International Students and International Labour in the face of COVID-19

Abbey Shi explores the systematic failure that leaves millions in difficulty facing COVID-19.

Photo by Benny Shen

With the Australian government announcing its first and second stimulus package in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March 2020, international students and temporary working visa holders have not been included in the response of the current government. This leaves 2.17 million temporary working visa holders in unsupported realm during the COVID-19 outbreak. Previously for international students who have been affected by travel ban from multiple countries, are now facing further lack of institutional support.

Many temporary migrants have been left with no option but to remain in Australia due to international travel restrictions. In the Federal Government press conference held in the afternoon of April 3, Scott Morrison announced ‘it is time to go home for international students. Under current policy framework of complicated international travel arrangements for all countries and mass suspension of international airline services, it is negligent for government not to provide support or advice to the community in an early manner. With the development of current pandemic, it has become dangerous to travel internationally. This unactionable advice by government has made many international students with financial difficulty face further distress and complication.

Without guarantee of social security and proper access to Medicare system, students who are on a visa face incredible amount of emotional and financial distress in the face of pandemic happening in the nation, especially for working students who lost their jobs. Under current regulation, international student must pay for Overseas Student Health Cover provided by private insurers to ensure the validity of their visa. But this does not equate to access to proper and immediate medical assistance with insurance coverage due to the deliberately-designed complicated nature of some private insurers. Lost in the navigation to proper advice from the private insurer, international students are left in a void cared by few. Some students are even hesitated to get emergency support in hospital when experiencing high fever due to economic distress and non-coverage of private insurance.

It is urgent for government to recognise that international students are also worker and are entitled to working rights in the community. Many international students pay income tax in Australia, fulfilling their civic and legal duty in compliance with tax residency regulation. They volunteer to community organisations, donate from their own pockets at the time of bushfire crisis.

However, for the past decade the government have been neglecting the underrepresented and exploited status of temporary visa holder community, offering few to non-existing support from institutional level. International students have been historically exposed to wage exploitation, unsafe working environment and unstable employment. For the working international students who remain to commit themselves to be working in supermarkets, aged care, medical, delivery and other industry, they are putting themselves at risk in the combat with a pandemic. More than 60% have lost their employment due to Coronavirus outbreak, and nearly 95% have had their employment status affected and are temporarily suspended from their job with informal notices. Over the past decades there have been a massive trend of Australian university funded through international student tuition fees in the education sector, but in the times when international students need the government assistance the most, the least support they get in return.

At the time now under Federal Government’s JobKeeper welfare scheme, the government neglects the temporary visa holder community as part of working community in total. The JobKeeper scheme are only available to Australian PR and Citizens, leaving workers on temporary visa behind. The impact does not only effect employee, but also the small business owners, whose business model survive on employing international students and temporary visa holders as their part-time or casual staff, leaving business in hazard of claiming permanent closure or even bankruptcy. Employers or entities, who are unable to claim JobKeeper on the behalf their international students and temporary visa holder employees, are on a tied interest chain with workers. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, many thrive in migrant community and contribute to diversity and economic vitality.

Internationally, some countries do not leave workers behind in a situation similar to Australia. In Canada, for temporary visa holders who have been resided in Canada that lost their employment are provided with financial aid of CAD$2000 per month for up to 4 months (approx. AUD $2347/month). In Ireland, Students, non-EEA nationals and part-time workers can apply for COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment for €350 a week, which equates to €1400 per month (approx. AUD $2522/month).

A recent survey conducted by Union NSW has unveiled the statistic support in the international student and temporary working visa holder condition: 66 per cent of migrant workers have lost their job in the economic shutdown to COVID-19; One quarter can’t afford rent; 43 per cent are now forced to skip meals to manage their finances. According to the numbers provided by the Department of Home Affairs here are around 2.17 million temporary visa holders in Australia. It means millions are quietly suffer from systematic discrimination as part of labour forces, bear hunger and are encouraged to ‘leave Australia’ in the middle of a pandemic despite the given international travel condition and their intention to stay in Australia, contribute to society with their labour, build a home and mutually supportive community.

On April 8, the Federal Parliament will vote on a new legislation for support on wage subsidy policy. It leaves a question mark in the air as if the proposed bill will include temporary visa holders. The hidden crisis for international students is still happening.