How people on Centrelink could help solve one big problem

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Unemployed people could soon be called upon to help address a food supply chain crisis.

Government minister Anne Ruston has suggested Centrelink recipients could help feed regional and remote communities during the Omicron outbreak.

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Temporary visa holders and older Australians could also be enlisted.

Staff shortages have battered the food supply chain, with supermarket shelves left bare and cafes and restaurants forced to close.

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Critical industries are expected to back the government’s proposal, which could still face stiff opposition elsewhere.

A powerful group known as the National Coordination Mechanism held a meeting on Tuesday to discuss the worsening supply chain crisis and come up with some potential solutions.

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How people on Centrelink could help solve one big problem

Camera IconSupply chains are under pressure as the Omicron variant spreads throughout the country, leaving supermarket shelves empty amid worker shortages. NewsWire / Sarah Marshall Credit: News Corp Australia

One key topic of discussion was an idea put forward by Senator Ruston – that job opportunities be opened up for older Australians, Centrelink recipients and temporary visa holders.

Senator Ruston said the government was “constantly” working with employers about ways to push through the Omicron wave.

“Todays talks are about how we can connect business, particularly small business, with JobSeekers through the jobactive and disability employment services networks,” she said.

Ahead of the talks, Senator Ruston said tapping new pools of potential workers could help plug shortages.

“A very high number of the workforce are currently furloughed, either because they have Covid, are caring for Covid, or are a close contact,” she told Sky News.

“Anybody who is currently on unemployment benefits who is able to work, we would be really keen for them to undertake some really active investigations about how they could help out with these workforce shortages.

“Many older Australians, I am sure, will be happy to do a few extra hours to help out at the moment.”

Independent Food Distributors Association chief executive Richard Forbes said such a move could benefit rural communities and vulnerable populations.

“We’ve got to keep in mind the remote and Indigenous communities are out there and we need to make sure we keep getting the food up to them,” he said.

How people on Centrelink could help solve one big problem

Camera IconSenator Anne Ruston has suggested getting unemployed and older Australians to fill gaps left by Omicron worker shortages. NCA NewsWire / Dylan Robinson Credit: Supplied

Meanwhile, unions have warned workers could walk off the job unless the government stops “dragging its feet” with rapid antigen tests.

The ACTU and other industry peak bodies want rapid antigen tests to be provided for free to critical workers, to keep supply chains operating and businesses open.

“Australia is now experiencing our worst days since the start of the pandemic and the highest level of sickness ever seen in the workforce,” ACTU secretary Sally McManus said.

“Essential workers are being expected to put themselves in harm’s way to keep the country going and in many cases without the protections they need.

“Unions condemn the failure of the Morrison government to respond to our requests to work with us during this crisis; or our demands for the provision of free rapid antigen tests, improved masks, fixing close contact definitions and restoring support for businesses and workers.”

A number of industry bodies represented at Tuesday afternoon’s forum have voiced their support for workers taking strong action unless the government meets their demands.

But Treasurer Josh Frydenberg cautioned workers against taking strike action.

“Such drastic action and intimidation and threats has no place in the middle of the pandemic,” he said.

“It would be exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

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