Casual and migrant workers are at the mercy of an economy that punishes its victims | Van Badham

Yesterday, a friend who runs a creative agency was lamenting the straits of her actors. We might all be sustaining ourselves by watching TV, but coronavirus means that no one is making it. Actors are pay-as-you-go taxpayers; they work gig to gig for a carousel of employers – so they don’t qualify for the government’s jobkeeper wage subsidy.

This morning, a friend in Cairns was measuring the dire effects of the virus on the local economy. Cairns survives on seasonal work from the tourist trade, which has, of course, collapsed. But the work is casual, and these workers don’t qualify for the jobkeeper payment, either.

They are among a pool of 1.1 million Australian workers whose casualised labour conditions will leave them without wage subsidies in an economy that, overnight, has ceased to exist. A quarter of a million Victorians alone will miss out. That’s the entire population of Ballarat and Bendigo.

A wage subsidy program has been a repeated demand of Australia’s union movement since the onset of isolation strategies to limit the spread of the corona pandemic began. The government, at first, and loudly, rejected the idea … but as the sprawl of Centrelink queues occupied more and more space both of city footpaths and news media, the government position softened. Finally, a subsidy – not like Britain’s! Not like New Zealand’s! – was announced to much fanfare, and met with relief, by those – like myself – whose income streams have crumbled under the necessity of social distancing rules, shuttered industries and work cancellations. But combined union demands for a wage subsidy for all workers are not met by the jobkeeper package, whose stipulations preclude any casual who has been in their job for less than 12 months from receiving the payment.

This doesn’t just mean actors, or casuals in tourist towns. According to figures from the ACTU, it’s 118,000 health and social assistance workers. It’s 86,900 workers in construction, more than 40,000 scientists and technicians and more than 60,000 educators. It’s a whopping 154,900 retail workers, and 229,800 hospitality workers.

There are, in fact, no industries unaffected, because from manufacturing to fishing, real estate to postal services, there are no industries that are immune to casualisation. For their seven years in government, the Liberals have acquiesced to an ongoing business insistence that employment conditions in this country be rendered more “flexible”. They’ve encouraged award stripping, outsourcing, and the “gig economy”, as well as imposing funding cuts that have obliged public institutions – such as, infamously, universities – into hiring cheaper, casualised forms of labour. It is entirely the class of insecure worker that the Liberals have created that they’re abandoning now. And the industrial relations minister, Christian Porter, has been adamant about it. To every casual who spent their last working year juggling the competing demands of what is (hilariously) called a “portfolio” of employers, he’s been clear: “Casuals who had worked regularly and continuously but for more than one employer would not be eligible,” for jobkeeper. “There has to be some definitions and some lines drawn,” the minister affirmed.

Porter has equally drawn lines around temporary migrant workers, who are presently also denied the jobkeeper payment. Australia has one of the highest temporary worker migration rates of any of the world’s democracies – between 8-10% of the labour force. More than 900,000 temporary visa holders with work rights are residents in Australia, imported as workers by successive Liberal governments and highly “lucrative to the state of the budget” as net economic contributors. These people work throughout the economy, while industries including hospitality, agriculture, health and aged care services rely on their labour participation.

But despite government insistence that these workers overcome critical labour shortages in the industries eager to recruit them, now these Australian residents confront extraordinary circumstances that deny them the means to support themselves, they’ve been told merely to “go home” by the prime minister. Many can’t; coronavirus rages globally. Borders have shut. Flights have been cancelled. There are “temporary” workers who have been in Australia for so long, they have no homes left to go back to. A heaving population of yesterday’s critical workers have been left to fight today’s health crisis with no job, no jobkeeper, no income, and no options.

Academics are concerned about homelessness and dependence on already-squeezed charity institutions. And government refusal to support this community compounds the conditions for coronavirus. “It is hard to ‘stay at home’ if you don’t have one,” writes Joo-Cheong Tham in the Conversation. “Financial desperation will drive some to continue working even if unwell.”

Much commentary has appeared in the wake of coronavirus about the instabilities the crisis has exposed in our workplaces, public services, our economy. With the jobkeeper legislation being debated in a recalled parliament, now is the time for government to take responsibility and legislate job and income support for the Australian workers its policies created, and then left hanging.

It’s an opportunity to prove we are, indeed, “all in this together” rather that at the mercy of an economy that punishes its victims, and, with them, the rest of us.

Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist