Temporary migrants are people, not ‘labour’

Thanks to Four Corners we now see the human face of migrant workers. Dan Peled/AAP

This week’s Four Corners expose on the plight of underpaid international students at 7-Eleven franchises comes as a Senate inquiry investigates the rights of temporary migrant workers.

The inquiry is looking at the vulnerability of migrant workers to exploitation; the compliance challenges of temporary migration; and the question of whether migrants are displacing local workers. Yet many larger questions about what temporary migration means to Australian society remain unanswered and indeed are rarely asked.

More than one million temporary migrants are currently resident in Australia, making up approximately 6-8% of the workforce.

The huge increase in temporary migration programs that we are seeing today represents a disruption of the “settler migrant” paradigm of old. Yet we don’t know enough about the lives of temporary migrants outside the workplace. What are the social circumstances of nearly one million residents living and working on temporary visas? And what are the consequences of temporary migration for these migrants’ families and for communities and Australian society overall?

A path to permanency

Both statistical and sociological work shows that temporary migration programs are in fact very closely connected to permanent intakes. About 50% of permanent residencies are now granted to migrants already living onshore on temporary visas, and a proportion of offshore PR grants go to migrants who have previously lived in Australia on temporary visas.

Almost 50% of Temporary Work (Skilled) or subclass 457 visas are also granted to onshore applicants. Around 142,405 student visa holders transitioned onto another visa after study in 2012-2013.

What these figures show is that for many migrants temporariness has become long-term and multi-staged, with the path to permanent residency and citizenship non-linear.

Overseas research, especially from Canada, has shown that extended periods with a temporary status have long-term impacts on migrants even after they become permanent — in terms of labour market integration and income, but also in terms of social wellbeing. Living in Australia for a long time across different visa statuses is “precarious” both within the labour market and more broadly. This precariousness is characterised by a general uncertainty about the future; pressures to make decisions about careers and other life choices in relation to migration outcomes; and a lack of access to social and political rights despite extended periods paying tax and living in the Australian community.

Families and temporariness

The focus on temporary migrants as workers often leaves out any analysis of their social and family lives.

Several temporary visa categories (including students, 457 workers and graduate workers) grant the right to have spouses and dependants in Australia. This sets them apart from temporary migration programs in many other countries. However, these families have limited access, depending on their specific visa category, to free public education, Medicare, government-funded legal assistance and many other forms of social security.

There are a wide-range of potential implications for areas like education, domestic violence prevention and maternal child health. With spouse visas being a key pathway to permanent residency for temporary migrants, visa conditions also have significant impacts on intimate relationships. Marriage and children can be delayed until migration goals are achieved, or relationships can be accelerated or sustained past their use-by date for the sake of partner visas.

Continued periods on temporary visas can also affect migrants’ relations with offshore family and how they negotiate care of elders, marriage and financial support across borders. Family reunion is available only to those with permanent residency or citizenship, so an individual’s migration journey can in fact be a collective investment in the future of a family. For example, permanent residency can enable better options for children’s future education, parents’ retirement, or siblings’ work opportunities. This raises the stakes of the transformation of temporariness into permanence.

People need people

Understanding the social networks of temporary migrants is also crucial. Social networks can be highly supportive and dramatically improve migrants’ sense of wellbeing and belonging, as well as access to work. Peers can educate each other about rights, trade information about support services, and develop grassroots institutions that assist other temporary migrants.

NGOs or informal support networks (including online networks) often fill the gaps for those without access to government-funded services, providing advice on everything from legal rights to health and housing. Established ethnic communities can provide a basis of support for temporary migrants, but there is also concerning evidence of co-ethnic exploitation, where employers or intermediaries such as labour hire companies benefit from the particular vulnerabilities of temporary migrant workers.

It is time for a more rigorous discussion of temporary migration that includes but goes beyond the labour market experiences of migrant workers.

“They called for labour but people came.”

This much-quoted observation on the European guest worker programs of the 1960s by Swiss writer Max Frisch still rings true.

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