There was certainly a lot of déjà vu about 2021. It was similar to 2020 in many ways as the pandemic continued, lockdowns were implemented, and businesses were forced to close or modify their behaviours. We continued to worry about our jobs, our health, family and the future.
There was ongoing confusion over the rules and regulations, made worse by the lack of consistency between the approaches of the state and territory governments to the pandemic. Victoria showed it would lock down at the drop of an infected hat, whereas New South Wales used lockdowns only as a last resort. Apart from Queensland and WA’s hermit policies, must Australian governments realised they were part of one country and kept their borders open to interstate travel as much as practical.
We started the with Delta and finished with Omicron.
However, there were two big differences between 2020 and 2021. First, we had vaccines and people flocked in their droves to get their jabs. Second, the ‘we are all in this together’ mantra disappeared and a relatively small group of anti-vaxxers got nasty and violent as they sought to put their rights above those of the great majority.
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What did all this mean for small business? Well, like 2020, it depended upon the type and location of the business.
If you were a hospitality or retail business in Victoria (and later NSW), life was hard. Businesses in the other states and territories were not hit as hard but still suffered from the lack of interstate travellers and the inability to plan in the face of dramatic uncertainty.
Business in the grocery and health sectors went well, as did takeaway coffee and food outlets. The accommodation sector went from no bookings during lockdowns to an inundation of bookings. We heard of businesses having periods of zero income and then having periods of record sales.
Workplace relations remained an area of utter confusion. Such confusion was no surprise given that immediately before the pandemic — and for at least 20 years before that — the system was overly complex and the IR system was dominated by the self-interest of the members of the IR Club. That is, the big union and big industry associations who continued to put their own organisational interests above that of their respective memberships.
The main area of confusion, once vaccinations occurred, was whether employers could stand down employees who refused the vaccine without reasonable health grounds. The result was that there was, and continues to be, no protection in place for employers and their vaccinated employees from the self-righteous unvaccinated. Even big business with their in-house HR teams and external advisers were unable to find a way through.
The best way to make our workplace relations pandemic and disaster proof is to make the system simpler. Simplicity creates certainty for employers and employees alike. Small business employers and their employees should be able to easily understand the conditions of employment without the need to get an IR lawyer involved.
Supply chain problems exposed
The other big issue was the impact of supply chain shortages. During the pandemic we discovered there are a lot of things we rely upon, that are essential for business to function, that we did not know about. And I am not talking about toilet paper.
A good example is AdBlue and the technical grade of urea that is mixed with water to produce this product (Urea is commonly used as a fertiliser for the agricultural sector but a special grade is needed to support the operation of the exhaust systems in modern diesel-powered trucks and farm machinery). Without it, about 40% of the trucks that deliver the goods and services we all need stop. It now turns out that 80% of the technical grade needed for this purpose is imported from China, which means, when they choose to stop exporting as they did in late October, we are in trouble. No urea means no AdBlue, which means reduced trucking operations across the country with consequent risks to the supply of the food, fuel, construction materials and essential goods that we all need to go about our daily lives.
The other supply chain issues are around semi-conductors used in all modern cars; timber and copper used in construction; pallets used to transport grocery items; general retail stock; and even a shortage of industrial CO2 needed to make beer and soft drink.
Where are the workers?
But the biggest supply chain issue was worker availability. While 2020 was a challenge in terms of not having enough customers due to lockdowns, 2021 proved to be a challenge in not having enough workers due to national and international border restrictions.
There is a lack of skilled — and unskilled — employees across the country. This has had a huge impact on the hospitality and agricultural sectors in particular, but has since spread to other industries such as the heavy transport sector, the IT industry, the financial and accounting sectors, the food and grocery sector, and even the fuel industry.
The frustration from restaurateurs and café owners at not being able to even open due to lack of staff, or provide the quality service that they are/were known for, is not just bad for business but has an impact on the mental wellbeing of owners. The owners are also concerned for their current employees who often try to work the extra hours needed but also, for personal and health reasons, need a break. We find restaurants are closing several days a week and cannot meet the needs of the public. Even the service stations find they cannot get staff and will close at times they normally remain open.
The shortage of employees is a crisis. It has been made worse by the complications of workplace relations and compounded by confusing health regulations and the requirements for healthy workers to isolate for seven days when a single case has been detected in a workplace.
What will 2022 hold?
There is no doubt that, until now, our politicians and health experts have done well — for our health and the economy. But now as bickering increases between states and we get closer to a federal election, and as Omicron takes hold, we need to become clearer on what the rules there are, and will be, when the next letter of the Greek alphabet is applied to a strain of COVID-19. Let’s hope we never experience an Omega variant.
Our politicians need to agree on what the next steps will be, for the sake of on-going health, jobs and community. Decisions must be made solely in the interests of lives and livelihoods based on health advice that is calibrated with economic advice and not for party-political purposes in the lead up to a federal election.
Governments, especially those facing an election in 2022, must ensure that communications with industry is as good as possible (NSW remains the benchmark). Similarly, unions and big industry need to resist the temptation to set aside their traditional ideology and engage constructively with governments and each other to champion the bona-fide interests of their respective members, and the broader community, in a new year that is unfortunately likely to be just as challenging as the one that is now drawing to a close.
Will we have learned from our experience or will we have Deja-vu22?