A prominent timber workers’ union official has warned people not to “dodge” state border closures and follow strict measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
With the $1b-plus forestry sector on tenterhooks that it may be swept up in looming restrictions, union leader Brad Coates said it was imperative the community and the forestry workforce come together in response to the COVID-19 health threat.
His comments come as the Limestone Coast recorded its fourth confirmed COVID-19 case and border checks continue to be enforced on the city’s eastern gateway.
The state border lockdown has triggered widespread confusion given around 200 forestry workers regularly cross interstate for employment purposes.
While forestry workers were grappling with whether they could gain exemptions, Mr Coates warned they must obey the law, even though it was inconvenient and frustrating.
“Workers must not dodge the state border and follow restrictions. They could get caught, have to self-isolate for 14 days and face heavy fines.”
While the timber industry had swept in a raft of COVID-19 measures to protect workers, he said some forestry and timber workers appeared to be complacent over this developing health crisis.
“I have spoken to some people and they seem a bit blasé over the situation,” said Mr Coates, who is the Green Triangle secretary for the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union manufacturing division.
Mr Coates said forestry workers crossed the South Australian border from Dartmoor, Casterton, Portland and other areas.
While the industry had yet been hit with major disruptions, he revealed anxiety was heightened given the rolling shutdown across the economy.
Mr Coates described the scenes of people lining up outside Mount Gambier’s Centrelink office as devastating after huge jobs losses across the city.
“There is uncertainty facing the whole community and the collapse of the tourism and hospitality is a refection of that.”
Regarding the region’s timber sector, he said companies had already swept in a number of measures to reduce the risk of infection/community spread and safeguard the industry’s future.
He said some major employers had already agreed to grant up to 14 days of special leave to employees if the industry was hit with major restrictions.
Mr Coates said a small number of businesses within the sector had reduced its casual staff and labour hire.
“While this has had only a minimal impact, there is anxiety among the workforce,” he said.
He revealed some forestry/timber workers’ family members had lost jobs in other sectors.
Mr Coates said he would support a push for the sector to be determined as an essential service if the safety and health of employees could be guaranteed.
He praised companies for moving quickly to stagger meal breaks, implement social distancing measures and ramp up cleaning regimes.
“They are working to minimise the number of workers in areas,” Mr Coates said.
“Some companies are undertaking scrupulous cleaning, which is seeing areas cleaned four or five times a day.”
One company has even removed the turn-style front gate so employees could enter the worksite without touching items.
“The majority of workers have been really good and proactive. OneFortyOne has staggered lunch breaks, which is impacting on production costs,” he said.
Mr Coates reiterated the need to practice social distancing to minimise the spread.
He said people’s health must be paramount during this unprecedented health emergency.
But the union official warned any shutdown of the regional timber industry would have a massive impact on the regional economy given it underpinned thousands of jobs.
“We need to put personal feelings to one side, be a little bit forgiving and help other people,” Mr Coates said.