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Our community's life support

There is good news: compared with other parts of the world, Australia is doing an excellent job of flattening the coronavirus curve. Latest surveys also suggest that while feelings of anxiety, stress and boredom have spiked, so too have solidarity, optimism and happiness.

Behind this apparent success is a winning combination of factors: decisive government action, a top-notch public health system and a majority population willing to put aside personal needs for the health, safety and wellbeing for all, including our most vulnerable.

In the war against an invisible danger, much of the work that is underpaid and undervalued has been deemed essential and pushed to the frontlines. Without the safety net of working from home, many workers in the so-called ‘caring workforce’—nurses, child-care workers and aged and disability care workers—have literally become the community’s life support. Many of these essential frontline workers are women who continue to work for less pay and often in insecure and precarious conditions.

The quarantine measures have not only cast a glaring light on these long-standing gender inequalities in our workforce, it’s also turned our attention to the current plight of many migrant workers around the world. Throughout Australia’s history, it is migrant workers who have worked in difficult and dangerous jobs. The current historical moment is no exception. In the aged-care sector, it's a classic case of triple jeopardy: there is a growing number of migrant women (currently 32%) working in residential aged care. As our Equality@Work Project has highlighted, migrant women aged-care workers are already made vulnerable by systemic gender and racial discrimination and the low-status of the sector. The essential work we require of them now—to care for our most vulnerable despite danger to themselves—only underscores the value of migrant women workers in our community. (It seems the government has recognised this too by lifting the work restrictions imposed on international students so they can fill staff shortages in aged-care).

But it’s not enough to say we value the heroic efforts of our essential workers, we need to translate these feelings of solidarity and support into action and outcomes: the pandemic offers an opportunity to provide better pay and conditions for our migrant women aged-care workers in Australia. Post-pandemic, we need to ensure that women have the opportunities for leadership, training pathways and that their overseas skills and qualifications are recognised.

You can access MCWH’s Equality@Work Project resource here.