Migrant precariousness in the time of COVID-19

A new report by the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law and the Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre outlines the extent of preciousness of migrants on temporary visas in Australia and the underlying causes for their social and economic exclusion during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has left few un-impacted, migrants on temporary visas have been particularly vulnerable. These include international students, working holiday visa holders, skilled workers, and asylum seekers. Despite their critical role in key labour markets and substantial social and cultural ties to Australia, they have been excluded from formal government financial support.

As the first lockdowns commenced across Australia in March 2020, temporary migrants - concentrated in precarious labour markets - lost their employment and faced immediate financial hardship. Excluded from welfare payments such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker, many struggled to meet basic living expenses. Calls for Australia to meet its obligations under international human rights law and provide safety and security for all those within its borders have gone unanswered.

A new report by the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law examines the significance of the sudden economic and social crisis, the vulnerabilities of migrants in the labour market and the need for policy responses that both recognise Australia’s human rights obligations and target the intersecting causes of migrants’ precariousness.

The report was launched on 16 February 2021 in partnership with the Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre. A team of panellists discussed the findings of the report, identifying how policy can better address the underlying causes for migrants’ precariousness and contingent inclusion in Australia. The report focussed on the three sectors that were most heavily affected by the pandemic. These included hospitality, health, and agriculture.

In the hospitality sector there was widespread unemployment and underemployment with international students particularly affected. The ineligibility of migrants on temporary visas to access social support was shown to be extremely problematic in this context. The health sector and particularly aged care was disproportionately affected. The chance of contagion gives rise to risks both to workers and those they care for. Many temporary visa holders fill essential roles in the care sector, including in residential aged care, and the crisis has shown both the importance of this contribution and revealed the dangers of precarious work, raising questions about the need to regulate the sector and improve the status or workers. The agricultural sector, and especially horticulture, has been heavily dependent on temporary workers, and particularly migrants on working holiday maker visas. Border closures and the loss of working holiday makers have created a labour shortage, only partially addressed by bringing in workers via the more limited Pacific programs. Attempts to bring in extra workers with less experience in the sector, such as international students, revealed additional risks and the need for more sustainable ways to meet labour demands in the sector.

What all three sectors share, in terms of impacts, is the role of migration status as an axis of disadvantage that creates an environment for exacerbated employment precariousness through visa conditions that limit migrants’ agency and limit their access to effective protection of their human rights.

The line-up for the event included Professor the Hon. Kevin H Bell AM QC, Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, along with Associate Professor Heli Askola (Monash Law), MMIC Deputy Director Associate Professor Helen Forbes-Mewett, and Dr Olha Shmihelska.