Australia’s Covid border controls leave miners facing staff shortages


For those who have always dreamt of working down a mine in the middle of the Outback, this could be the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.

The shutdown of Australia’s borders during the pandemic has helped keep the virus at bay. But it has also fuelled an acute labour shortage Down Under – not least in its mining industry.

Anglo-Australian behemoths Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are among those facing spiralling wage bills, delays to projects and hits to production as they struggle to recruit key workers, from train drivers to engineers.

The shutdown of Australia’s borders during the pandemic has helped keep the virus at bay. But it has also fuelled an acute labour shortage Down Under – not least in its mining industry

Now ministers in Canberra have responded to urgent appeals from mining and hospitality bosses by doubling the scope of its fast-track visa programme for foreign skilled workers.

Engineers, drillers, underground surveyors and geologists are among 22 occupations added to the federal government’s Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List, alongside chefs and accountants. 

Other professions added to the fast-track visa list include prosthetists and cartographers, as well as software programmers.

They join key workers like GPs, nurses and midwives, taking the total number of professions in Australia’s fast track visa scheme to 41.

Applications for foreigners who work in these roles will be prioritised by immigration officials, so long as they have an Australian employer to sponsor them. 

Drillers, geologists and engineers can expect to command six-figure salaries, with miners forced to pay top dollar due to the labour shortage.

One major catch is that – until the rules change – they will have to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks at their own expense.

Rising costs: Haulage trucks at the Rio Tinto West Angelas iron ore mine in the Pilbara, West Australia.  Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are among those facing spiralling wage bills

Rising costs: Haulage trucks at the Rio Tinto West Angelas iron ore mine in the Pilbara, West Australia.  Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are among those facing spiralling wage bills

The skills crunch has echoes of the mining boom more than a decade ago when thousands of foreigners – including plenty of Brits – were lured Down Under to work in highly paid jobs.

This time the backdrop is very different, with Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison warning its international borders may not be reopened until the second half next year. 

This risks starving businesses of vital foreign labour for the foreseeable future. 

A report commissioned by Western Australia’s Chamber of Minerals and Energy (CME) has warned the state, a mining powerhouse, faces a shortfall of up to 33,000 workers in the next two years without reforms to encourage interstate and international migration.

It said the severe skills shortage in the mining sector has been caused by a ‘perfect storm’ of factors, including border closures, the backlog of maintenance work which was delayed by Covid, and the demand for skilled workers generated by big government-backed infrastructure projects.

Interstate border closures and restrictions have also contributed to the labour shortage in Western Australia.

Underlining the ongoing threat to the labour market, millions of people in Sydney have just been banned this week from leaving the city following a small outbreak of the Indian variant of Covid near Bondi Beach.

Western Australia, as well as Queensland and South Australia, have responded by shutting their borders to much of Sydney. 

The CME report predicted a ‘wide range of impacts on the resources sector, the Western Australian economy, and state government’ if the labour shortage is not addressed.

And it said mining companies could face spiralling costs and delays to major projects.

 Rob Carruthers, director of policy and advocacy at the CME, said: ‘The consequences of not addressing these shortages are pretty acute.’

The skills crunch in the mining sector is set to become more urgent, with an estimated £76billion of projects in the pipeline as record iron ore prices have turbo-charged the mining sector.

Those with most at stake include FTSE 100 firms Rio Tinto and BHP, which have raked in bumper profits and paid out record dividends to investors on the back of the surge in iron prices. Rio Tinto has four big projects on the go. 

The biggest of these is the new £2billion Gudai-Darri mine in the Pilbara, Australia’s mining heartland in the remote north-west.

The firm previously told investors that a combination of the labour shortage and cyclone season has already disrupted maintenance of its mines in the Pilbara region.

BHP has also warned of a ‘critical shortage’ of train drivers in the Pilbara.

Steve Knott, chief executive of the Australian Mines and Metals Association, said the closure of international borders to skilled migrants has ‘wreaked havoc’ on the mining industry.

The CME also said the expansion of the fast-track visa programme should help address the labour shortage.

But it has urged the Australian government to go further by establishing a special mining visa – similar to the agricultural visa launched for South East Asian nations.

Western Australia’s premier Mark McGowan will meet with industry leaders at a skills summit in Perth next week.

Rio and BHP shareholders, living half a world away back in Britain, have every reason to hope it’s a fruitful one.

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