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Australia Coronavirus border uncertainty worsens skills shortages in WA

02:15  17 january  2021
02:15  17 january  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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a person holding a baby: Anne Norman and Jamie Damaso are trying to get to WA to set up a new life. (ABC News: Hannah Palmer) © Provided by ABC Health Anne Norman and Jamie Damaso are trying to get to WA to set up a new life. (ABC News: Hannah Palmer)

Furniture sold, bags packed and jobs on the horizon — but Anne Norman and Jamie Damaso are stuck in limbo.

Based in the coastal New South Wales town of Harrington, the couple are trying to move to Western Australia, but say the unpredictable border closures have left them stranded.

"It does scare me, because I worry what's going to happen if this continues," Ms Norman said.

"We've got a baby, we've got debts, things to pay for."

The pair had been working in Queensland on a contract mine job when Ms Norman fell pregnant.

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They'd planned to move to Perth — where Mr Damaso had worked for years in mining and construction — but dangerous complications with the pregnancy meant they instead went to NSW to be near family in February last year.

They'd never bargained on COVID-19 keeping them locked in the state.

Job offers knocked back, super withdrawn

Once little Mackenzi was safely delivered and doing well in May, the couple decided to get ready to move to WA when the border opened to NSW.

But their plans were dashed again, with Sydney's Avalon outbreak slamming the border shut again.

"There were tears," Ms Norman said.

"We were trying to come up with all different plans — plan B, plan C, all of that — and we just haven't been able to get there."

With limited work for Mr Damaso where they are, the pair have been receiving government payments.

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Withdrawing super helped to keep their heads above water for a while, but time is running out.

"The little we have left is to get to WA. It wouldn't be enough to support us for the next ... who knows how long this is going to go on," Ms Norman said.

But while things get desperate on the east coast, the couple says they have job offer after job offer waiting on the other side of the country, and a rental property waiting.

"I've got about 12 different employers who keep ringing me up nearly every day asking when I'm coming over," Mr Damaso said.

While some exemptions can be granted for people relocating permanently from medium-risk states for work, a key requirement is proving employment — and Mr Damaso's offers have been contingent on him getting to WA first.

"I even got offered a minimum 12-month gig down in Bunbury, full-time, and good money — but I couldn't do it because I couldn't make it there," he said.

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"I just want to get there and make some money for my family."

It has been more than three weeks since the family applied for a compassionate border exemption, and they have had no response.

WA Police said they were reviewing more than 4,000 G2GPass applications for people hoping to cross the border, and they were being done in a "timely and prioritised manner".

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Skillforce Recruitment business manager Tyler Elliott said in the eight years he had been at the business, he had never seen businesses struggle so much to fill positions.

The agency predominantly hires blue-collar workers across mining, construction, civil and transport industries.

Mr Elliott said businesses had gone above and beyond to attract and assist workers during COVID-19, but the border closure was beyond their control and creating a lot of uncertainty.

"We're seeing a massive change in regards to attracting employees and how we perform business on a daily basis — there's a number of job ads that we've probably increased tenfold, but the number of applications are very low," he said.

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Mr Elliott said the business was receiving daily calls from prospective employees from other states.

"Having all three states [Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales] locked out in regards to entering WA and their willingness to work does create some problems for us," he said.

He said for those who could secure exemptions, there had also been issues with processing them quickly.

Mining industry feeling the strain

Association of Mining and Exploration Companies chief executive Warren Pearce said the border closures had caused serious interruptions for an industry reliant on moving people around the country.

"Broadly speaking, the WA mining industry's been able to manage it pretty well, and overall the hard border closure and the ability to keep COVID-19 out of WA and out of the mining industry has been a net benefit," Mr Pearce said.

"But it does mean we're working with significant challenges about skills, about people, and of course it puts a lot of pressure on our workforce."

Mr Pearce said many interstate workers who came over for a temporary stint on the west coast last year ended up being caught for up to eight months, creating reluctance for some to return with ongoing uncertainty over borders.

He said companies were continuing to work on arrangements to bring employees and their families to WA, where possible, as well as reworking rosters for longer shifts and trying to recruit more local support.

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Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA chief economist Aaron Morey said accessing skilled labour had been flagged by businesses across a variety of sectors as their biggest concern right now.

"There's a range of impacts of these border restrictions — whether it's accessing skilled workers, supply chains, being able to travel and pitch for work and deliver services, and of course our tourism sector, particularly up in the Kimberley," he said.

"Our border arrangements need to continue to be set on the basis of the best health advice, but if we go beyond a proportional response, then we start to damage businesses unnecessarily."

While Mr Morey said it was positive that a number of people had already moved to WA during the COVID-19 pandemic — reports said more than 5,000 interstate FIFO workers had decided to call WA home — many more were needed to fill positions right across the economy.

"Even at the best of times, we rely heavily on workers from interstate and overseas, so clearly it's much harder right now for businesses to access the workers they need to diversify the WA economy," he said.

"Job vacancies are at record highs, and while that partly reflects a recovering economy, it also reflects the fact we cannot get the workers we need."

Mr Morey said getting workers was vital to diversifying the state's economy beyond the buoyant mining sector, and also preparing for the end of JobKeeper, which he said pumped around $120 million into the WA economy each fortnight.

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Premier Mark McGowan said the State Government was encouraging a large number of Western Australians to get trained up across areas like construction, mining and nursing through TAFE fee cuts and apprenticeships.

Mr McGowan said he understood the situation was tough for many people.

"I just want to remind everyone we've gone nine months now without a single community case of COVID-19 — and that's because we put in place a border to keep the state safe," he said.

"It won't be there forever — when they get [COVID-19] under control, obviously we'll bring down the borders and that will allow people to come in at that point in time."

WA's hard border with Victoria is due to ease on Monday, with travellers permitted to enter the state without a travel exemption but still required to quarantine.

For Ms Norman and Mr Damaso, the eased border restrictions can't come soon enough.

"We take COVID really seriously, especially with having a baby, but I don't know what more we can do," Ms Norman said.

"We're not going for a holiday, we're going because we need to go there."

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Tunisian border traders, smugglers struggle to survive amid COVID .
Strict coronavirus restrictions have hit vital border trade in southeast Tunisia hard, triggering an exodus to Europe.Out front, Tarek sits in a burnous, a woollen hooded Tunisian cloak. Behind him, plastic jerrycans full of diesel are stocked in the shade of his stall.

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