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A coalition of peak industry groups is calling for urgent government action around six priority areas to prevent business collapse.
The Australian Retailers Association (ARA), Restaurant and Catering Australia (R&CA) and the Tourism and Transport Forum (TTF) met on Thursday (20 January) to discuss the devastation omicron has struck on businesses that are trying to survive with little government support.
Since the latest COVID variant has surged throughout Australia there have been ongoing supply chain challenges, a record low in consumer confidence and up to 50 per cent of workers going into isolation that has forced many businesses to close or limit their trading hours.
Australian Retail Association chief executive Paul Zahra said this year has seen businesses enter uncharted waters, with omicron impacting businesses more than any other time in the pandemic with almost no government support.
“Around 70 per cent of ARA members say they currently have staff in isolation, a third have limited trading hours in some locations, and around one in five have had to close some stores altogether due [to] staff shortages. These challenges are going to be with us for some time and targeted support is desperately needed from government so small businesses can survive,” Mr Zahra said.
Restaurant and Catering Association CEO Wes Lambert said in the hospitality sector omicron has left many businesses worse off than the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.
“Between staff having to isolate with COVID-19, mass cancellations from a fearful public and the ongoing staff shortage, who can blame them?” Mr Lambert said.
“Business owners need certainty that they have the government’s backing throughout this incredibly trying and tumultuous period. Whilst learning to live with COVID is a must, we can’t turn our backs on the hard-working business owners at this time.”
Tourism and Transport Forum CEO Margy Osmond said the continuing plunge in domestic traveller confidence due to omicron is very concerning for the industry that is still reeling from missing five school holiday periods in a row to restrictions and as a result, foregone more than $21 billion in related visitor spend.
“Further, after losing around 600,000 people from our sector over the course of the pandemic with many never to return, the lack of skilled staff is now the number one issue for tourism and aviation businesses large and small,” she said.
“This is why new support including incentives to attract staff, access to tests, flexible contact exemptions, less red tape and more targeted cash support for tourism, aviation and related sectors is critical, if the sector is to survive this crisis period and then start to get back on its feet.”
The consortium has released a list of six immediate areas of concern and support it believes the government could offer to help businesses through the crisis.
Rapid antigen tests (RATs) are a critical resource as we adjust to living with COVID and they should be easily accessible and affordable for businesses to assist with the testing of their staff.
We call on the federal government to underwrite the cost of RATs so businesses are not lumped with additional costs – on top of the trading impacts they’re currently suffering.
Omicron is forcing tens of thousands of people into isolation everyday and staff shortages across the economy are immense.
Whilst a range of industries have been included in the list of workers who are exempt from close contact isolation requirements, this needs to cascade out to workers in retail, hospitality and tourism, allowing these businesses to continue serving customers while keeping everyone safe.
We welcome the federal government’s recent announcements to lure more international students and working holidaymakers into the country through visa rebates. These workers will fill roles generally at the lower and medium-skilled positions level. We now need to prioritise these workers to fill the remaining labour shortages in our industries that are predominantly skilled.
At all times we support the priority of providing jobs to Australians and training Australians where they exist. However, the retail, hospitality and tourism industries were already dealing with skills shortages before the omicron wave. Our sectors require prioritisation with more specialised workers on the skilled migrant workers list.
Rent is a major pain point for businesses, and leasing codes of conduct have now expired in most jurisdictions leaving small businesses vulnerable to significant cash-flow challenges in the first quarter of this year.
We thank the NSW and Victorian governments for extending rent negotiation rights for small businesses until mid-March. However, rent relief is only available to businesses with turnover of up to $5 million (in NSW) and $10 million (in Victoria). We’re calling for the threshold to be lifted to $50 million – as it was previously – and for similar supports to be reinstated or introduced across the other states and territories.
Targeted cash grants, including the JobSaver program, were a lifesaver for businesses and should be reinstated. It’s clear that the impacts of omicron are widespread and ongoing and that targeted and temporary cash grants are needed to keep small businesses most affected alive until they come out the other side of this current crisis.
The last thing businesses need to be focussed on right now is regulation and red tape.
Feedback is that employer reporting requirements for positive cases are onerous, overwhelming teams and causing resources to be diverted to administration that is a roadblock to other safety and support issues.
We’re pleased to see a reduction in some of the duplicate reporting requirements within Victoria. We call on the other states and territories to do the same.