WA is recovering well from coronavirus but the damage to its job market is already done

Prerna Mehta is looking for work. Source: Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

After recording the nation's highest unemployment rate in May, some industries in Western Australia are struggling to bounce back. But there are modest signs of improvement.

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

In the heart of Perth’s financial district, West Australians are returning to office buildings after months of quarantine.

But not everybody is going back.

Prerna Mehta worked as a consultant for a professional services firm but lost her job two weeks ago.

“I didn’t know how to react because the only thing that pops into your head is, 'what’s going to happen in the next few years, how am I going to get a job?',” she tells SBS News.

“There aren’t any jobs out there, or at least it feels like that. In that moment, you’re just panicking.”

As coronavirus restrictions were imposed in Western Australia, staff at Prerna’s firm were asked to take a 20 per cent pay cut to prevent job losses. But she was made redundant anyway.

“For everybody that did get made redundant, it was a pretty big shock. We were hoping that the measures they had taken earlier, with reducing the salaries, would have made sure this situation didn’t happen,” she says. 

Prerna is now looking for change management roles in a shrinking economy.

“Everyone has their own way of dealing with it. My father said ‘go and do some more studies' and my friends say, ‘use this time to relax’,” she says.

“It’s a bit of a rollercoaster. I’m definitely not someone who wants to slow down at the moment, so I’m actively looking for a new job."

Coronavirus restrictions in the state are easing, but in many sectors, the damage is already done.

Suzanne Worner runs Upbeat Events, an events company that works with local councils to create major street festivals in Perth.

Suzanne Worner runs an events company in Perth.
Suzanne Worner runs an events company in Perth.
Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

“No one is going to commission a 50,000-person street festival for some time. Essentially, our office has been derelict since the day we said 'put down your pens', and it's been a quiet place ever since,” she says.

Suzanne says Upbeat Events was planning two festivals in March, when the coronavirus pandemic began to drastically change the industry.

“[In early March], we started to postpone locking in artists … thinking these events might not go ahead,” she says.

“We were getting a lot of social media complaints, ‘why are you promoting events, you’re going to endanger the community?’.

“I remember it was Friday the 13th of March and it really just hit us that these events can’t go ahead. We basically said to our staff just to stop. A lot of them are artists and we had to tell them 'we won’t have the money to pay for you. This just isn’t going to happen'.”

Upbeat Events was left with no choice but to turn away its contractors and is still waiting to learn if an application for JobKeeper will be approved.

"There are flow-on effects to the guy we rent toilets from, to the people that set up our stalls and taken them, down at the end of the day," Suzanne says.

“We had a bunch of contractors, about six of them dealing with different aspects of the event, plus myself and the other co-director. But it meant that all of our contractors, we couldn’t guarantee them any more work.” 

In May, Western Australia posted the nation’s highest unemployment rate at 8.1 per cent, after April saw the biggest month-to-month decline in jobs in the state’s history.

Social support organisations are now warning of a second unemployment wave due to the planned repeal of JobKeeper in September and more businesses realising they can’t survive long-term.

“We know there are key industries that have been hardest hit; hospitality and tourism," says Chris Twomey, director of policy for WA Council of Social Services (WACOSS).

"And those areas won't bounce back for quite a while, but people are losing their jobs all over the place." 

Chris Twomey from the WA Council of Social Services.
Chris Twomey from the WA Council of Social Services.
Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

"We’ve seen a first wave of unemployment, but were expecting a second or third wave. Particularly as businesses work out that they're no longer sustainable, or as we see the federal government pulling back on the JobKeeper package."

"But also when they’re reducing JobSeeker, we're expecting to see people getting into hardship then."

WACOSS says it is concerned that stigma associated with unemployment is preventing people from asking for help.

Of particular concern are families in the ‘mortgage belt’ of Perth’s outer metropolitan suburbs.

“A lot of them are young families in those new housing development areas. A pile of them are getting JobKeeper now, but they’re using all of that to pay off the mortgage, and they’re having to go to charities to get food relief just to get by,” Mr Twomey says.

“At some point, they’re going to have to get good advice, and to think about their financial circumstances with housing and finances before they get in trouble.”

There are concerns for families in Perth's outer metropolitan suburbs.
There are concerns for families in Perth's outer metropolitan suburbs.
Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

Western Australia’s job numbers have recovered slightly in recent weeks, as coronavirus restrictions have been lifted earlier than expected.

But there are still difficult times ahead, with the treasury forecasting the state’s economy to shrink by just over three per cent during this financial year.

One reason for optimism is the state’s mining industry.

Demand for iron-ore in North Asia has remained consistent throughout the global pandemic, ensuring existing jobs remain and even growing the workforce. 

“China has continued with strong demand ... but then other key customers like Japan have definitely reduced," says Ivan Vella, a managing director at Rio Tinto.

"We've increased by 300 roles through this period and we've created space for apprentices that had lost roles elsewhere."

Fortescue's iron ore operation in Western Australia
Fortescue's iron ore operation in Western Australia.

The mining industry was given support by the state and federal governments to continue operating, even as other industries around the country were brought to a standstill by COVID-19.

But operations still had to comply with quarantine requirements.  

"We’ve got a significant screening process at the airports for all of our people going out to the mine sites. Everyone is screened on the way through,” Mr Vella says. 

"About 80 per cent of our team that live interstate chose to relocate [to WA]. We help with accommodation and out-of-pocket costs for food, recognising the contribution they were making to keep operating." 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

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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