COVID-19: Migrant workers face joblessness and visa restrictions

Restrictions on migrants and international students are making it harder for them to survive amid the pandemic.

While temporary migrant workers and international students account for more than 10% of Australia’s workforce, they have been left out of the federal government’s COVID-19 relief response, as have refugees.

Migrants, refugees and international students are also more likely to be discriminated against through wage theft, insecure employment and unsafe working conditions.

The Migrant Workers Centre (MWC), with the Victorian Trades Hall Council and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, are continuing to campaign for a wage subsidy for all. They want federal income support expanded to include all workers, regardless of visa status. They also want all restrictions and conditions on work visas to be removed.

While the 2 million taxpaying migrants generate more than $100 billion towards Australia’s GDP each year, the government now wants migrant workers to either fend for themselves or leave the country if they have lost their jobs.

Green Left spoke to Lavanya Thavaraja, a union activist and community organiser with the MWC. “These are hard times for temporary migrant workers, refugee workers, international students and backpackers. Some migrants have been here more than 8 years and are now being told to go back to their countries if they cannot look after themselves.”

The shut down of the hospitality industry has had a severe impact on migrant workers: 70% of businesses have reduced the hours of their staff and 43% have either sacked workers or placed them on unpaid leave.

“Many migrant workers and students were employed by cafes and restaurants before losing their jobs. It is difficult to survive on their savings when their visas have restricted the number of hours they can work per week,” Lavanya said.

For visa holders too, losing employment could mean breaches and non-compliance with sponsor obligations.

The super-exploitable nature of visas, like the Temporary Skill Shortage (subclass 482) and Temporary Work Skilled (subclass 457), exacerbates the power imbalance between workers who are dependent on their employers for sponsorship. With the threat of deportation tied to losing sponsorship, migrant workers often work in unsafe conditions and accept lower wages out of desperation .

Chef Tiff Tan moved to Australia 10 years ago from Malaysia and, at one point, worked seven days a week for less than $3 an hour. She recently lost her job and does not qualify for government support. Her 457 visa expires in a few weeks, and she faces eviction from her home. “I feel unhealthy. I am used to working every day. It’s really scary and depressing for many of us.”

Migrants make up 28% of the population, but are almost half the number of homeless people, with 47% living in overcrowded residences according to the latest census data.

Refugees forgotten

Refugees, who have already been through trauma, are also struggling without a financial safety net and no option to return home. They face destitution and, without secure housing, they will not be able to properly self-isolate, making them more vulnerable to contracting the virus. Before COVID-19, 80% of refugees were at high risk of becoming homeless.

Hassan Jaber, a refugee from Kuwait, spoke about losing his job as an Uber driver and the psychological impact of COVID-19. “This is going to affect so many refugees’ lives. I know many who are suffering from depression and becoming suicidal.”

Hassan came to Australia in 2012 seeking safety. He spent time in a detention camp and was not given the right to work or study here for four years. Bridging visas and Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) can be prisons without walls.

“Having a TPV or Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) means you can’t apply for the JobKeeper subsidy. I can’t afford to look after my children or pay rent on Centrelink’s special benefits of $550 per fortnight. There are some refugees who have no income support at all and are still trapped in detention centres.”

A car cavalcade organised by the Refugee Action Collective in Melbourne highlighted the plight of refugees unable to physically distance while being detained in crammed conditions in hotels. The refugees were taken from Manus Island and Nauru to Melbourne for medical treatment — which they have not received.

Hassan from the Justice for Refugees group wants people to show their solidarity. “Please contact your local Member of Parliament, put pressure on them to stand up for the rights of refugees and extend the wage subsidy to everyone. We are not after donations. We want equality.”

International students

International education is Australia's third-largest export earner, contributing $37.6 billion in the last financial year and supporting 240,000 jobs, according to government figures.

Maria Toro, from Colombia, told GL: “Some of us cannot afford to leave the country with our savings being used to eat. There are students in search of food and shelter being asked to camp outside. We may not be citizens, but we are human beings.”

International student Manuel Orozco, from Colombia, is worried about his education. “For immigrant students, we feel our treatment is unfair. We work, pay our taxes and we pay a lot of money to study courses here which are now being shifted online. This has lowered the quality of our education and we don’t get refunds.”

Toro and Orozco have urged the community to support international students by putting more pressure on the government. They are urging people to sign the online petition which details their concerns.

Ankita Mishra, who migrated from India in 2016 to study a master's degree and lives in Ballarat, told GL she lost her job as a social worker and is now struggling to save money to extend her visa.

She hopes to recover lost wages of up to $15,000 from a previous job in hospitality, where she also faced harassment and discrimination.

“I feel like nobody cares about what happens in regional communities: wage theft and exploitation of migrants is rampant here too. We don’t have a lot of funding for domestic violence and mental health services, which is desperately needed, especially during lockdown and isolation. Students are having mental breakdowns over their strict visa conditions.”

While Mishra always planned on returning to India, she is sad that she may have to leave soon. “I’ve lost faith in the government; I understand the grave situation we are in, but what does it mean to go back to our country? We are all migrants here, apart from the Traditional Owners.”

Help everybody

The MWC is calling on the federal government to expand income support to all workers regardless of visa status, and extend all visas by 12 months, with a guarantee of no deportations or visa penalties, and for all restrictions and conditions on work visas to be removed; for a moratorium on rent, mortgage payments, utilities and government charges for anyone who has lost their job and to expand bulk billing healthcare to all temporary visa holders.

These are all measures the federal government could legislate. It is not financially constrained — the size of the public bailouts of the corporate sector attest to this. Rather, it is using the COVID-19 pandemic to continue to perpetrate xenophobia and racism, which helps underpin neoliberalism.

The big lie is that the government cannot afford to help 10% of the workforce currently struggling to survive — it can help but, for ideological reasons, it is not willing to.

We must resist letting them divide us. We need to unite and fight for equal rights for all workers.

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