Push for migrants, unemployed to fill COVID gaps in critical industries

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Employers are urging the federal government to lift restrictions on working hours for temporary migrants to fill gaping holes in food supply businesses, which are reporting 20 to 50 per cent shortfalls in their workforce due to COVID-19 infections.

Food supplies are running short in eastern states and national cabinet will meet on Thursday, where state and territory governments will discuss a proposal from the federal to relax isolation requirements for workers in critical industries. The federal government is also set to allow international students to temporarily increase their work above the usual limit of 40 hours a fortnight in critical industries.

State and federal governments will meet in national cabinet on Thursday to discuss new rules to scrap COVID isolation requirements for critical workers. Credit:Kate Geraghty

Representing groups for food retailers, farmers and transport companies are backing the proposed plan to keep workers in their jobs, but warn its success hinges on the plentiful supply of rapid antigen tests, which are currently in short supply and are expected to remain so for weeks.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday the situation demanded “a fair bit of patience” as governments worked to “problem-solve” the issues across food and other supply chains.

Peak employer representative Australian Industry Group said there were hundreds of thousands of Australian visa holders with limited or no working rights who could be brought in to fill shortages in the industries of aged care, supermarkets, food processing and supply, agriculture, tourism and hospitality.

“Ai Group would like to see consideration given to a temporary granting of work rights to all visa holders currently in Australia to allow them to work in the areas of acute need,” said Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox.

“Why not, for example, allow temporary skilled 482 visa holders to earn extra money … right now they can only work for one sponsor.”

Acting Employment and Workforce Minister Anne Ruston said on Wednesday the government was considering ways to get people without a job to fill workforce gaps.

“We certainly would be very keen to work with Jobactive and people who are currently unemployed to see if there are ways that we can encourage them to fill these gaps in the workforce,” Senator Ruston said.

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus welcomed the extra working hours for student visa holders but said the unions “will not tolerate” the changes to isolation requirements for critical workers and said it was critical that rapid antigen tests be made free for everyone.

NSW and Victorian governments have already stopped isolation requirements for workers in critical industries if they are a close contact, as long as they have no symptoms and return negative rapid antigen tests.

A senior Victorian government source told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald the state is planning to significantly expand these arrangements to free up more essential workers for critical industries.

Industry is calling for nationally consistent rules and the federal government has proposed changes that would enable asymptomatic close contacts to work if they return a negative test on day one, and then on every second day for six days.

It remains to be seen if states and federal governments agree on the list of critical industries, and on the number of rapid antigen tests workers must take.

University of Melbourne epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely said the changes to isolation rules were necessary to avert the supply chain crisis and slowing community transmission was “less critical” with the Omicron variant reaching its peak in NSW and Victoria.

“The balance of societal benefit is to get those essential industries back,” Professor Blakely said.
A standard framework with “common definitions” could be agreed on at national cabinet and deployed in states and territories at risk of supply chain issues once a certain trigger point was reached, he said.

Professor Blakely said workers who lived with someone infected with COVID-19 should only be able to go to work if they were isolating within the home, including using a separate bathroom, and be provided with properly fitted N95 masks at work.

Professor Blakely said essential workers in NSW and Victoria already had high rates of COVID-19 infection, meaning there was “probably only a third or maybe half left to get infected”.

with Dana Daniel

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