Some businesses forced to lay off foreign workers unable to return home and ineligible for government assistance are feeling a “moral obligation” to help these people with few options.
- North west Australian businesses are providing accommodation and food for foreign workers they can no longer employ
- Foreign workers on temporary visas ineligible for government support
- Travel restrictions preventing unemployed people leaving small towns
In Western Australia’s far north, the managing director of the Kimberley Accommodation Group, Dannielle Hart, said the group had to lay-off around half of its employees, many on temporary work visas.
“A lot of our staff have been with us five-plus years, so it’s heartbreaking, it’s devastating,” Ms Hart said.
“We’ve had to close about 80 per cent of our businesses and lay-off about 70 staff so far.”
The Kimberley Accommodation Group owns businesses across the remote north west of Australia, including the Kununurra Hotel, the Kimberley Hotel in Halls Creek, and Matso’s Brewery in Broome.
But the coronavirus pandemic has hit hospitality and accommodation businesses hard, with restaurants and bars closed indefinitely and demand for accommodation slowing to a trickle.
‘An ethical and moral obligation’
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Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Kimberley Property Group was able to offer employees on-site accommodation.
Now they are providing accommodation and meals for former-workers who they can no longer employ, and who would otherwise be in a very difficult position.
A former employee, who has lost his work visa after the restaurant closed, remains in the company’s accommodation.
“We continue to house him because there is an ethical and moral obligation to these people that have worked for us for years and are part of our family,” Ms Hart said.
Strict travel restrictions to and from, and even within the remote region have been brought in to protect the large Indigenous population in the Kimberley, who are regarded as particularly at risk from COVID-19.
But it brings added complications for people finding themselves unexpectedly unemployed in small towns where the busy tourist season has effectively been cancelled.
“Staff we could no longer keep on are still trying to make arrangements to move on, but travel restrictions make this difficult,” Ms Hart said.
The company is now feeding and accommodating around 20 former employees who are variously ineligible for welfare, unable to find other work, and unable to travel to other areas.
“We’ll do it for as long as possible,” Ms Hart said.
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‘It’s pretty scary’
Derby is a town of just 3,500 people, 200 kilometres east of Broome at the mouth of the Fitzroy River.
Business would normally be picking up at this time of year as tourists pack four-wheel drive vehicles with supplies before taking on one of Australia’s great adventure drives, the Gibb River Road.
Instead, the owner of the town’s only cafe remaining open has just laid off two more employees.
Mark Kraljevich is worried about backpackers becoming stuck in remote towns, locked down and with no income.
“It’s pretty bad for backpackers because I don’t think they can get any help from the Government, and they can’t go back to China, or wherever they come from,” Mr Kraljevich said.
“It’s pretty scary for them I think.”
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While he no longer had the cashflow to keep employing a young female Chinese backpacker as a waitress, Mr Kraljevich accompanied her to the local supermarket to make introductions and assist her in finding new work.
“We’ve found her a job at Woollies, I think, because they’re looking for workers now, so that’s good.”
‘Need to be looked after’
About a 1,000 kilometres further west, the city of Karratha sits as a surprising metropolis in the Pilbara mining region.
The red, rocky ranges give way to high-rise residential units, restaurants and trendy cafes serving cold-filtered coffee.
Managing director of Blanche Bar, Bart Parsons, said that overseas workers on temporary work visas had filled the jobs in remote hospitality businesses that Australians could not or would not.
But now he is being forced to cut workers who have no safety net to fall back on.
“I think they really need to be looked after because they’ve played a big part in making a place like Karratha what it is today,” Mr Parsons said.
Mr Parsons has been unable to continue employment for eight of his staff and has had to cut his workers’ hours but has taken responsibility for their welfare.
“We’ve found them other jobs straight away, and they’re still staying in our houses,” Mr Parsons said.
Mr Parsons said businesses in north west Australia and the foreign workers they had relied on for years to serve their local communities were not being properly supported by Australian governments.
“In the north west it’s much different to what it is in the cities, we just can’t, at times, get anyone to fill the roles we put out there,” he said.
“It’s disappointing that [work visa holders] who are paying tax, and already may be well on their way to getting permanent residency, haven’t been thought of, especially north of the 26th parallel.”
Kindness in difficult times
Dannielle Hart has not only had to balance the survival of her company with a massively reduced cashflow, but also the reality that workers she lays off may have no options to make a living or leave the Kimberley.
“My understanding is that the visa-holders, the particular type that we hold, wouldn’t be eligible for any kind of benefits under Centrelink or Newstart,” Ms Hart said
“And virtually we’d be kicking them out on to the street with no income.”
As she watches the family business built up by her parents, buckle under the increasing strain each day brings, Ms Hart can also see the human kindness emerging from the difficulties.
“The positivity is the way the staff have been pooling together,” Ms Hart said.
“Some of the staff that we’ve reduced hours for have said, ‘I’ll give my hours to this person over here, because they’ve got a kid to support.'”
Ms Hart said there has never been a more important time for the community to support their local businesses as much as they can.