From labour market to supermarket

We often hear about immigration being good for the labour market. But as with most economic ‘facts’ and arguments, the benefits often obscure the human cost. A recent survey showed that 80% of Australians view immigrants as being good for the economy, which reinforces ideas about immigrant labourers being viewed as ‘factory fodder’ and temporary migrants such as international students as ‘cash cows’. At a time when short-term and precarious employment are becoming a key feature of our labour market, the costs are often at the expense of workers’ health and wellbeing. Immigrant workers are more likely to be made even more vulnerable (and therefore exploited) than Australian-born employees in the workplace precisely because of their migrant status (and there is research evidence which supports this).

It’s also often the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs immigrant workers take up, especially if they are also on a temporary visa and/or if they happen to arrive in the country as a low-skilled worker. Take the case of the other market: our large grocery chains, where most of our agricultural produce is made readily available for us courtesy of immigrant workers.  Not only are temporary migrants over-represented in the agricultural sector, it’s generally the case that its immigrant workers who are relied upon to pick, pack and produce food for our consumption (about 90% of seasonal farm workers in developed countries were born abroad).

A recent investigative report looked into the slave-like conditions of temporary migrant workers in the fresh food sector and in doing so, highlighted the particular vulnerabilities immigrant women workers face. Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal, yet most immigrant women aren’t aware of their rights, or if they are, are reluctant to claim their rights because of fear of repercussions such as deportation. In such cases, immigrant women are not only abused by their employer, they’ve also been made more vulnerable by the systems and structures that place them there.

How can we prevent such exploitation occurring in the first place and ensure that immigrant workers are supported to be safe and healthy? For a start, we need to shift the way we view ‘migrant workers’: healthy workers are the key to healthy economy, not the other way around.  Making our workplaces ‘healthier’ for immigrant workers needs to cover a whole variety of actions including occupational health and safety support and training, and labour regulation and enforcement.  Above all, programs and policies that will empower immigrant women workers should be a central focus of a healthy workplace.