‘We feed you.’ The real cost of undocumented labour in Australia

As the federal election looms, the familiar terrain of political conflict over immigration is being prepared. Going by recent reporting, the issue of undocumented migrant labour is likely to acquire a special significance.

In a recent piece published in the Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe drily questioned Scott Morrison’s commitment to border protection, which is reliant on the offshore warehousing of asylum seekers who arrive by boat, noting that ‘more asylum seekers are turning up under his government’s watch than ever did under Labor.’ For this, he points specifically to the growing number of applications made in Australia ‘involv[ing] dodgy asylum claims from citizens of a number of countries, particularly Malaysia.’ According to Seccomb, the delay in processing of asylum claims was being used as a marketing tool by ‘people smugglers’ to import cheap labour from Malaysia, rendering visa holders ‘vulnerable to exploitation’.

Writing on the same day in The Age, former immigration bureaucrat Abul Rizvi bemoaned the ‘chaos in our visa system’ caused by ‘the record number of asylum seekers, mostly non-genuine, entering as tourists right under Dutton’s nose.’ He refers to his own research, published on the blog of former Whitlam staffer John Menadue, indicating a significant surge in asylum claims by people from Malaysia, India and China in the previous two years. The point Rizvi, like Seccombe, appears to be making is that the focus of Dutton’s border policing has been misconceived – that, rather than banishing asylum seekers who arrive by boat to offshore detention, future governments ought to direct their attention to the simmering crisis ‘onshore’, which they attribute to people smugglers. Their concerns in this regard seem to be shared by veteran figures of the ‘refugee movement’.

In their tired attempts to pit ‘legitimate’ against ‘bogus’ asylum seekers, and asylum seekers against ‘economic migrants’, such analyses tread ancient political ground. But more significantly, they either purposely misapprehend or elide the true nature of undocumented migrant labour and whose interests it serves.

At present, a significant percentage of Australia’s workforce is comprised of workers either with temporary visa status, or no visa at all. As of December 2018, there were 2.3 million temporary visa holders in Australia. Of these, 188,000 held a Bridging visa – being the most precarious temporary visa status, allowing the holder to remain in Australia while an application or related appeal is processed, or they are removed from the country. In addition to this, around 60,000 people remain in Australia without a visa – classified as ‘unlawful non-citizens’.

Much has been written in the European and north American context of the economic productivity of undocumented migrant labour. In a fabled series of actions in 2006, undocumented workers, mostly from south and central America, shut down factories across Los Angeles in simultaneous protests called ‘Day Without an Immigrant’, intended to highlight the centrality of undocumented labour to US domestic production.

In Australia, undocumented labour has attracted comparatively little attention, until recently when migrant workers have begun to organise against their conditions. In February 2019, a report published by the University of Adelaide indicated that the horticulture industry has become ‘structurally reliant’ on workers without visa status – predominantly from Malaysia, China and India. In turn, the industry is of ‘critical importance’ to Australia’s economy, producing 93% of food consumed in Australia and contributing $48.7 billion to the GDP. Viewed from the perspective of its vast and far-reaching scale, the issue of undocumented labour hardly appears to be the product of unscrupulous agents or mythical ‘people smugglers’ with intimate knowledge of the working of immigration regulations. Rather, it begins to appears as an economically productive arrangement, created and facilitated by the state.

Unlike north America and Europe, the absence of contiguous land borders allowing for mass entry means that Australia must create its undocumented migrant population in situ – by allowing people to enter with nominal legal status, then systematically stripping it away. Perhaps the most spectacular example of this was in the skilled visa reforms which took place from 2009 onwards, affecting predominately Indian and Chinese international students. Under the guise of re-establishing the ‘integrity’ of international education, a series of reforms were implemented over several years that meant that tens of thousands of international students were suddenly without a pathway to permanent residency. But having invested thousands of dollars and years in the promise of permanent migration, there was every reason for former students to want to stay on – whether with status or without.

In the more recent case of Malaysian migrants, visa free travel to Australia has been available for several years. Prevailing economic and social conditions in parts of Malaysia mean that, once here, Malaysian migrants have a significant incentive to stay on. Through friends and networks, many end up funnelled into the remote corners of Victoria and New South Wales, into packing sheds and farms. Some allow their visas to lapse, remaining for years without meaningful workplace protections. Others are assisted to apply for Protection visas, and granted Bridging visas – or temporary permission to remain in Australia – in connection with their visa applications.

What is meaningful to note is that the system of visa processing, at the Department of Home Affairs and later the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, operates to secure the undocumented or precarious status of Malaysian visa applicants. For years, an undisclosed processing policy within the department has meant that Malaysian Protection visa applicants, unlike any other national cohort, are denied the dignity of an interview to discuss their claims in person. Review applications are fast-tracked through the Tribunal, with decisions notified to applicants at long-vacated addresses, so that they often remain unaware of their visa status for years. Such an overwhelming suspicion characterises the protection assessment process for Malaysian nationals that there is hardly opportunity for ‘legitimate’ claims to be aired – for instance, the National Union of Workers report that members with claims based on their LGBITQ status have been prevented from fully raising and advancing those claims.

When Malaysian Bridging visa holders attempt to apply for permission to work, the Department routinely refuses those requests, despite the sole criterion relating to financial hardship – they instead require applicants to adduce impossible evidence of bank accounts and declarations from family members and friends in Malaysia. In these myriad ways, the immigration system produces and secures the precarious status of Malaysian workers, clearly to the massive benefit of the horticultural sector and the Australian economy.

Farms in regional Victoria are like the sedimentary layers of decades of punitive immigration policy. Alongside Malaysians, former international students from India and China and Pasifika workers toil side by side in the dead heat. This is no mistake, this is no oversight – this is no ‘shit sandwich’ in the words of Abul Rizvi. It is not a story of migrants ‘exploiting loopholes’ in the system to extend their stay. This is the economy, acting on design, creating then exploiting the most vulnerable type of labour it can find.
Reminiscent of the ‘Day Without an Immigrant’ protests, farm workers across the country are now making direct demands on the economy that benefits from their exploitation, saying ‘We Feed You.’ We must develop a new political language that is able to comprehend those demands.



Sanmati Verma

Sanmati Verma is an immigration lawyer and writer. She has volunteered with the International Student Legal Advice Clinic and the immigration unit of the Legal Aid Society, NYC. She now works with the National Union of Workers and the Migrant Workers Centre on workers’ rights.

More by Sanmati Verma ›

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