17 May 2021
Since the Covid-19 pandemic struck and international workers left the country, Liberals have been quick to point fingers at unemployed jobseekers as the reason for staff-shortage woes. But the problem is far more complex than they’d like to admit…
Australia is facing a staff shortage crisis. Across the country farmers have been forced to let unpicked fruit rot and restaurants have been forced to shut multiple nights a week because of a shortage of chefs and waiting staff. There are jobs out there that desperately need workers, but meanwhile… Jobseekers are turning up their noses to perfectly acceptable, easy work, choosing to luxuriate on the couch fanning themselves with their indulgently generous dole payments. At least, that’s what the Liberal party and right-wing Murdoch papers would like you to believe.
There’s no doubt that staff shortages have been high since the pandemic hit. The majority of industries deeply affected by the shortage happen to be industries that heavily rely on the labour of international workers, workers who quickly left after the government made it very clear to them no support would be offered over the pandemic. As the impending summer fruit season loomed the government and farmers begged Australians to give farm labour a go, offering them financial incentives and suggesting that the job will offer them “great Instagram opportunities”. Restaurants are struggling to hire enough workers to keep their doors open, advertising positions for months and failing to attract appropriate applicants
Meanwhile, the Australian government is stepping up the pressure on jobseekers. In the 2021 Budget the government introduced new measures for jobseekers to cop including intensive training requirements after 6 months, and a new employer phone number aiming to crackdown on job refusal dubbed the “dobseeker hotline”. If someone who receives a jobseeker payment turns down a job for whatever reason, they run the risk of sacrificing a month’s pay. Relinquishing a month’s pay is a cruel and torturous punishment for jobseekers who are already living below the poverty line. Someone who is living on so little is only going to turn down a job for a legitimate reason, but their reasoning must be approved by their job agencies who happen to receive big bonuses when their clients are employed. This incentivises job agencies to punish jobseekers and push them into working unsuitable jobs.
These changes in the 2021 Budget are a highly calculated decision made by the government. By legislating changes that frame jobseekers as “dole bludgers”, the government shifts the blame of under and unemployment away from their own economic mismanagement that has prioritised business recovery over workers.
Before the 70s unemployment was seen as a failure of the economy and the government for not creating enough jobs for everyone. After the mid 70s, the rhetoric of the “dole bludger” began to flourish among neo-liberal politicians, and blame was shifted to the unemployed who were described as lazy and relied on their overly generous income support.
The real reason Australia is facing severe staff shortages is because the government has failed on many counts: to support international workers when they were here, to fix chronic exploitation among these industries, and to provide adequate funding and support training services like TAFE.
The government shouldn’t be shifting the blame on the unemployed for fruit-picker shortages: instead they should be cracking down on exploitation and ensuring all pickers are paid a minimum hourly wage. Aussies don’t want to work in the fruit industry because packing up your life and moving across the country to work an exploitative labour-intensive mindless job for piecemeal rates isn’t worth it in the least.
I myself have worked fruit picking as a desperate unemployed student looking to make quick cash. The farms I worked at were almost an hour and a half away from my house, which meant I didn’t have to move to the farm temporarily and pay double rent as many do. But it was hard damn work. The heat and combined stress of attempting to make a water bottle last 3 hours in 40 degree heat left us dehydrated and exhausted and many a time I wondered if one of us might pass out from heat stroke. We often didn’t have access to bathroom facilities and had to duck behind a grape bush. It was the most exhausting job I’d ever had, but I had two luxuries: one, I had the option to quit whenever I wanted. Two, we were paid the hourly minimum wage instead of the common piecemeal rates which often pay a few dollars an hour. I can't imagine how much more insufferable and exhausting (both mentally and physically) it would have been had I been paid piecemeal rates and had no choice in quitting without risk of losing jobseeker payments or a visa.
The fruit industry has long been supplemented with travelling international workers, many of whom are either backpackers required to work 88 hours for their visa, or whom are travelling from impoverished countries and are in search of steady work. These visitors are already more vulnerable than the average Australian, likely having low English skills, not having a solid understanding of labour laws, or running the risk of having their travelling holiday cut short for not fulfilling visa requirements if they leave exploitative work.
The fruit industry has been long broken. It is the fault of the government to not correct these issues before the pandemic and allow the situation to reach a crisis point.
Meanwhile, though the hospitality industry has seen similar issues as the fruit industry, these issues are very different in nature. They are a skill, not staff, shortage. Advertised restaurant positions are getting applications, but they are getting them from low-skilled applicants. If Australia is running low on chefs and other skilled hospo workers, then it is on the government to prioritise training and training services like TAFE to fill these skill shortages. The skill shortages in the hospitality industry have been declining for many years, and all the pandemic has done is reveal the failure of the government to address this before it was an unavoidable issue.
In the end, it’s unsurprising that the government has been working hard to blame jobseekers for these staff shortages. As the next election looms, the Liberals are desperate to maintain the illusion of their competence in recovering the economy and lowering unemployment rates. When the government frames jobseekers as the problem they get the luxury to pick and choose what they claim responsibility for. It didn’t go unnoticed that the 2021 Budget failed to address the growing underemployment rate: as underemployment continues to rise so does the rate of insecure and casualised work, and wages stagnate. The Liberal party wants wages to stay low because it benefits their big business donors. Let’s not fall for their tricks: the government is responsible for fixing staff shortages, not the unemployed.