VICTORIAN shearing contractors and farmers are risking fines of more than $100,000 as unvaccinated shearers and shed hands leave responsible employers to work elsewhere.
Under Victoria’s COVID-19 rules, authorised workers, including agricultural workers, farmers, shearers, shed hands and wool classers, working outside their homes must have had their second vaccination by November 26, 2021, unless they have a medical exemption.
From 26 November, authorised workers will also be required to provide evidence to their employer that they have received a second vaccination, unless they have a medical exemption, to attend work. A work premises is anywhere the worker is required to be for work outside the home.
Victoria Police can issue on-the-spot fines of up to $1817 for adults and up to $10,904 for businesses who refuse or fail to comply with public health directions, and fines of up to $21,808 for adults and $109,044 for corporations are possible through the court system.
As the double vaccination deadline approaches, several Victorian shearing contractors have had to let their anti-vaxxers go; however, many have reportedly been able to find work with other employers.
The situation has been complicated by the general shortage of shearing industry workers due to ongoing international and domestic border COVID restrictions, and the high flystrike risk conditions in the period to Christmas.
Shearing Contractors Association of Australia secretary Jason Letchford said some SCAA members have stood down workers who have chosen not to get vaccinated “only to be picked up by farmers and other shearing contractors instantly.”
“It’s really concerning to hear this, we clearly need a vaccinated workforce as stated by the advice of the health authorities.
“I’m really concerned for shearing contractors and farmers because regardless that they are an Australian Business Number holder or a tax file number worker they are engaging them and there is a responsibility there.
“The fine will go to the person engaging the unvaccinated person, whether it is the farmer or a shearing contractor,” he said.
“The fine is over $20,000 if you are an ABN holder and it is over $100,000 if you are a proprietary limited company.”
Mr Letchford said it was thought that unvaccinated workers would gravitate into New South Wales, the only state that will allow them across the state border.
“But we are hearing that they are still picking up work in Victoria and although we are really concerned about farmers getting their jobs done, we need to have a vaccinated workforce when the next wave of COVID comes through.
“As we have seen in Europe, in the Northern Hemisphere, that is just a matter of time,” he said.
He said employers are breaching their workplace safety duty of care to look after all employees in taking on unvaccinated workers, “which are highly more contagious than vaccinated workers.”
A-Team contractor Rob Crouch at Inverleigh said six of his workers, shearers and wool handlers, have refused to get vaccinated. They represented more than 10pc of his workforce.
“They just said they don’t believe in it, obviously there is a fairly big following of people who just don’t want to do it.
“We have tried to do the right thing the whole way through only for someone else to pick them up.
“You are sitting here battling your bloody heart out and someone else picks them and they are getting along no worries at all,” he said.
One employee said she had found a contractor that didn’t require her to get vaccinated, Mr Crouch said.
“Who is bloody policing it?
“I could have nearly sailed through Spring time with what we had, but this half a dozen people that we’ve lost has absolutely crucified us.”
Statewide Shearing contractor Barrie Clark said he had lost two workers – a shearer and a wool handler — who refused to get vaccinated and were working for someone else.
“But apart from that, we’ve had no problems really.
“I said to them I’m not paying the fine, I’m not getting into trouble.”
Hamilton contractor Kate Scia Scia said she had lost two anti-vaxxer workers and she “hoped they get caught.”
Southern Shearing owner Ardy Hauraki said he has a couple of workers who refused vaccination, but he was not sure if they had found work.
“But I know there are a few out there still working.
He said he saw a social media post from a contractor willing to accept unvaccinated workers.
Mr Hauraki said he would like to know how many agricultural workers and farmers had refused COVID-19 vaccination in the sector.
“I struggle to understand why it is so important, but it is what it is and I’m an employer and they’ve put the onus on us.
“We’ve got follow through what they’ve started, otherwise we get in trouble.”
Victorian farmers Federation Livestock president Steve Harrison said he is concerned about the reports of unvaccinated workers circulating, because there have been mixed messages from the government on who is responsible if there is a COVID-19 outbreak.
“Is it the contractor’s or the farmer’s responsibility when they have to, as a last resort, employ an unvaccinated person, or the person doesn’t declare if they are vaccinated.
“Farmers and even contractors have exhausted all avenues to find workers,” he said.
“It is basically totally confusing to all concerned.”
Mr Harrison adviser producers to ask about a potential employee’s vaccination status, “because there are lot of workers who aren’t employed at the moment because they aren’t vaccinated.”
Upto 200 authorised compliance and enforcement officers
A Victorian Government spokesperson said Victorians expect all businesses to do the right thing when it comes to keeping their workers, customers and the community safe.
“We’ll continue working with the agricultural and farming industry to ensure they’re operating in a COVIDSafe way.
“The government’s dedicated Industry Engagement and Enforcement Operation will continue to enforce public health directions relating to workplaces, including the vaccination requirements for workers,” the spokesperson said.
“Businesses should expect a visit at any time from our authorised officers, who can issue infringement, prohibition or improvement notices.”
The Industry Engagement and Enforcement Operation is co-led by the Department of Justice and Community Safety (DJCS) and Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (DJPR).
Sheep Central was told the IEEO continues to enforce public health directions relating to workplaces, including that businesses have in place systems to confirm the vaccination requirements for workers and patrons.
At any one time, the IEEO can have up to 100 teams of two authorised officers on the ground undertaking compliance and enforcement checks on Victorian businesses.
Sheep Central was told businesses caught flouting the rules can expect fines of between $1090 for low level non-compliance such as failing to have appropriate signage in place and up to $27,261 for not adhering to vaccination requirements for staff. Serious or blatant non-compliance may result in court action and fines up to $109,044 for body corporates.
Agriculture Victoria continues to actively engage with the agricultural sector through an industry reference group made up of representatives from more than 40 peak bodies from across the state, Sheep Central was told.