Beyond economics: valuing our migrant workforce

Workplace safety is a major health and wellbeing issue. Recent research by the Migrant Worker’s Centre in Melbourne has found that around 50 per cent of migrant workers report feeling unsafe at work, due to discrimination, bullying and verbal abuse. Importantly, the research also found that job insecurity and wage theft are strongly correlated with lack of workplace safety. Migrant workers in less secure jobs feel less safe at work. Disturbingly, the majority of migrant workers surveyed (58 per cent) reported that they had experienced wage theft. Their employers had stolen their wages in multiple ways: by paying them low rates cash-in-hand, by withholding penalty rates, and by demanding that they work illegal unpaid “trial” shifts.

Australia has a long history of economic reliance on the labour of migrant workers – not just paid labour, but also underpaid and unpaid reproductive and caregiving labour, particularly of migrant women. In recent decades, such exploitation has been enabled by economic restructuring, a shift towards more casual employment, temporary migration policy, and relative impunity for employers.

Today, women, non-binary and gender diverse people especially those on temporary visas must navigate a system steeped in racism and sexism which promotes both visa and employment precarity. Discrimination starts during the recruitment process, when many employers overlook temporary visa holders, despite people having work rights. This means people are often forced to seek more insecure work in underpaid industries or from exploitative employers. Migrant and refugee women, whose professional overseas qualifications are often not recognised in Australia, are disproportionately pushed into essential but insecure and underpaid work in cleaning, aged care, health care and the childcare industry.

MCWH's research with migrant and refugee women shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these inequities. Migrant women have been hardest hit by job and income losses, while taking on the lion’s share of responsibility for caring, housework and family support. They are at higher risk of family violence and social isolation, yet are more likely to face barriers to access the information, support and services they need.

The good news is that workplaces can play an important role in achieving secure work and fair treatment, by promoting and centring migrant women’s leadership, and acting to improve women’s stability, safety and wellbeing. MCWH's unique Equality@Work model provides organisations with a blueprint for promoting and centring migrant women’s leadership in workplaces.

Migrant women workers are a crucial part of our society and economy. Yet, they are often overlooked, undervalued and underpaid, with severe impacts on their health. Acknowledging how discrimination, insecurity and workplace safety (or lack of it) are integral to health and wellbeing is key to transforming our society and systems so that we achieve health, racial and gender equality for all.

First published in edition #119 of The WRAP on 31 March 2023.