COVID continues to sweep Europe and the US, while Australia celebrates near-elimination of community transmission. But Australia’s public health success has not come without significant economic and social hardship for large sections of our community – especially migrant workers. Thousands of migrant workers were pulled off the job to stop the spread of COVID-19, and excluded from key government income support programs including JobSeeker and JobKeeper. Temporary migrant workers are still left without access to Medicare.
In this short, accessible commentary, Senior Economist Alison Pennington outlines how the pandemic, the resulting recession and government COVID-era policies have increased risks to migrant workers’ financial security, and health and safety. Building more secure, inclusive labour markets can reduce risks that future major events don’t hit the most vulnerable hardest.
This commentary was prepared for presentation to the Migrant Workers Centre Conference, November 2020.
Migrant Workers & The COVID-19 Recession
Alison Pennington, Senior Economist at Centre for Future Work
COVID infections continue to sweep Europe and the US while Australia celebrates multiple days without any cases of community transmission. But Australia’s public health success has not come without significant economic and social hardship for large sections of our community – especially migrant workers. Thousands of migrant workers were pulled off the job to stop the spread of COVID-19, and excluded from key government income support programs including JobSeeker and JobKeeper. Temporary migrant workers are still left without access to Medicare.
As the economy slowly recovers from recession, migrant workers will face even greater hardship in accessing decent jobs and incomes. The expiration of temporary work visas without supports to reconnect with new employers, and in jobs that pay enough, will expose migrant workers to more intense exploitation.
The federal government’s response to the unprecedented COVID-19 economic crisis has included big spending on tax cuts, subsidies and other business concessions as part of its “business-led recovery”. But there are many problems with how the government thinks about the economy, that will mean the economic crisis will be longer and more painful than it needs to be.
The pandemic has left deep cuts in the economy: two million people (15% of labour force) are either unemployed, working far fewer hours than normal, or have left the labour market all together since the March lockdowns; consumer spending has not fully recovered after lockdown restrictions were lifted and people prefer to save in preparation for harder times. Companies are focused on recovering or maintaining profits, cutting investments in their businesses, and cutting spending on employment and wages. Private investments have been decreasing for years and will not miraculously rebound during a recession. Trusting the private sector to lead our post-COVID economic recovery therefore is like hoping for a miracle.
Income tax cuts are mainly symbolic and do not have real and lasting impacts on boosting spending in the economy. In fact, normal pay rises are far more effective than tax cuts because the effect of wage growth is permanent and cumulative. The announced tax cuts are also unfairly designed to benefit high-income earners. 88 per cent of the combined permanent benefit of the tax cuts will go to highest-fifth of income earners whereas low- and middle-income earners will get only a one-time rebate of $1,080 at the next tax return.
Wage growth is expected to stay at 1.25 per cent in 2021 - enough only to match the slow rise in consumer prices. But a higher unemployment rate and continued increase in part-time and casual jobs will cut household incomes even more. If the government adopted measures to strengthen wages including higher minimum wages and stronger collective bargaining rights, our recovery would be on a better track.
Youth, women, migrant workers and long-term unemployed are in most need of targeted job-creation policies. But the federal government has presented no plan to create jobs for the millions of unemployed, underemployed and disenfranchised who want and need paid work. The JobMaker program provides a subsidy for 12 months to employers creating new jobs for young workers on unemployment payments. It is a short-sighted initiative that will not reach its intended claim of creating 450,000 jobs (Treasury estimate now 45,000). There is no guarantee young workers will maintain employment once the government stops paying for the subsidy. Without job protections, the program will encourage the “churning” of vulnerable young workers in low-wage, insecure jobs. It could also displace existing workers and discourage the hiring of others. Migrant workers have already experienced mass redundancies when employers chose to engage workers who qualified for the JobKeeper subsidy. Migrant worker displacement may occur under JobMaker.
Despite Australia’s macroeconomic weakness, the government intends to decrease spending by billions in cuts to the JobKeeper and Coronavirus Supplement payments in March 2021. The impacts on the jobs and incomes of low and middle-income workers will be disastrous. The real way to overcome the recession will be to restore the capacity of people to work, earn and be healthy, engaged members of a more inclusive Australian economy. This can be achieved only when the government commits to a long-term, ambitious vision for economic and social change, backed by substantial and sustained public spending. This vision should create more secure jobs, invest in climate-friendly industries, and strengthen and expand our public services like healthcare, education and skills.
Rather than wait for private sector investment, the federal and state governments can expand direct public sector employment now. They can also ensure all people residing in Australia are protected from poverty and insecurity now. Urgent measures should be taken immediately to address the pronounced risks to migrant workers’ financial security, and health and safety experienced during this crisis:
- Expand JobSeeker and the Coronavirus Supplement coverage to excluded migrant workers. Reverse the punitive and economically counterintuitive cuts to the Coronavirus Supplement, and permanently restore the $550 per fortnight rate.
- Expand JobKeeper coverage to all workers, and end the two-tiered wage subsidy scheme, returning the original $1,500 flat payment rate permanently.
- Create a paid sick leave scheme available to all workers, regardless of their work status.
The pandemic has shone a light on the growing scourge of insecure work. Around half of all employment in Australia has one or more dimensions of precarity including casual, temporary, part-time insufficient-hours work, and self-employment. Precarious work contributed to the community spread of disease, such as in the private aged care system where widespread practices of multiple jobholding led to virus transmission between facilities.
We have worked together to eradicate COVID-19, and we can work together to eradicate insecure work. Working to build more secure labour markets for all is about reducing risks that major events don’t hit the most vulnerable hardest. Job creating investment, quality public education and skills systems, income supports for all, and extending minimum labour standards like Award wages and collective bargaining are critical to an inclusive post-COVID recovery. And by strengthening the collective efforts of workers to take action in their unions, we can put good jobs and incomes in the driving seat of Australia’s economic recovery.