Protection of temporary migrants is now a ‘public health issue’

Ideology is a luxury we can enjoy in good times, but the realities of the COVID-19 health and economic crises demand pragmatic solutions.

The key insight

Australia, like many countries, relies on migrant workers to perform jobs that are crucial during the COVID-19 crisis: in health, social care, cleaning, food services, delivery, retail and horticulture. Nonetheless, many temporary migrants have lost their jobs during the current shutdown.

The Australian government has chosen to exclude temporary migrants from social security measures, such as the JobKeeper payment, and has told those who cannot support themselves to “go home”. This exclusion is a continuation of the government’s approach to immigration policy. But current restrictions have made international travel almost impossible. These exclusionary measures may push temporary migrants to work when sick and into the informal labour market.

We are all in this public health crisis together and we no longer have the luxury to exclude. COVID-19 does not discriminate based on visa, residency or citizenship status and nor should government policies be in responding to it.

For many decades, Australia had a highly inclusive immigration system where virtually all migrants had permanent residency with full access to employment and social rights. The Australian government should return to this approach and extend protections available to citizens to all temporary migrants.

Australia is a nation of immigrants with a workforce of immigrants. Temporary migrants contribute greatly to our economy and society. Now these contributions must be reciprocated. Not only is it fair, it’s in Australia’s national interest.

To its credit, the Australian government shelved its union-busting agenda, instead collaborating with the ACTU to protect businesses and workers affected by the COVID-19 shutdown through the new JobKeeper payment.

But new policies hold firm to the government’s immigration policy of restricting rights for the large population of temporary migrant workers. On Saturday Immigration Minister Alan Tudge confirmed that while visa holders are ‘valuable to the Australian economy and way of life’, ‘Australians and permanent residents’ are the priority.

Our research, published in the current issue of The Economic and Labour Relations Review, demonstrates that successive policy changes since the 1990s have increasingly marginalised temporary migrant workers.

Our findings highlight the adverse impacts of government policies that have imposed barriers to temporary migrants’ ability to move between employers and to protections offered by unions and the Fair Work Ombudsman. Other policies have narrowed pathways to permanent residency and citizenship and restricted their access to public services.

Australians have collectively ignored overwhelming evidence that these policies contribute to widespread wage and superannuation theft in part because we rely on temporary migrant workers to perform dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs in food services, delivery, retail, horticulture, health, social care and cleaning. These jobs, and therefore temporary migrants, are crucial in the COVID-19 crisis.

Nonetheless, many temporary migrants have lost their jobs during the current shutdown.

Most temporary migrants are excluded from the JobKeeper payment and other forms of welfare assistance including Medicare. Under new policies announced on Saturday, many may now access superannuation, but this is illusory for victims of wage and superannuation theft. Temporary Skill Shortage visa holders, sponsored for up to four years, must still leave the country within 60 days of losing their jobs.

For those who cannot support themselves or be useful to immediate labour market needs, the Minister says it’s time to go home. But current restrictions have made international travel almost impossible. Ironically our borders have become more secure, but it is now as difficult to leave Australia as it is to enter for citizens and temporary visa holders alike.

The government rightly encourages us to self-isolate and seek medical assistance if we show symptoms rather than risking further spread of the virus. But continued exclusionary temporary migration and social security policies may now exacerbate our public health crisis.

Exclusion from the JobKeeper payment and other social security may push temporary migrants to work when sick and into the informal labour market. While some state governments have waived COVID-19-related medical costs for temporary residents, restricted access to Medicare may discourage them from medical visits.

We are all in this public health crisis together and we no longer have the luxury to exclude.

COVID-19 does not discriminate based on visa, residency or citizenship status and nor should our policies responding to it.

For many decades, Australia had a highly inclusive immigration system where virtually all migrants had permanent residency with full access to employment and social rights.

The Australian government should return to this approach and extend protections available to citizens to all temporary migrants, following the Portuguese government’s recent example.

Australia is a nation of immigrants with a workforce of immigrants. Temporary migrants contribute greatly to our economy and society: it’s why we encouraged them to Australia in the first place. Now we must reciprocate. Not only is it fair, it’s in our collective interest.


This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Read the original article.
Please contact the original publisher for permission to republish.


This is part of a series of insights related to Coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on business.

Image: ConvertKit

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