Construction and manufacturing workers could be the next Australians to lose their jobs as the coronavirus pandemic pushes unemployment to Great Depression levels.
Tens of thousands of people across the country have already been retrenched as the Australian Government banned overseas travel and shut ‘non-essential’ businesses to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Queues outside Centrelink are a reminder of what happened during the 1930s, when unemployment quickly surged into the double digits.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s cabinet has agreed to allow the construction industry to continue working during the world’s worst health crisis in 100 years, but economists fear builders could be next.
Westpac, Australia’s second biggest bank, fears the national jobless rate will more than double by June, from 5.1 per cent to 11.1 per cent.
This would see 814,000 people lose their jobs, as unemployment soared to the highest level since December 1992.
Westpac is also forecasting an economic contraction in the March, June and September quarters, which would mark the first technical recession in 29 years.
This downturn would be even more severe than the global financial crisis of a decade ago.
The Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre forecast the jobless rate rising to 12.7 per cent by May 2021, which would be the highest unemployment level since the 1930s Great Depression.
In February, less than 700,000 people couldn’t find a job but in little more than a year, that was expected to hit 1.7million – as 1,070,804 people lost their jobs.
Economist Saul Eslake said hospitality job losses, following this week’s ban on pubs and clubs, had overshadowed the dangers facing the building industry.
‘We haven’t seen too much yet about job losses in manufacturing or construction because the focus has been on areas such as retail, hotels and transport,’ he told News Corp Australia.
‘But manufacturing and construction are jobs that you can’t do from home, almost by definition.’
In a bid to keep construction up and running, unions are urging employers and staff to strictly follow the public health advice.
Electrical Trades Union national secretary Allen Hicks says reckless individuals may ‘stuff it up’ for everyone else.
‘There are some people out there who are treating this as business as usual,’ he told Australian Associated Press.
‘Some of the sites are doing an awesome job, others need a shot across the bow.
‘If they are going to stuff this up they will stuff it up for the whole industry.’
Construction workers would further clog the welfare system if building projects were suspended during the pandemic, Mr Hicks said.
‘We are talking about hundreds of thousands of construction workers – it will put enormous strain on the welfare system.’
SafeWork NSW on Thursday told AAP it had received 13 complaints about possible coronavirus exposure on construction sites.
Inspectors were enforcing coronavirus health guidelines during building site visits, a SafeWork spokesman said.
‘Where on-site construction work is required, operators should put in place controls to ensure social distancing and positive hygiene practices can be maintained.’
The construction union on Thursday said a Melbourne worker had been infected with coronavirus after travelling overseas.
The worksite was immediately shut down and no close contacts had displayed COVID-19 symptoms, the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union said.
‘All necessary procedures to ensure the health and safety of site workers were implemented,’ the union said in a statement.
CFMMEU national construction secretary Dave Noonan says members are being urged to report any worksite not following coronavirus guidelines.
‘The union has heard from members that some worksites are not changing their practices or setups to meet the hygiene and safety measures that have been advised by medical authorities and mandated by the government,’ he told AAP.
‘This is not good enough. It is essential that the industry maintain all of the health and hygiene precautions that are required for construction workers to remain safe.’
Mr Hicks said unions would only push for construction work to continue so long as health authorities said it was safe.
A group of 11 unions and industry associations on Wednesday issued a joint statement stressing the importance of keeping construction jobs running.
‘As vital constituents of the economy, it is critical that all stakeholders of the building and construction industry work together to ensure the protection of employers, workers, their families and our community,’ the statement said.
Almost half of Australia’s businesses have already felt the effects of the coronavirus and four out of five expect to be hit in coming months.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics research was released on Thursday as staff were retrenched at Virgin Australia, Flight Centre and Premier Investments, which owns retailer Smiggle and a range of clothing stores.
The ABS collected data from 3000 business in mid-March, pre-dating the first phase of the Morrison government’s social distancing measures.
The most prevalent impact was felt in the accommodation and food services sector where over three-quarters of businesses have been affected, while just shy of 100 per cent anticipated impacts in coming months.
‘The pandemic is causing havoc across all industries,’ National Australia Bank economist Kaixin Owyong said in a note to clients.