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The Victorian government is recruiting intelligence and data experts to analyse which workplaces to target for enforcement and surveillance operations, in a significant escalation of its capacity to punish employers who fail to comply with Covid-19 restrictions.
An expression of interest circulated among the intelligence community this week and obtained by Guardian Australia shows that the Department of Justice and Community Safety is seeking to fill roles within the intelligence division of the “high risk industries engagement and enforcement operation”.
The division will collect and analyse intelligence to identify workplaces at risk of breaching restrictions, and provide that intelligence to authorised officers from the departments of health and human services, transport, Worksafe, fisheries, and other agencies. Authorised officers will then decide on further action, such as surveilling or raiding the business.
“The intelligence capability underpins the operation, ensuring that sites and businesses are selected for a compliance response based on a solid and robust risk-assessment process,” the EOI reads.
“The purpose of the intelligence team is to … enable intelligence led operations to influence high risk industries to comply with CHO directions in the workplace.
“Ultimately, they are seeking to achieve an end state where the high risk industries engagement and enforcement operation successfully engages with Victorian high risk industry businesses, establishing a high level of compliance aligning with the Victorian Covid-19 roadmap.”
The range of people who can be appointed authorised officers, and the powers available to those officers, was expanded under the Covid-19 omnibus (emergency measures) and other acts amendment bill 2020, which passed parliament earlier this month.
The 25 new positions within the intelligence division, which the EOI notes are yet to be formally advertised, include a director of intelligence position paying an annual salary of almost $200,000, and six senior roles paying as much as $160,000 per year. It is understood the exact number and scope of roles is yet to be finalised.
The executive director of the division, Chantelle Tavitian, is a former Victoria police employee whose conduct after crashing a police vehicle in 2017 was investigated as part of a broader Ibac probe. She was cleared of any wrongdoing.
It does not appear the government has spoken publicly about the “high risk industries engagement and enforcement operation”, but a senior public servant posted on her LinkedIn that she had been the “planning lead” of the operation since August.
Chief health officer Prof Brett Sutton designates high-risk workplaces. Those that are currently identified as high risk include health services and other care facilities, construction, food and distribution warehouses, and meat, seafood and poultry processing facilities. At different stages during Victoria’s second wave, about half of all active cases were linked to workplaces.
Earlier this month, the DHHS directed that Covid-19 testing had to take place in these high-risk workplaces, with the aim that every employee would be tested by early November.
The department of justice said in a statement that it had been proactively working with high-risk industries over the past few months to help prepare them to reopen safely.
“We are also working with a range of departments and agencies across government to ensure we can monitor, investigate and respond to any breaches that present a public health risk to the Victorian community,” a department spokesman said.
“This coordinated approach across industry and government is key to ensuring high-risk workplaces can open safely and do the right thing – which is critical to Victoria’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The emergence of an operation targeting employers comes at a delicate time for the Andrews government.
On Sunday, it is expected that some industries will be told they can reopen, but business groups say the Andrews government has kept Victoria locked down for longer than necessary after the state’s second wave of Covid-19.
The government has also been criticised for taking an overly punitive approach to enforcing restrictions during the pandemic. Businesses can currently be fined as much as $99,000 for breaching the permitted worker scheme.
Source: The Guardian
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