Coronavirus – will it impact worker availability

Since the first detection of unusual pneumonia cases in the Chinese port city of Wuhan on 31 December 2019, and subsequent identification of the novel coronavirus as the cause, the virus has rapidly spread. As of 5 March 2020, the outbreak has now been identified in 77 countries with 93,164 confirmed cases and 3,199 deaths. While the virus rapidly developed in China, new infections there are now declining, but infections worldwide continue to rapidly increase in countries such as Italy, Iran and South Korea.

What exactly is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). A novel coronavirus is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. The current virus is now known as COVID-19.

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. SARS was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS from dromedary camels to humans. The animal source of COVID-19 is yet to be confirmed. Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans.

Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, a cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.

Impacts on trade

The worldwide impact of COVID-19 has been substantial, with major disruption to international travel as health agencies recommend social distancing and self-quarantine measures to combat the spread of the virus. World financial markets have been severely impacted, with global share markets falling heavily and forecasts of reduced global growth.

Shipping has been seriously disrupted, with congestion at ports (particularly in China), and disruption to supply chains causing ongoing issues for manufacturing, retail and export focussed industries in Australia.

A vaccine is reported to be 12-18 months away and the short to medium-term impact of the virus is largely unknown.

Will there be fewer harvest workers available?

With airlines reducing international flights worldwide and bans on travel to Australia for residents of China and Iran, there is some concern that the number of overseas workers coming to Australia may decline.

In the short term, there is unlikely to be any noticeable difference, with Australia seen as a low-risk country for COVID-19. Many working holidaymakers (WHM) who have obtained a visa and booked flights are likely to continue to travel. The Seasonal Worker Programme now forms a significant component of Australia’s seasonal labour workforce and, at this stage, there has been no impact on the number of workers travelling to Australia under this program.

The medium to longer-term impact is more difficult to determine. The possibility is that as concerns around COVID-19 linger, fewer people will apply for working holiday visas, leading to a reduction in the number of people travelling to Australia, and consequently doing seasonal harvest work. Fortunately, the number of people doing seasonal work to obtain a visa extension recently reached a five year high. Coupled with a large number of Seasonal Worker Programme workers coming to Australia, and a reduction in available work due to drought and fires, there is currently an oversupply of people looking for harvest work. Consequently the impact of any reduced incoming worker numbers will take a while to morph into actual worker shortages. It may even lead to backpackers already in the country electing to do an additional six months of harvest work to gain a third-year visa to defer travelling home.

Be alert, but not alarmed

To quote from a political slogan coined in 2003 as part of a national public information security campaign – be alert, but not alarmed – is probably the best way to manage the current COVID-19 outbreak.

Sufficient harvest workers are currently available and this is likely to be the case in the near future. However, depending on the impact of the virus in the medium to long term, labour shortages may occur. This will depend in large measure upon the ultimate spread of the virus, and decisions made by potential WHM to travel or remain at home.

If you have any difficulty sourcing seasonal workers at any time, the National Harvest Labour Information Service is there to assist you.  There is no cost, and listing a vacancy will generally generate calls from keen applicants quite quickly, particularly from backpackers, but also from students, grey nomads, or locals genuinely looking for work.  Just call on 1800 062 332 and ask for the State Manager who looks after your region.