transmission.

“Under the agreement with Victoria, Tasmania will assist Victoria to ensure it has the workforce it needs to harvest its produce, while still contributing to the national repatriation effort to bring our people home, ensuring more of our stranded Australians can reunite with their loved ones,” he said.

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Qantas workers ‘distraught, flabbergasted’ over outsourcing, union says


Qantas ground workers are ‘distraught’ over the outsourcing of their jobs as the airline finalises contracts with new suppliers this week, the Transport Workers Union says.

The airline said on Thursday it finalised contracts this week with seven ground handling and aircraft cleaning companies, following its November decision to outsource work at 10 Australian airports.

The union says workers have been left feeling like “disposable cogs in the machine”.

The change to some of the new suppliers will begin in coming weeks, with the first group of affected workers to leave the business, many of whom were stood down without work for the past nine months, according to the union.

TWU assistant national secretary Nick McIntosh said the workers were being replaced because Qantas wanted the work done cheaper.

“Qantas workers are distraught and flabbergasted that the airline they’ve given years of their lives to has treated them as disposable cogs in the machine,” he said.

“Their jobs are not redundant. Qantas still needs people to clean, load and push back their planes.”

Mr McIntosh said the workers gave the airline decades of hard work and loyalty before being cruelly axed and outsourced mid-pandemic.

“Last year, they were forced to go through the humiliation of bidding for their own jobs, only to be sacked in the new year anyway,” he said.

“Now the airline will never again employ another baggage handler, cabin cleaner or pushback driver.”

The pandemic was a “convenient excuse” for the national carrier, which planned to outsource these operations a decade ago, Mr McIntosh claimed.

He said the move was about driving down wages and conditions in aviation.

Qantas said it had consulted extensively with the union since its decision.

“This isn’t a reflection on our people but a reflection of economies of scale and the urgent need we have because of COVID to unlock these efficiencies,” a spokesman said.

“We are providing these employees with support as they prepare to leave the business.

“Restructuring our ground handling operations is a key part of our COVID-recovery plan, given the broader challenges we face.

“Outsourcing this function, which is what most airlines around the world have already done, will reduce our annual costs by $103 million and reduce spend on equipment by $80 million over five years.”

The group reported a $2.7 billion statutory loss in 2019-20 due to the health crisis and border restrictions.

More significant losses are projected this financial year due to a drop of revenue of more than $11 billion.

A total of 13,500 employees remain stood down.

“We have used these specialist ground handlers at many Australian airports for decades and they’ve proven they can deliver a safe and reliable service more efficiently than it’s currently done in-house,” the spokesman said.

Qantas said letters confirming final redundancy payouts would be sent in coming days, with the transition likely finished by March, with extra groups of workers leaving between now and then.

Affected employees will be provided a redundancy package and given support to change to new jobs outside the business, the airline says.

A small number of employees will be redeployed into other parts of the business.

The union has brought Federal Court action against Qantas over the outsourcing.

Qantas will defend the action, which is due to be heard in April.



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Local News - Victoria

Office workers return, but will the CBD ever be the same?


But others are less sure. The majority of 503 people employed in the city told Roy Morgan – in a poll commissioned by the City of Melbourne in November and December – that they were willing to return to the office, mostly because they missed the routine and their workmates.

But 32 per cent of people would like to work mostly from home and 42 per cent would like to have some regular days at home. Another 18 per cent would like to be able to work remotely when needed.

Prior to COVID-19, only 17 per cent of CBD workers routinely worked from home. Another 26 per cent did so when necessary.

The biggest barrier to getting people back into the office was COVID-19 safety in public (80 per cent of respondents), COVID safety at work (77 per cent) and commuting or parking (77 per cent). Seventy per cent said losing flexible working arrangements was a barrier to returning to their office.

Among those most reluctant to return to their workplaces full-time were people aged 35-49 years with school-aged children.

Management consultant Mark Geels is looking forward to getting back to his desk and seeing his colleagues but expects to continue working from home in some way for the foreseeable future.

“I’ll keep it as flexible as I can. Our workplace very much encourages flexible working and has done so even before the pandemic, but it’s never been as well followed as since the pandemic,” he said.

“I’ll never say never, but I don’t envisage [going to the office] five days a week at least for the next six months.”

He said the pandemic had proven that office workers could be productive at home, but that staff were missing catch-ups and chance encounters with their colleagues.

“Every meeting has to be planned. Rarely are they just spontaneous, and that’s what you really miss out on.”

Melbourne lord mayor Sally Capp has pushed for workers – “a vital part of what makes our city great” – to get back into the CBD to help cafes and bars that rely on office staff.

“Our message to workers returning to the city is that we’ve missed you, welcome back,” Cr Capp said.

Mr Geels said workers benefit from chance encounters with their colleagues.

Mr Geels said workers benefit from chance encounters with their colleagues.Credit:Jason South

Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry acting chief executive Dugald Murray has predicted that staff numbers might not increase beyond 60 per cent of capacity even when restrictions are eased again in late February, subject to health advice.

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Commercial vacancy rates increased to 13.2 per cent in the last quarter of 2020, according to new data from Macquarie, which described it as “the worst year for demand on record”.

There were 68,000 square metres of empty office space in Melbourne in the quarter, compared to 57,000 in Sydney.

Cr Capp said the council could consider converting under-used offices if working arrangements change in the long term, and acknowledged the city would have to adapt.

“This requires a mindset and policy change after years of managing the momentum of a strongly growing economy,” she said.

“There are going to be challenges for our economy with fewer workers in the city for the immediate future. We also don’t know how flexible working arrangements will play out in the medium and long term.”

“Our team will also be studying our residential population and what opportunities there are to convert under-utilised commercial buildings into apartments and creative spaces.”

However, she said Melbourne “can’t be replicated” and events, hospitality and retail need investment to “build on our strengths to entice people to return”.

Professor Buxton believes the emptying out of commercial buildings will be temporary, saying the greater threat to the CBD was the loss of international students and short-term renters in high-rise apartments.

It’s those buildings that could need to be repurposed for new tenants, he said, cautioning it was too soon to say whether this would eventuate.

“We might just have to look around for other ways to fill large numbers of vacant apartments. One option is public housing, for example,” Professor Buxton said.

He said Australia was one of the only countries in the western world to construct high-rise residential apartments that rely on international arrivals, a “risky model” dependent on international relations.

Before the pandemic hit, students comprised 45 per cent of the residential population in central Melbourne at the time of the 2016 census, many of them international students.

About 40,181 people lived in the CBD in 2016, which was expected to grow by an average 4.1 per cent a year, according to forecasts prepared for the City of Melbourne in 2019.

Danni Hunter, Victorian executive director of the Property Council of Australia, agreed there would be challenges for residential developments without international students.

“Everything’s changed, the fundamentals of what makes the property industry tick has really changed, but there’s a lot of opportunities in it,” she said.

Ms Hunter said there would be a period of transition before it became clear which behavioural changes became permanent.

“The property industry is extremely agile and is already responding to these rapid trends as we change floor plates, build in home offices and become ultra-connected across locations.”

Back in the 1990s, the city council and state government transformed the CBD by encouraging residential development under the Postcode 3000 project, which led to empty office buildings being converted into apartments. It brought thousands of residents into the city.

Several candidates in last year’s city council election advocated for again repurposing empty office buildings into social housing or artist hubs.

Mark Feenane, executive officer of the Victorian Public Tenants Association, said that could be a feasible option to address the shortfall in public housing.

“If existing buildings can be repurposed into safe, long-term housing that gives Victorians an opportunity to live with dignity, that would warrant serious consideration.”

COVID-19 rules changing from 11.59pm on Sunday, January 17

-From Monday, private workplaces will be able to increase to 50 per cent staff capacity and the Victorian public service will be able to return to 25 per cent staff capacity at each site.

-Masks will no longer be required in most workplaces. They will only be mandatory on all domestic flights, at airports, in hospitals, on public transport, in commercial passenger vehicles, at supermarkets and shopping centres.

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Labor claims reforms will be $1000 hit for some workers


Labor has accused the government of giving workers a summer holiday pay cut as it pushes ahead with plans to alter penalty rates.

The government will push ahead with a suite of industrial relations reforms in 2021.

It will also seek provisions allowing distressed industries employers to pay a “loaded rate”, a higher hourly rate, instead of penalties like public holiday rates.

The opposition claimed that, if passed, the laws could mean some workers would lose up to $1000 in holiday penalty rates if they worked Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and Australia Day.

But to lose that amount, they would have to work standard eight-hour shifts on each of the four summer holidays.

Labor industrial relations spokesman Tony Burke said millions of Australians were vulnerable to the government’s “nasty” reforms.

“This pay cut is Scott Morrison’s thanks to the people who got us through the pandemic – the frontline and essential workers who put themselves at risk by showing up to work and steering Australia through the crisis,” he said.

“If you abolish something called the Better Off Overall Test, guess what will happen: workers will be worse off.”

Mr Burke said banking, finance, or insurance industry workers could lose $1170 over the Christmas period.

He claimed a typical aged care worker could lose $1080, a fast food worker $908, and a registered nurse $890.

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter has dismissed previous attacks by Labor as “desperation”.

He denied the reforms would lead to worker pay cuts during parliamentary Question Time in December.

The government’s industrial relations omnibus bill also includes a bid to alter the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT), which requires workers be better off in workplace agreements.

The Coalition argues the enterprise bargaining system had become bogged down, saying the reforms would salvage negotiations by increasing flexibility.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in November the reforms were a “genuine attempt to fix practical problems” in enterprise bargaining.

New Treasury figures also revealed on Wednesday households and businesses have amassed $200b in savings.

Mr Burke said an economic recovery required Australians to have confidence and money in hand.

The government will end its Jobkeeper program in March, encouraged by better-than-expected figures in the September quarter.

The Treasury modelling showed the benefits of the government’s economic lifeline would last beyond the end of temporary measures.

Mr Burke accused the Coalition of hypocrisy, saying they were using the pandemic as cover to slash Australian wages.

“The government says the economy is doing well enough that businesses no longer need JobKeeper. But then they say the economy is doing so badly they need to cut the pay of workers. They can’t have it both ways,” he said.



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Local News - Victoria

Up to 50% of city workers to return to office from Monday, mask rules relaxed


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“To get to this eight days in a row of zero is no small thing and it’s a credit to all of our public health team and a credit to all Victorians who play their part in doing so,” he said.

However, Mr Andrews predicted that many Victorians would continue to work from home, saying flexible working arrangements were no longer “a concept”, but “the lived experience for many people over a long year”.

“They’re gonna want much more flexible working arrangements,” he said.

“They can do the job from home for some part of the week and they’re going to want to do that.

“I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from many, many very big employers about productivity not really being impacted, [and] in fact, in many cases, actually being enhanced by people working in a much more flexible way.”

The return-to-work schedule was pushed back last Wednesday, when there were 28 active cases of COVID-19, and a man with no apparent link to the Black Rock cluster was diagnosed with the virus.

From Monday, up to half of all private sector workers can begin working from their desks again, while Victoria’s public service, the city’s largest employer, can bring back up to a quarter of staff.

Mr Andrews said the government had capped the return of public servants at a lower setting to give the private sector more capacity to bring workers back.

The news will be welcomed by many thousands of Victorians who have been working from makeshift home offices since March.

However, the Victorian Chamber of Commerce expects the return to be a slow, drawn-out process and major employers, including NAB, Westpac and ANZ, have said their staff will return in stages, mostly from next month.

As The Age revealed on Wednesday, a Fair Work Commission survey found that only 5 per cent of workers want to return to the office full-time.

The survey of 322 users of the social media site LinkedIn by researchers at Swinburne University found that 35 per cent of participants would prefer to work from home every day, and a majority would like to split their time between home and office.

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One of the report’s authors, John Hopkins, said most employers were developing plans to allow flexible work arrangements, but, in some cases, they were insisting workers return to the office full-time.

Industrial lawyers have warned workers could be sacked if they refuse a request from their employer to return to the office once their workplace is deemed safe and the Victorian government relaxes restrictions on attendance.

Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng said authorities were “relatively confident” there was no community transmission in Victoria, but urged people to remain vigilant.

“What we’d like to do is encourage employers to be flexible to allow staggered start times,” he said. “Employers hopefully understand the need to be flexible and to make sure that not everyone’s going into the building at the same time, but obviously it will be different for different employers.”

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Pre-COVID, almost half the estimated 1 million people who travelled into the CBD every day did so for work, leaving CBD businesses heavily reliant on office workers for financial survival.

At the 2016 census there were 37,341 residents of the CBD, almost half (45 per cent) of whom were students.

But since Australia shut its borders in March, applications by foreign citizens to study in Australia have collapsed by more than 80 per cent. The number of international students is expected to be half its pre-pandemic total by mid 2021.

Melbourne lord mayor Sally Capp said having office workers return to the CBD would be a lifeline for city retail and hospitality businesses.

Mr Andrews said: “This will be a massive boost not only for the office workplaces in the heart of Melbourne, but the cafes, restaurants, bars and shops that rely on their business – it will be fantastic to see the city coming alive again.”

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Local News - Victoria

Workers have no right to refuse call to return to office, say lawyers


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The survey of 322 users of the social media site LinkedIn by researchers at Swinburne University found that 35 per cent of participants would prefer to work from home every day and a majority would like to split their time between home and office.

One of the report’s authors, John Hopkins, said most employers were developing plans to allow flexible work arrangements but in some cases, they were insisting workers return to the office full-time.

Slater and Gordon principal lawyer Andrew Rich said whether workers had legal recourse to refuse came down to whether the direction from their employers was reasonable.

“If you have a contract of employment [and] it was understood that you’d work from the office … and now it’s been deemed safe for you to return [and] there has been measures put in place within the workplace so to comply with government guidelines, then, in general, people will need to comply with that direction,” he said.

There are some circumstances under the Fair Work Act where workers have the right to make a request for flexible working arrangements, including working from home, and employers must consider them.

These include if the workplace isn’t following a COVID-safe plan, having a medical condition that makes a worker more susceptible to respiratory infection, needing to care for a family member or being over the age of 55.

However, employers can refuse these requests.

Maurice Blackburn senior associate Patrick Turner said employers had a duty of care to provide a safe workplace and workers concerned about whether a direction to return to the office was reasonable should first contact their union or a lawyer.

“The consequences for refusing a reasonable and lawful direction are potentially serious,” he said, adding that they included warnings and dismissal.

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Mr Rich said there was more capacity for workers without extenuating circumstances to negotiate working from home than before the pandemic due to a change in perspective from employers.

Mr Rich said whether the current legislation needed more teeth would depend on how employers responded to the situation.

Mr Turner said there was room for reform to better protect workers’ rights, ensure safe workplaces and preserve work life balance in a COVID-normal world.

The survey for the Fair Work Commission report, released in November, was conducted in May after the first wave of the pandemic forced lockdowns across the country.

Dr Hopkins, a Swinburne University lecturer and founder of WorkFlex, said he suspected the amount of people preferring to work from home was likely to have increased even more since then as they adapted to the situation.

He said many respondents described feeling mixed emotions about returning to the office.

“People will probably be looking forward to seeing their colleagues again, but probably not as keen [to be] getting on a packed train again,” he said.

“Obviously, the pandemic hasn’t finished. There’s still a nervousness around public transport and mixing with people, particularly in areas where you can’t socially distance.”

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Dr Hopkins said people looking forward to returning to the office needed to be aware that reduced numbers might mean a change in atmosphere or culture.

“The office is going to feel different when people do return,” he said.

Office workers Teri Tran and Naomi Lions returned to work at a large corporate Melbourne CBD office for the first time since March on Tuesday.

The pair, who will be splitting their time between the office and home, want the flexibility to do both.

“You have to wear [office] clothes again, you have to do things that you didn’t have to do at home, but it’s been a nice change,” Ms Lions said.

Ms Tran said a negative to returning was a one-hour commute.

Teri Tran says her one-hour commute is one of the downsides of returning to the office.

Teri Tran says her one-hour commute is one of the downsides of returning to the office.Credit:Joe Armao

The pair said they preferred collaborating face-to-face than trying to speak to colleagues via the internet.

They also said it was easier to potentially work overtime from home and that having to leave and catch a train home was a good way to mark the end of their working day.

“You take your breaks [at work] … instead of just sitting in front of a computer all the time. You can kind of forget when you’re at home to do those kind of things,” she said.

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Local News - Victoria

Workers to learn when CBD office buildings will be open for business


The return-to-work schedule was pushed back last Wednesday, when there were 28 active cases of COVID-19, and a man with no apparent link to the Black Rock cluster was diagnosed with the virus.

Although half of all private sector workers were due to return to the workplace from January 11, Victoria’s public service, the city’s largest employer, was only set to bring back a quarter of staff.

Fifty per cent of public servants would have been back at their desks from February 8 under the phased plan.

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien on Tuesday pushed for the government to speed up the return of public servants, in line with the private sector.

“Small business is bleeding out there. Small business is desperate for workers to come back to the office and to do it safely,” Mr O’Brien said.

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“If 50 per cent is safe for the private sector then 50 per cent is safe for the public sector too. The more workers we get back into the CBD, the more life our city will have back and the more jobs in small business we’ll be able to save.”

Property Council executive director Danni Hunter said the return of Victoria’s public servants to city offices would inspire confidence in the corporate sector and speed up return-to-work plans.

“There will be a bit of a lag,” Ms Hunter said. “It takes a while to bring people back.”

Office worker Angelique, who declined to provide her surname, visited her small CBD office on Tuesday to prepare for her return after working from home since March.

“It’s nice to get out and feel like you’ve got a bit more purpose going somewhere. It’s been really nice,” Angelique said.

The mother-of-two, who works for a small oil exploration company, said she didn’t enjoy working at home while her children weren’t at school, and couldn’t wait to permanently return to the office.

“It was quite difficult for me being out of the office.”

The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry want an announcement by Wednesday afternoon allowing for the return of more workers from next week.

“[We] understood the reasoning behind the government’s pause on the planned return of office workers to the CBD, but given the current positive situation, we are hopeful that more office workers will be permitted to return from Monday,” chief executive officer Paul Guerra said.

“We’d like to see an announcement on this in the next 24 hours to give both employers and employees time to adequately plan, especially considering childcare implications during the school holidays. Removing the requirement to wear masks inside the office would also incentivise employees to return to the workplace.”

A government spokeswoman said details would be revealed “soon”.

“The public health team reviewed Victoria’s return-to-work schedule in light of the current coronavirus outbreak, linked to the ongoing situation in NSW,” she said.

“The progression of the return-to-work plan for both the public sector and commercial offices was paused for one week, last week, and the government will have more to say soon.”

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Brothel workers charged over alleged 16yo ‘dominatrix’


A man has faced court accused of managing a 16-year-old allegedly hired as a “dominatrix” at a Melbourne brothel.

Wenjun Zhu appeared briefly in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Friday, facing six charges including causing a child to take part in an act of sex work, receiving payment for sexual services performed by a child, and entering an agreement by which a child is to perform sexual services to another person in return for payment.

He is also charged with failing to properly supervise a brothel, allowing a child to be on the premises of a brothel, and allowing a child to perform sex work at a brothel.

The 33-year-old, from Docklands, was a manager at Heidelberg Angels in Melbourne’s east while the 16-year-old was working there, police allege.

Police allege the child victim, who cannot be named, responded to an ad for an “assistant dominatrix” at Heidelberg Angels.

She was allegedly a sex worker at the brothel from August 28, 2019, despite her age.

Mr Zhu held a sex work providers license but “made no attempt to check her ID”, police documents tendered to the court allege.

Police say that video footage shows the child with a “male customer” who is wearing hi-vis in a hallway of the brothel about 8.40pm on August 28, 2019, before she moves off-camera.

About 40 minutes later the “customer” and the girl reappear together before the footage shows the male leaving the brothel and the 16-year-old carrying a towel into the laundry room, police say.

Police raided Heidelberg Angels on September 19 and seized a hard drive and a security monitor.

Mr Zhu told them he had worked there for 12 months, was still in training, and was paid $22.50 an hour, police said.

He said he could not remember the young girl, the court was told.

Two other alleged brothel workers, Cheng Li and Ying Yang — also called Jing Yang — were also charged with causing a child to take part in sex work, obtaining payment for sexual services by a child, agreement for provision of sexual services by a child, and allowing a child to take part in sex work over the employment of the same alleged child sex worker.

Charges against a fourth man, Xiang Zhang, have been struck out.

Mr Zhu will next appear in court on April 1.



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Local News - Victoria

Pandemic provides opportunity to rethink the CBD as office workers stay away


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The Victorian public service – the largest employer of workers in the city – was due to bring back up to 25 per cent of its staff from next Monday.

The phased return was due to cover up to 50 per cent of public servants from February 8, subject to health advice.

Commercial offices in the CBD were set to have up to 50 per cent of staff capacity from next Monday.

But on Tuesday a state government spokeswoman said both programs would be revised because of Victoria’s recent coronavirus outbreak and cases in NSW.

“The government has asked the public health team to review Victoria’s return to work schedule,” the spokeswoman said.

Given the evolving COVID-19 risk, major employers and the Victorian Chamber of Commerce expect the return to be a slow, drawn-out process.

NAB, Westpac, ANZ and other major employers say their staff will return in stages, mostly from next month.

“The [hospitality] industry is banking on a boost for the city to come back, there’s no doubt about that,” Mr Grossi said.

“It’s just one of those things. We’ve had a bit of a blow now with this last couple of weeks of cases having come back.

“So obviously everybody’s a bit shaken up by that, and not feeling great about it … we’ve gone through some really hard times last year so, hopefully, we’ve got all the positive spirit and energy that we could possibly muster up and get over it and keep moving forward rather than seeing us go backwards.”

Kirk’s Wine Bar owner Ian Curley said there were “no real surprises any more”.

“You can’t really predict anything,” he said.

Ian Curley, chef and owner at Kirk's Wine Bar.

Ian Curley, chef and owner at Kirk’s Wine Bar.Credit:Joe Armao

“We were sort of hoping that everything was going to be good and we had that little spurt just before Christmas where everybody seemed to be out and about and happy. And now we’re back to, like, we could go either way at the moment, I think.”

While many venues draw patrons into the CBD for a dining or drinking experience, the precinct is heavily reliant on office workers for day-to-day income.

Pre-COVID, almost half the estimated 1 million people who travelled into the CBD every day did so for work, while relatively few people call the CBD home.

At the 2016 census, 45 per cent of the then 37,341 CBD residents were students.

Since Australia shut its borders in March, applications by foreign citizens to study in Australia have collapsed by more than 80 per cent. The number of international students is expected to be half its pre-pandemic total by mid 2021.

Fleur Brown, head of industry affairs at the Australian Retailers Association, said working-from-home arrangements for city workers and university students, combined with the loss of international students and cultural events, was hitting “CBD retail ecosystems” hard.

“In the short to medium-term we’re unlikely to see pre-COVID-level CBD office populations, with workers and employers favouring more of a hybrid approach to working,” she said.

“This is not only a safety and social distancing choice, it is becoming a lifestyle choice as well. Once formed, consumer habits tend to stick.”

Ms Brown said there was an opportunity this year to rethink and redesign the CBD model, including retail, “and leasing relationships need to be reimagined as part of this”.

“Whilst CBD worker populations are traditionally the largest group, it’s a connected ecosystem, with hospitality, cultural and residential life all feeding the retail sector.

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“We all need to work together to revitalise the CBD and create a dynamic visitor opportunity. CBDs are powerful precincts with a magnetic pull when all these stakeholders work together to attract people into the centre.”

City of Melbourne chief executive Justin Hanney said the council was focused on the return of office workers.

“Ensuring the safe return of city workers remains a priority to help boost Melbourne’s economic recovery and reinvigorate our streets,” he said.

“The safe return of more people to our city will boost the confidence of employers and employees alike and encourage the return of more workers in the future, creating crucial jobs as our economy recovers and reactivates.”

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