Foreign Workers Are Back! Australia Opens Borders to Vaccinated Workers

Foreign workers are once again, welcome back to Australia, after two years of – in the case of some states – severe and brutal lockdowns.

The impact of these lockdowns and border closures has, for many Australians, been as brutal as the actual lockdowns themselves. These include:

  • Separation from family for two years…
  • Massive job losses…
  • Economic slowdown across the country…
  • Worker shortages…
  • Job shortages…
  • Some industries almost coming to a standstill (think travel, tourism, events, hospitality)…

And these examples are broadly speaking. They’re the tip of the iceberg.

Once of the greatest problems we’ve experienced over the past two years, has been economic stagnation. Many industries haven’t been able to find workers, and therefore grow their businesses. Many industries suffered worker shortages because most workers have, at one time or another, had COVID. And the restrictions on people with COVID were fierce. State health department officials, knocking on doors, checking that the infected person is actually at home.

Supply chains have been (and some remain) affected. Food shortages. Supply not meeting demand. All because, we don’t have the workers available in Australia.

These have been crazy, crazy times.

And Then The Borders Opened…

“[…] Australia will open its border to all remaining visa holders on the 21st of February of this year…”

So said the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, on the 7th of February. This means, eligible workers from across the globe will be welcomed back to Australia. Foreign workers, temporary foreign workers and those wishing to both work and holiday in Australia, can come on back downunder.

foreign workers

“The condition is you must be double-vaccinated to come to Australia. That’s the rule. Everyone is expected to abide by it.”

Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia

Australia has had a near total ban on international travellers for almost two years.

However, since mid-December 2021, we’ve been undertaking a gradual reopening process for foreign workers. This plan has included international students, skilled workers, and those with approved working holiday maker visas (WHMs).

And now, things are ramping up even more. Australia’s leading tourism body has recently launched a marketing campaign to lure working holiday-makers, who seek to remain in Australia long-term.

But why are we so desperate for foreign workers?

Australia’s Economic Wellbeing Relies on Foreign Workers

Australia’s economy relies on foreign workers. We are a workforce of immigrants. One in two workers in Australia were either born overseas or have one parent who was born overseas.

The sectors most reliant on foreign workers are:

  • Hospitality
  • Retail
  • Healthcare
  • Aged Care
  • Construction

These sectors are currently coming back to life after stay-at-home orders and severe lockdowns have been in place across Australia’s two largest capital cities.

Until this recent announcement, industries have been losing workers to alternative industries, for key reasons. In healthcare for example, burnout has been rife. So, workers are turning to new opportunities and career pathways.

The situation is similar for workers in hospitality. As the big cities opened up, the shortage of workers meant many venues simply couldn’t operate. There were no workers.

The issue of Australia’s lack of foreign workers became frighteningly evident in the middle of 2021. Commonwealth Bank estimates showed that almost 300,000 foreign workers had left the workforce since the start of the pandemic. At this time, job vacancies were breaking records, but the number of employed Australians wasn’t back to pre-pandemic levels.

The reason?

The official statistics released by the ABS, according to Commonwealth Bank’s economists, “don’t accurately capture the impact of international border closures”. The consequent exodus of foreign workers therefore distorted labour market data.

temporary foreign workers

Source: ABS

Back to Today… Borders Open, Foreign Workers Welcome!

It’s expected with borders open, recovery in key sectors will be accelerated, especially those hit hardest by the loss of foreign workers.

However, the expectation is that broad economic and industry-specific recovery via engagement of foreign workers will be more of a trickle, than a huge splash.

Potential foreign workers are reportedly cautiously optimistic about the reopening of ‘Fortress Australia’. Our reputation after two years of COVID is now at odds with the inviting, easygoing nature we exude to international visitors and workers. Ongoing COVID restrictions – like vaccine mandates and requirements, testing requirements and mask mandates (although these are almost gone now) – may make the return of foreign workers a long game. Not a quick fix.

In January of this year, our unemployment rate was at 4.2 percent, a number many economists expect to keep falling.

From small family businesses to the ‘big end of town’ professional services firms, businesses are screaming out for new staff. Foreign workers can’t get here quickly enough. Our economic performance and employment data correlated directly with the ongoing hits from the different COVID variants…now, employers just want some consistency.

work and holiday

Source: ABS

Many employers seek for simplification of the working visa red tape and the process of bringing foreign workers here. Others are trying to cajole Australians to retrain for their industry. The barriers to fully operational sectors seem in place, until foreign workers start arriving in big numbers.

The Business Council of Australia said the reopening of Australia’s borders will help to “supercharge our economic recover”.

“This move brings to an end fortress Australia” […] “This is the light at the end of the tunnel that small business, tourism operators and the events industry was desperate to see.”

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott

The February 2022 budget recommendations from the Business Council of Australia, concerning foreign workers, included:

  • Catching up on lost skilled migration by raising the annual permanent migration cap to 220,000 places in 2022-23 and 2023-24, reverting to 190,000 in 2024-25, and reweighting the skills stream back up to a 70 per cent share.
  • Extending visa application charge refunds for working holiday makers and international students.
  • Temporarily reverting to four-year visas for all new Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa holders or extending the pathway to permanent residence to new two-year TSS visa holders, with continuation subject to a review.
  • Removing occupational skills list eligibility requirements for employer-sponsored visas for higher paid workers.

Source: Business Council of Australia

There’s opportunity in Australia in 2022 for foreign workers. But the rules specific rules apply, where double vaccination status is mandatory. The hope is for better processes to get workers here quickly, and for government support to facilitate that. Fingers crossed.


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