“A Looming Humanitarian Crisis”, as Migrant Workers Are Left in the Cold

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Unemployed man

Unions NSW found that of the 3,700 migrant workers it surveyed across this state in early April, 46 percent had already lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Forty three percent were skipping meals, a quarter couldn’t pay their rent, and a fifth had seen their work hours cut.

However, when federal parliament reconvened for a special sitting day on 8 April in order to pass the JobKeeper wage subsidy package, an estimated 1.1 million migrant workers weren’t factored into the equation, which could have supported those in need during the coronavirus lockdown.

Many financially strapped businesses that were continuing to employ migrant workers were then forced to lay them off, as no subsidy was forthcoming. And for every single migrant worker sacked since the crisis began, there’s no form of welfare payment available for them either.

Acting immigration minister Alan Tudge put it plainly prior to the package that left many workers behind was passed, when he said, “if you cannot support yourself over the next six months, then you should consider leaving the country and going home to a place where you can be supported”.

So, the Morrison government has told part of the workforce that was vital just a month ago that if they lose their jobs – which is likely for many – they should return to their countries, if the borders are open, on one of the few exorbitantly priced flights available, or else sleep on the streets.

People not statistics

“We could be facing a looming humanitarian crisis, where hundreds of thousands of migrants end up very desperate, completely destitute and on our streets with no support at all,” warned Unions NSW assistant secretary Thomas Costa.

Thomas Costa

“We have a fairly clear position,” he continued, “anyone who lives and works in Australia is an Australian worker, and they should be entitled to exactly the same support from the federal government.”

According to the union leader, it’s now completely within the powers of treasurer Josh Frydenberg and social services minister Anne Ruston to simply amend the JobKeeper or JobSeeker packages, so as to “grant access to all workers and people living in Australia, whether they’re on a visa or not”.

Costa stressed that it was “disingenuous” for Morrison government ministers to simply tell these people to leave the country when some have been here for over a decade, while others aren’t permitted to enter the nations where they hold a passport as borders have been completely closed.

“We think it is the right thing to do morally, because they’re human beings, they need support and they deserve better than being left destitute and desperate,” Mr Costa told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

Temporary describes a visa

Unions NSW was amongst 120 civil society organisations that released a statement calling on the government to broaden JobKeeper right before it returned to parliament to pass it. The scheme provides eligible employers with $1,500 a fortnight per employee to keep them on the books.

Melbourne’s Migrant Workers Centre stressed in its version of the release that “1.1 million workers are being locked out of the financial assistance”, and while the government might state it’s proud of our “cultural diversity”, this abandonment during a crisis makes that an empty sentiment.

“The idea of being a temporary migrant worker is a bit of a misnomer really because there are people who are on temporary visas that have been here for eight, nine, twelve years,” explained Matt Kunkel, director of the Migrant Workers Centre.

Matt Kunkle

“They’ve got families here. They’ve got homes, leases, mortgages and cars,” the migrant advocate added. “Basically, this is their home, but because the visa system is so skewed towards temporary visas, they just haven’t been able to win that game of trying to get a permanent visa.”

So, Mr Kunkel’s rendering of what’s actually going on behind the government’s rhetoric leaves the acting immigration minister’s return recommendations a tad redundant when these people are sitting in their Australian homes contemplating how they’re going to pay next month’s rent.

Ensuring public health

“Just like the rest of us, they’re losing their jobs and finding it more and more difficult to make ends meet,” Kunkel went on. “And without any access to the social safety net that they’ve been paying taxes for, they’re in an impossible situation.”

The government has announced that migrant workers in financial strife can access $10,000 of their super this financial year. And while the adequacy of this amount has been questioned, the fact that migrant workers have superannuation underscores their legitimate participation in the economy.

Not only is the Migrant Worker Centre calling for JobKeeper to be opened up for migrant workers, but Mr Kunkel maintains that those who aren’t eligible for it should be able to access welfare payments and Medicare during the pandemic period.

Part of the requirement for temporary visa holders is that they have private health insurance, but as Kunkel outlines, those who have lost their jobs and can no longer afford it still need to be able to access healthcare as a matter of urgency during the COVID-19 crisis.

We want people to be able to “make informed health choices and not avoid going to the hospital for fear of deportation or because it’s just too much money,” the director added.

A whole of community approach

Not only are their concerns that temporary visa holders may end up destitute, but there are also worries that the estimated 60,000 to 110,000 undocumented workers from abroad will also end up experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

And despite the large costs involved in supporting those in need during the crisis, there is no point in having the community in lockdown to protect it if certain people are going to be left to fend for themselves on the streets at a time when containing the virus is supposed to be paramount.

“A quarter of them are afraid they are not going to be able to pay their rent in the next month,” Mr Costa said, referring to all migrant workers. “It’s a really dire situation and if they’re not provided with support it’s going to have a really large impact across a number of areas.”

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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