(Bloomberg) -- Australian workplaces have been put on notice by more than 30 unions to ramp up Covid-19 safety measures as businesses find increasingly risky solutions to cope with mass staff absences.

Unions are demanding better protection from the virus and free rapid antigen tests for employees, sparked by mounting anger surrounding a South Australia abattoir that told workers they should still come to work even if infected with the virus, unless their symptoms rendered them too unwell. 

The case has become a flashpoint for unions, with many industries facing worker shortages as staff are struck down with Covid or forced to isolate as the country endures its worst wave of cases yet. Australia’s government is determined to avoid further lockdowns and keep the economy open despite record hospitalizations and rising death numbers.

“Essential workers are being expected to put themselves in harm’s way to keep the country going and in many cases without the protections they need,” the Australian Council of Trade Unions said in a statement Tuesday after a meeting of leaders of national unions. 

“Where employers do not fulfil their obligations, the union movement determines to do everything within its power to ensure the safety of workers and the community. This may include ceasing work or banning unsafe practices.”

Teys, part-owned by U.S. agricultural giant Cargill, recently backed down from the mandate for positive workers at its abattoir following a widespread backlash. South Australia Health confirmed that more than 140 positive cases were now linked to the site. The firm said it followed rules from the state health department, which confirmed it had permitted some Covid-positive staff in critical fields to keep working.

Covid-positive workers at the plant were being separated and forced to wear yellow hairnets to show their infection status, according to press reports. Grocery giant Woolworths also temporarily suspended orders from the factory. 

A spokesperson for Teys declined to comment.

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ACTU secretary Sally McManus said staff shortages were worst in the hospitality and retail industries, in a radio interview Tuesday. As much as 50% of the workforce in some industries was on sick leave, McManus said.

In an attempt to remedy the crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week introduced amendments to isolation rules for workers in critical services industries including transport and freight -- who are now no longer required to isolate even if they are deemed a close contact.

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