Up to 400,000 foreign students will be able to work extra hours under a temporary relaxation of visa rules to ease crippling labour shortages, amplified by the isolation of thousands of workers in response to COVID-19.
As the omicron wave disrupts commerce, fuel stations warned motorists could suffer a repeat of UK petrol shortages, unless rules on virus-related isolation and foreign student visa holders were loosened to alleviate staff absentee rates of up to 40 per cent.
Foreign students will have their 40-hour-a-fortnight working cap lifted in affected sectors, under a plan Prime Minister Scott Morrison will take to state and territory leaders at a national cabinet meeting on Thursday.
Isolation rules for close contacts in trucking, aviation and logistics are set to be eased, moving the sectors in line with lighter rules already flagged for food and grocery distribution workers who are asymptomatic and rapid test negative.
Some 20 per cent to 50 per cent of trucking and logistics workers have been forced to isolate according to government consultations with industry, exacerbating shortages of groceries at supermarkets and other stores.
Coles reimposed buying limits on toilet paper and essential medicines such as paracetamol, amid panic buying.
Mr Morrison will press states to remove the requirement for truckies to provide proof of a negative rapid antigen test to cross some state borders.
The Commonwealth is finalising a list of essential services with advice from health officials about which workers should face less strict isolation rules, with healthcare, aged care, childcare and construction under deliberation.
Shortages across economy
Even before the omicron virus surge fuelled labour shortages, businesses had been trying to hire almost 400,000 workers to fill vacant positions.
Job vacancies rose 18.5 per cent to hit a record of 396,100 in the three months to November 30 as employers embarked on a hiring spree at the end of the delta lockdowns in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported on Wednesday.
One of Victoria’s largest home builders, AHB Group, on Wednesday said about one in four staff had been forced off construction sites due to close contact with a virus-infected person or contracting COVID-19 themselves.
AHB director Pas Garofalo said builders were “stealing staff from each other” and having problems sourcing construction materials due to scarce labour and supply chain disruptions.
Master Builders Australia chief executive Denita Wawn called on the national cabinet to implement measures as broadly and quickly as possible.
“As a country we cannot go for a third year like this, we must avoid a situation where our response to the pandemic amplifies its worst economic impacts,” she said.
With more than 100,000 estimated new daily COVID-19 cases, the Prime Minister said until the virus wave peaked it would inevitably hit supply chains and the workforce.
“The goal is to get as many people as safely at work in these critical sectors that keep Australia moving,” Mr Morrison said.
The economic importance of keeping school classrooms open, so parents can work without home schooling their children, will also be emphasised by Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy at the national cabinet meeting on Thursday.
Foreign students in demand
Business groups in emergency talks with government ministers have pressed to increase the cap on the permitted working hours of foreign students.
The government has agreed to a proposal to increase the 40-hour a fortnight cap for foreign students while they are studying, with it likely to be doubled to 80 hours a fortnight or the equivalent of 40 hours a week.
Hospitality and agriculture were granted similar concessions for foreign visa holders last year, to overcome the closure of the international border that exacerbated a shortage of workers.
Australasian Association of Convenience Stores chief executive Theo Foukkare said workplace rules needed to be eased for workers in a wider range of industries beyond food and grocery distribution.
“Our members have had to close stores and reduce trading hours and the concern is it’s going to get a lot worse over the next month,” he said.
“People can’t buy fuel if we don’t have staff to transact.”
“We want to use the existing staff here up to 40 hours a week and them not to be penalised for breaching their student visa requirements.”
Fuel stations and convenience stores such as 7-Eleven often employ foreign students to work part-time and late-night shifts.
There were 395,186 international students enrolled in Australian courses on October 1, with about 70 per cent of the students located in Australia.
The international border reopened on December 15 for more foreign students to return.
Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston also urged unemployed people and retired workers to help fill the temporary workforce shortages caused by the rapidly spreading omicron variant.
“Many older Australians I’m sure would be happy to do a few extra hours work to help out, and anybody who is currently on unemployment benefits who are able to work, we’d be really keen for them to undertake some really active investigation about how they can help out with these workforce shortages,” she said on Sky News.
Another idea put forward by industry in a meeting with Senator Ruston on Tuesday night was to increase the number of hours welfare recipients could work without losing their government benefits.
This could allow pensioners and parents receiving family tax benefits to increase their working hours to fill skills shortages.
However, a government source said this would likely require legislation approval by the Parliament, which is not scheduled to sit again until February.
Foreign student visa holders are permitted to work a maximum of 40 hours per fortnight (equal to 20 hours a week) when their course is in session, and unlimited hours when their course is out of session.
They cannot work until they have commenced their course in Australia.
Family members who are listed as secondary visa holders on the primary student visa must not start work until the primary student visa holder has started their course.