Why migrant workers need ‘a fairer go’

The 5.2% increase to the minimum wage that was decided this month was very happy news. It means that Australia’s lowest paid workers will have an additional $40 per week in their pockets in exchange for their labour. While $40 won’t buy a lot of lettuce right now, it’s a great start. The increase will make a cumulative difference to migrant and refugee women workers, especially those who are concentrated in low paid but essential jobs.

We have always known that migrants and refugees are an integral and essential part of the Australian workforce, but a recent Grattan Institute report has made it clearer. People born overseas currently make up about one third of all Australian workers, and in some industries even more. In the accommodation and food services industry for example, 40% of the people making and serving our food, and cleaning our hotel rooms are born overseas. In health care and social assistance, 37% of the carers, doctors and welfare workers who care for our children, our older people, and who provide healthcare, are born overseas.

Women make up more than half of these service and caring workforces. However, their large numbers don’t mean that migrant women are working in these industries and occupations because of their pre-arrival training and qualifications. Migrants and refugee women often arrive in Australia with high levels of post-secondary education and training and due to systemic workforce discrimination and inequity, they are often unable to work in the jobs they are trained for. It can be difficult for women, especially if they have family and caring responsibilities and other settlement and financial pressures, to have their hard earnt overseas qualifications recognised. Gendered and racialised discrimination in employment means that despite their experience and proven merit, they are less likely to be seen as the best person for the job, even when they are.

There is a long way to go before we dismantle discriminatory systems and achieve equality for migrant and refugee women within the Australian labour force. Racialised and sexual harassment, widespread exploitation that specifically targets workers on visas, workplace-based exclusion from social and decision-making mechanisms – all continue to compromise and deny equal rights to migrant women and require transformative changes to the way we manage migration and the world of work. In the meantime though, we will take the small win on wages.

First published in edition #110 of The WRAP on 30 June 2022.