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.

Thinking more broadly about violence


Women are always teaching us new things, as long as we take the opportunity to listen. And as bell hooks has reminded us, we need to listen closely to the concrete reality of the marginalised in order to imagine a future that is truly visionary.

One thing we have learned over the last few months from listening closely to immigrant and refugee women is that we need to change our thinking on violence. We have learned that what we think we know about violence against immigrant and refugee women is neither broad, nor specific, enough. Women have told us very clearly that we need to broaden our definition of violence, and at the same time, we need to be more specific about the various forms of violence that impact on particular groups of women.

As Toni Morrison showed us in her beautiful novel, Beloved, violence has varied forms, and physical violence is only one of them. The psychological impacts of slavery include the impact of the racial categorisation of African American people, state-based violence in the form of unaddressed and sanctioned racial discrimination, and legislation or policy that institutionalises inequality. When we think about violence against immigrant and refugee women, we need to also think about how our state structures might contribute to their experiences.

Take women on temporary visas for example. Women who are in Australia temporarily on student, working or bridging visas have a specific experience of violence that is created and exacerbated by their temporary and precarious visa status. For temporary migrant women, not only the family home, but also housing and employment, are key settings where gendered violence finds fertile ground.

Women have told us that landlords and housemates, employers and workmates, spouses and family members, have found opportunities to exploit the system and take advantage of women’s limited options when faced with violence.  In these cases, the violence has taken the forms of threats of deportation, eviction or employment termination, combined with an offer to remove the threat in exchange for sex or unpaid work. In other cases, spouses, supported by family and community members, have hidden passports or other documents from women, threatened to harm children or family members overseas, or they have limited women’s opportunities to work, to participate in the community or learn crucial skills such as English language.

If we aim to fully understand violence against women, and incorporate that understanding into a truly visionary future, these specific forms of violence, and a broader definition of violence, need to become incorporated into what we think violence means to women.