Unemployment has surged in the NT and employers fear the worst when JobKeeper ends

Jimmy Shu owns two restaurants in the Northern Territory. Source: Aneeta Bhole

Unemployment rates have increased in the Northern Territory, but with new clientele emerging amid the pandemic, frontline workers are worried about the pressure on the housing market once allowances stop in September.

This is part of a series of reports on unemployment in Australia. 

Unemployment rates have increased in the Northern Territory since the introduction of strict coronavirus measures.

Some businesses have been forced to reduce to a skeleton staff, while charity services are seeing an increase in the demand for housing for those unable to pay rent.

For Jimmy Shu, who owns two restaurants in the Northern Territory, business was booming before coronavirus restrictions gutted his workforce.

"Having to let go of staff is almost like losing a loved one," he told SBS News.

"If you've been working with them, even on a part-time basis, over many years, it's hard to let them go."


Mr Shu had to let go of the majority of his staff and only has nine permanent employees across his Darwin and Alice Springs businesses.

And it wasn't the only change he had to make during the pandemic.

"For the first couple of days we were all stunned we had to shut down the restaurants, it was so unusual," he said.

"We had no lights on, no tableware, it was as if we were opening for the first time or we'd gone out of business. It was an eerie feeling.

"Then, when we were allowed to do the takeaways, we had to focus more on that. We were thinking about deliveries, online ordering systems, and me personally doing the deliveries."

With COVID-19 restrictions now beginning to ease, Mr Shu has been able to resume normal hours but said revenue has taken a hit.

"We've dropped down by 60 per cent. There's a little bit going up and down but then the trend is going to be 40 per cent and that's going to be hard to survive once JobKeeper stops," he said. 

According to the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data, the Northern Territory has had one of the largest increases of unemployment, up 1.8 points to 7.4 per cent.

That is higher than the most recent national figure which rose from 0.7 points to 7.1 per cent in May.

Charities in the Northern Territory have been at the forefront of the impact, many fielding an increase in the demand for assistance and a surge of new clientele.

Justin Wilson works at the Emergency Relief Centre at St Vincent de Paul in Alice Springs and said it's been a stressful time.

"We've seen a reversal of people coming into us, we're seeing a lot of new customers and new clients who have never accessed emergency relief before," he said.

"They're mostly coming from people who previously had two jobs and now suddenly they've been reduced to one or even none.

"People are under a lot of stress, especially financially, they're running out of food, they have bills, mortgages, car payments, power bills, those things still need to be kept up."

Darwin St Vincent de Paul.
St Vincent de Paul services in Darwin and Alice Springs have seen a spike in new clientele.
Aneeta Bhole

And while many have managed to keep a roof over their heads, some have been forced into homelessness.

"We saw a big spike in people sleeping rough, sleeping in cars, sleeping in vans, they really didn't have anywhere to go at all," Mr Wilson said. 

John McBryde works for Central Australia Affordable Housing. He said pressure on housing was ubiquitous before COVID-19.

"The housing situation in Alice Springs and the Central Desert is pretty bad," he said. 

"Homelessness here is 17 times the national average and the current waitlist for public housing is about four to six years.

"So even pre-COVID, the situation for housing was quite severe and we have a severe lack of social and affordable housing here in the Red Centre."

Mr McBryde said the worst is still yet to come.

"I know that some of the frontline homelessness services have seen a bigger increase in the amount of clients," he said.

"But as a housing provider, we haven't seen that big an increase. I think that's primarily because of the JobKeeper payment and the JobSeeker payment.

"What I have concerns about is that once that finishes what sort of impact is that going to have on the housing sector?"

The payments are set to end in September.

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If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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