Growing reliance on temporary visas means aged care workers are vulnerable

Migrant visas aged care

The report – ‘Lives in Limbo: The Experiences of Migrant Workers Navigating Australia’s Unsettling Migration System’ by the Migrant Workers Centre – outlines the results of a survey of 734 migrant workers in Australia.

Almost 8% of the migrant workers were on temporary visas, and the survey revealed it is becoming “increasingly difficult to settle permanently”.

Only 1.9% of respondents were able to acquire permanent residency before leaving their homeland and only 13.5% managed to achieve permanent residency once they’d arrived. 

On average, it took migrants 5.1 years to achieve permanent residency and it took one migrant 13 years.

“Australia’s migration regime has lost balance,” the report states. “The government issues an unlimited number of temporary visas while tightly controlling the number of permanent visas issued. 

Migrants on temporary visas recorded the highest stress levels of those surveyed, recording 9.66 on a scale of one to 10. “Insecure migration status” was the main cause of their stress, according to the report.

Aged care sector dependent on migrant workers

A submission to the royal commission by The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia stated there is an “increasing dependence” in aged care on migrants who are recent arrivals in Australia and “of those, growing numbers are on temporary visas”.

Professor Sarah Charlesworth, of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, in her appearance before the royal commission, said, “We’re starting to rely on temporary migrant workers in aged care, and I think that … is concerning.”

It’s often suggested that without migrant workers “the aged care system would collapse,” the FECC submission states.

The submission states that while there have always been a high proportion of aged care workers born overseas, in the past they have tended to be permanent migrants.

Temporary visa holders often face hardships that permanent residents don’t face, such as no access to Medicare, more insecure work and limited pathways to permanent residency.

The problems filling aged care roles

Anton Hutchinson, whose family has owned Canberra Aged Care for more than two decades, said practically all aged care homes depend on migrant staff. 

Canberra Aged Care always “does the paperwork” required to sponsor staff to become Australian citizens, Hutchinson told HelloCare. 

“We’ve got applications in all the time,” he said.

It’s very difficult to find staff, because Australians increasingly refuse to “put their hands up” to work in aged care, Hutchinson said.

“I don’t think they want to do the work,” he said.

Migrant workers dependent on employers

Of the migrant workers surveyed for the MWC report, employer-sponsored visas and the skilled independent visa were the main route to permanent residency, meaning that migrant workers on temporary visas are highly dependent on their employer.

Their employer is both their means to permanent residency, but also, if they lose their job, they not only lose their livelihood but their visa.

They often end up doing excessive amounts of overtime, work on public holidays, don’t take breaks, work while sick and are denied holidays.

More than a third of the migrant workers surveyed (35%  had never heard of penalty rates, workers compensation, industry awards, redundancy pay or enterprise bargaining agreements, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

A dysfunctional system

The report describes the experiences of one aged care worker, whose journey through the Australian migration system is a harrowing tale of dysfunction.

Fatima* and her husband came to Australia in 2008. She trained as a hairdresser to help her application for permanent residency. 

After three years later, Fatima gained her hairdressing qualification.

However, competition for hairdressing jobs was high, and Fatima had to take on unpaid work in order to gain local experience. 

She extended her stay with two more student visas, taking courses she did not need. 

Finally, in 2014, Fatima found an employer who would sponsor her for a temporary skilled visa. Two years later, she was eligible to apply for an employer-sponsored permanent visa. 

“Somehow the government didn’t open her application file for over 20 months,” the report notes. 

“It was a difficult time to wait for the government to review the application. 

Then the government announced it was abolishing Fatima’s current visa subclass because, according to the Immigration Minister, “it results, in many cases, in a migration outcome”.

In 2018, the government rejected Fatima’s application. 

Fatima then prepared for a state-nominated permanent visa. But Victoria, where Fatima and her husband had lived since arriving in Australia, did not have hairdressing on the occupation list for state nomination. 

So the couple moved to Tasmania after Fatima found a job there, and they hoped she would be eligible for state sponsorship within three months. 

But the Tasmanian government then changed their sponsorship requirements, and the couple were forced to pack their bags again. 

The NSW state government sponsored the couple for a provisional skilled regional visa. Fatima received the nomination for her hairdresser qualifications, but couldn’t find a job as a hairdresser in a regional area. 

She is now working in aged care.

*Name has been changed.

You can read the report here.

We’d love to hear about your experiences as a migrant worker in aged care. Share your stories in the comments below or email [email protected]

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