Australia Workers in south-west, Western Sydney exempt from toughest COVID-19 restrictions part of 'critical' national infrastructure

23:30  26 july  2021
23:30  26 july  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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About 15 kilometres west of Sydney's CBD, work is continuing at a busy courier depot despite the COVID-19 crisis unfolding nearby.

The Chullora depot of Aramex employs about 300 workers, many of whom come from the surrounding suburbs.

"A majority of the workers in this area do live in the Western Sydney area and are affected, obviously, by the new restrictions," Aramex Australasia chief executive Peter Lipinski said.

Those who can have been working from home, but many remain onsite, loading and sorting parcels, directing deliveries and managing collections.

Lyan Naqeeb, the executive assistant to the depot's boss, is at the site daily to keep things running.

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She said she and her colleagues were grateful to still be working.

"I just feel lucky that I have this kind of work, because we're in an industry that just keeps going no matter what's happening in the world," Ms Naqeeb said.

"Unfortunately a lot of my friends, they had to go on government support because they work in non-essential businesses."

Why does Western Sydney matter to the rest of the country?

Work continues at this depot and similar facilities in the area, with workers coming in from COVID-19 hotspots, because the consequences of it not continuing would be felt far beyond the bounds of the local government areas.

The Chullora facility is Aramex's largest in the country and a key part of its network in New South Wales and nationally.

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"It acts as a hub for international shipments coming into Australia, as well as the interstate volume coming from all our individual franchises around Australia," Mr Lipinski says.

A few kilometres away, Australia Post employs more than 1,000 staff across two facilities in Chullora, with 500,000 parcels a day processed daily for the broader postal network, and 85,000 processed and delivered in the south-west itself.

These are just a few of the many distribution centres, warehouses, transport and logistics hubs located in south-west and Western Sydney, supplying goods across the city, state and country.

Goods coming from overseas through Port Botany and Sydney Airport are transported to the processing hubs by rail or road.

"South-west Sydney — a bit like Chicago is to the US — really is the muscle," Business Western Sydney executive director David Borger said.

"A lot of logistics industries for Australian companies are actually located in the middle of the south-west, a lot of workers that work in the building industry, construction, come from the south-west."

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In addition to the people working locally, Western Sydney is also a major source of workers for the rest of Sydney.

"In 2018 Western Sydney had become the home of around 1.12 million employed residents," a report from Western Sydney University reads.

"This is over double the number of workers in Seattle, USA, the home of Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks."

That puts Greater Western Sydney ahead of metro Perth and Adelaide, and behind only Greater Melbourne, the rest of Sydney and Greater Brisbane in the number of employed residents per metropolitan region in Australia.

COVID nearly locked down essential workers

On July 17, as the COVID-19 crisis in Sydney continued to escalate, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced restrictions on residents leaving the Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown and Liverpool local government areas for work.

Initially, the announcement indicated only emergency services and healthcare workers would be allowed to leave.

However, by the following morning, a much more extensive list of "authorised workers" was issued, with it including retail, transport and warehouse workers.

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On July 23, the same restrictions allowing only authorised workers to leave home were extended to the Cumberland and Blacktown LGAs.

The reason for the quick reversal: Many workers and businesses in the affected areas are critical to the running of not only Greater Sydney, but also supply chains that stretch across the country.

It is a message that has been repeated by Ms Berejiklian and NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant in recent days.

"The people of south-western Sydney and Western Sydney are the people that keep our city running," Dr Chant said on Monday.

"They do a lot of the work in distribution centres, food, logistics, transport, and I think we reflect on that and do our part by also following the health advice and requirements to stay at home."

Woolworths chief supply chain officer Paul Graham told The Business Woolworths had discussions with the state government following the initial announcement and was pleased with the prompt clarification.

"Credit to the New South Wales government — they recognised that was a miss [and] rectified that immediately," Mr Graham said.

"We were able to make sure that the communication got around our business and to other retailers to recognise that … people in distribution centres and in that supply chain environment are also critical workers."

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Having avoided a massive disruption due to government restrictions, the supermarket giant is now working to keep the virus out.

In addition to the mandatory masks, workers inside the Western Sydney distribution centres wear electronic bracelets that alert them if they come within 1.5 metres of another staff member.

Outside, there are onsite pop-up testing clinics to screen the workforce for COVID-19 and help those from the Fairfield LGA easily fulfil the requirement to be tested every three days.

Mr Graham said he hoped the same pop-up clinic model could be used to vaccinate workers in the future.

'Critical infrastructure' in national supply chain

Shopping at your neighbourhood supermarket might feel like a localised task, but the groceries on the shelves are part of a national supply chain.

Significant volumes of fresh food and packaged groceries purchased in cities and suburbs around the country are distributed from hubs in other states, including in south-west Sydney.

About 9 million cartons of groceries a week are moved from Woolworths distribution centres in New South Wales. They account for 30 per cent of national store deliveries, supplying up to 1,000 stores.

Woolworths has a major distribution centre in Yennora — a suburb that straddles the Fairfield and Cumberland LGAs — and another in Minchinbury, in the Blacktown LGA.

"That area of Sydney near the Fairfield LGA is a significant infrastructure [area] for national food distribution," Mr Graham said.

"There's a state impact, as well as a national impact, so [it is] absolutely critical infrastructure."

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It is not just food and groceries coming through the area for national distribution.

There are several intermodal terminals in Western Sydney, including at Yennora and Chullora where containers arrive by rail to be transferred into warehouses or onto trucks.

Another is under development at Moorebank, in the Liverpool LGA, with several tenants already locked in, national retailer Target among them.

And as more people shop online, especially when shops are forced shut by restrictions, retailers are increasingly fulfilling online orders from distribution hubs, in addition to stocking their shelves.

Courier company Aramex said the volume of parcels it had been processing during the pandemic had significantly increased.

Last year saw a 40 per cent increase on the previous year. This year is up 28 per cent on last year.

"Recruitment is paramount and we've got a lot of vacancies and I'm sure a lot of other courier companies have the same situation," Mr Lipinski said.

'When western Sydney sneezes, NSW catches a cold'

The number of workers who live in Western Sydney was growing prior to the pandemic.

Overseas workers migrating to Australia, particularly those aged between 25 and 29 years old, contributed significantly to the growth of Western Sydney's labour force.

A report from Western Sydney University's (WSU) Centre for Western Sydney into the region's jobs market, released last year found between 2013 and 2018 the number of workers living in the region grew on average 2.9 per cent a year — a faster pace than the national average.

And the number of local jobs in Western Sydney itself was on the rise — nearly 60,000 jobs were added in 2018 alone.

Construction, health care and social assistance, education and training, retail, accommodation and food services and transport, postal and warehousing were the fastest-growing employment sectors, while manufacturing jobs continued to decline.

Business Western Sydney's David Borger said he hoped the growth would continue after the COVID cloud lifted.

"There's a lot of excitement generally in Western Sydney about things like the new Western Sydney Airport," he said.

"There are big health precincts in Westmead and Liverpool — they're real job engines.

"There's a lot of excitement around housing construction. That's ramped up in the last year in Western Sydney."

But that excitement about construction has been replaced with concern in recent weeks, following a shutdown of building sites.

"[Western Sydney and south-west Sydney] are doing it tough at the moment. It would really help if some of these rules like on construction were more realistic and more moderate," Mr Borger said.

He is concerned the shutdown of the fastest-growing employment industry in the region could hurt the broader state economy.

"When Western Sydney sneezes, New South Wales catches a cold," he said.

"It's that big."

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