MIGRANT UNDERCLASS: ARRIVING WITH DREAMS, ENDING IN CHAINS

(Editor’s note: This article is published to stimulate interest and prayer for a humanitarian situation that appears to be somewhat out of control in our nation yet not widely understood by the general public.  It is not a political statement on our part but an attempt to expose slavery like exploitation within Australian society.  Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the situation and of the personal actions of those seeking work in our country without entering through our immigration program, God cannot bless our country when we treat people in such a way.  We must pray that a solution can be found that is honouring to both God and man and in the interests of all Australians.)

Imagine, for a moment, being a woman who comes to Australia on the promise of having a job as a cook and a visa for a new life.  Then imagine being told to work without pay for six months.  Then being told to pay tens of thousands of dollars for that visa.  Then being fired when you refuse to pay.  That is one example of the exploitation going on in this country against migrant workers who arrive with dreams and end up in chains.  While the cook had a “temporary skill shortage” visa, she was totally exposed to the restaurant owner who treated her like an indentured labourer.  Once she refused to pay, she had only 60 days to find a new sponsor.

Now imagine a worker without a visa.  She signed up to a scam overseas, let’s say Malaysia, and applied for asylum as soon as she landed in Sydney.  Her claim will take two years to be decided.  She works illegally and will be dependent on her “sponsors” for everything.  “The conditions are shocking,” says Matthew Kunkel of the Migrant Workers Centre in Melbourne. “It’s not hyperbolic to say the conditions for some of these workers in Australia are like slavery.”  Kunkel represents workers who are cheated by employers because they are vulnerable, such as students from Colombia or labourers from Vanuatu.  Some of these cases make headlines, but many claims are only lodged when these legal workers are at the end of their stay and have nothing to lose.

Nobody will ever hear of the illegal workers.  They have no status. They lodge no claims.  Their exploitation is invisible.  The problem is obvious for those who care to look.  The number of people arriving by air and claiming asylum reached 95,000 over the past five years.  About 65 people are still arriving every day.  Some are genuine refugees.  Most are not. About 90 per cent have their claims rejected.  Once their claims go through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, they wait two years on average before they go home.  They used to wait one year, but the longer the delay the greater the incentive to seek illegal work.

Since the start of July, about 80 people a day have claimed asylum after landing at an Australian airport, revealing a shift in people smuggling operations. It is easy to stoke fears about foreign workers or anxiety about asylum seekers.  That is not what this article is about.  What, after all, is the threat?  The exploitation of workers, legal and illegal, keeps prices down.  And there are no boats.  It is easy to turn a blind eye to this sort of problem.  Yet these exploited workers are all around us.  We don’t move without them keeping our cities working.  We don’t eat without them getting food to our plates.  The Australian economy is now built on an entire strata of the workforce made up of cheap labour from overseas.

More than 95,000 people have claimed asylum after arriving by plane in the past five years.  The Australian ideal is to build a nation with migrants who enter the workforce and have a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship.  When that ideal works, it makes Australia the best country in the world.  But what if it fails?  What if Australian society actually depends on illegal workers who have no pathway to citizenship and are only here until their luck runs out?  They are temporary and disposable. No sick pay.

No award rates. No options.

Consider, for example, another cook.  She flew in from the Philippines on a tourist visa and was fooled into thinking she could get a further visa.  Then she fell out with her employer.  She was sleeping in a train station by the time the Migrant Workers Centre came to her aid.

These cases are merely illustrative.  Illegal workers do not seek headlines.

Yet there is no secrecy about the big picture, and where the pressure is coming from.  In the year to June, 57 per cent of the refugee claimants at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal came from Malaysia, while another 15 per cent came from China.  These were followed by Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, India and Pakistan.

As with migration in general, the destinations are Sydney and Melbourne: 37 per cent of the claims are made in NSW and 45 per cent in Victoria.  The source countries have not changed much over recent years.  What has changed is the size of the crowd at the arrivals counter.  It was 8252 a year four years ago and 24,520 last financial year.  This is now a political flashpoint.  Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Immigration Minister David Coleman insist everything is under control.  Labor’s home affairs spokeswoman, Kristina Keneally, calls it a crisis.

Crisis or not, this is a genuine test for the people who are supposed to be in charge.  The Coalition told Australians it had the borders under control, so this is about the everyday business of government. Managing the show.

Running the country.  The government says it is on top of the situation because it rejects applicants who are not genuine refugees.  It does not say how many of those rejected are currently in the community, working perhaps while they appeal.  And it cannot be sure of the abuse some of these workers face.  Can it check every kitchen?  Every nail salon?

These workers are obviously a small proportion of the workforce and a tiny share of the travellers who walk through the airport arrivals halls every year.  Even so, why shrug off the percentage when the arrivals are on track for 24,000 this year?  Coleman is getting the annual rate down slightly, but the year is not over and it is too soon to declare mission accomplished.  The cook mentioned at the beginning of this column is still in Australia.  Kunkel says she is trying to recover some of her wages.  Her future is uncertain but at least she has a visa.  Spare a thought for others who do not.  The underclass may seem invisible, but it’s there.

Source: David Crowe Chief political correspondent The Australian Newspaper

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