In recent years, the Australian political establishment has taken to calling Australia ‘the most successful multicultural country in the world’. The two most recent prime ministers have employed the phrase often, as have think-tanks. The claim is the first line in the Australian Government’s ‘multicultural statement’. At face value, it is hard to argue that Australia is, if not the most, at least a quite successful multicultural country. The statistics can seem quite impressive: in 2018, 29 per cent of the Australian population comprised immigrants, and roughly half of the population was either born somewhere else, or have a least one parent who was. This seems to be indicative of highly welcoming country.
However, behind these basic demographic statistics there is a complex system of policies and informal labor structures that completely undermine these saccharine sentiments. This system all but ensures that the vast majority of immigrants to Australia will never be allowed to stay permanently and punishes them for trying, while also encouraging illegal wage exploitation. In other words, the Australian political and business establishment are happy to welcome immigrants, exploit their labour for a few years and then force them out of the country.
Anything more than a cursory look and it becomes obvious that the phrase ‘the most successful multicultural country in the world’ is not employed as a way of celebrating Australian diversity, but of obfuscating the system that exploits immigrant labour and lives. Take the 2016 op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald written by then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, titled ‘The truth is our successful multicultural society is built on secure borders’, or the current Liberal Party Government’s ‘Plan to Back our Multicultural Communities’, which promises to ‘keep Australians safe and our borders secure’. However, the parts of this system that actually affect the material well-being of immigrants – with the exception of the country’s brutal offshore concentration camps – generally have very little salience in mainstream Australian political discourse.
Legally, Australia divides its immigrant population into two broad categories: temporary and permanent. Those with permanent visas (known as ‘permanent residents’) can stay as long as they want in Australia (although are still subject to deportation), and have many of the same rights that citizens do. Those with temporary visas (known as ‘temporary migrants’) are heavily restricted in a myriad ways depending on their specific visa. One thing nearly all temporary migrants have in common is that there is an official end date to their legal residency in Australia.
Temporary visas are non-renewable and, importantly, they generally do not provide a direct path to permanent residency or citizenship. Legally, it is expected that these people simply leave when their visa expires. This means that a temporary migrant who builds a life in the time they are legally allowed to be in Australia – which could be years – is often still as ineligible for permanent residency as they were before they came to the country. Should they become eligible – say, through finding a partner with permanent residency or citizenship, or obtaining the relevant combination of work experience and a university degree sought by the government – they will still have to be able to afford some of the highest visa fees in the world to even be able to apply. If they can’t afford it, or more likely, still aren’t eligible, the only thing they can do is leave the country or apply for a different kind temporary visa.
Say someone comes in on a two-year working holiday visa, switches to a four-year student visa to go to university, and then moves on to a two-year post-study work visa in order to be able to work. This person has now spent six years living in Australia and may have run out of options for staying in the country. They could try for a different work visa or go back to school and get a student visa, but that would only delay being forced to leave. Even if they had planned ahead and got a degree and work experience in a field on the government’s skill-shortages list in order to apply for a permanent visa down the road, there is no guarantee that that their skill will be on the list when they apply, as it changes yearly (often as a result of political pressure).
The outcome of the temporary visa system is that people without citizenship or permanent residency in Australia are in a constant state of precarity. This precarity is the intentional outcome of Australia’s immigration system and other government policies, and any attempts by immigrants to put down roots are actively punished. If an immigrant on a temporary visa has a child, not only is that child also placed on a temporary visa (since Australia has no birthright citizenship laws), but the cost to send them to public school could be anywhere in the ballpark of $5,000 to over $15,000 per child depending on state, type of visa and age of the child. If that child has a disability, this makes them and their family more vulnerable to deportation due to an eugenicist policy in force since 1994 that effectively denies visas to children with disabilities on the basis that they would be a drain on the state.
All of these policies inflict drastic harm on immigrant families in Australia. The lack of birthright citizenship laws result in children and their families being imprisoned for years, sometimes since birth, as they are subject to the same mandatory detention laws that adults are. The public school fees are far too high for someone making the Australian median wage of $34,400 per year, which means either homeschooling your child or, more likely, having to leave the country. The policies that discriminate on the basis of disability have led to case after case of families, including permanent residents, facing deportation. The result of all of these practices is an immigration system in which non-citizens can almost never feel truly off-the-hook. At any moment their seemingly solid plan could crumble and leave them and their family scrambling. This also creates the conditions for labour exploitation.
While dealing with the constant, government-enforced state of precarity, immigrants also have to deal with some of the worst working conditions in Australia. While wage-theft affects many low-wage workers in Australia, it is especially bad for immigrants. A 2018 study found that a third of immigrant workers on temporary visas made less than half of the legal minimum wage, while the majority suffered some form of wage-theft.
Many industries are dependent on the severe exploitation of immigrant workers, but the Australian farming industry in particular has been encouraged by government and business to rely heavily on underpaid immigrant labor, which often consists of undocumented workers and workers on Working Holiday visas. Members of this last group – almost always euphemistically referred to as ‘backpackers’ by the mainstream press – are required to do three months of farm work to renew their visa. This creates a situation where exploitation is rife, as employers take advantage of the fact that workers risk deportation if they don’t complete this labour. Even if these workers are ‘lucky’ enough to be paid the legal minimum wage, the Australian Government will withhold 15-32.5 per cent of their taxes from the first dollar they make, as they are specifically not eligible for the tax-free threshold.
Even more vulnerable than immigrants on Working Holiday visas are undocumented workers, who are at the highest risk of detention and deportation, and consequently, severe exploitation, as they have no legal right to be in the country. Media reports and government investigations have compared the situation of undocumented farm workers to slavery. Their wages are often extremely low or nonexistent, and they are forced to stay in cramped conditions while working long hours in grueling conditions. Finally, if they are ever discovered by Australia’s Border Force or the police, they will be put in indefinite detention an eventually deported. Coverage of this issue in the Australian media is often biased towards the employers, framing it as a case of farmers having no choice but to brutally exploit workers. Likewise, government and industry responses have completely ignored the conditions of undocumented workers, opting for small tweaks to the visa system.
Undocumented immigrants in Australia unfortunately do not have the same level of visibility or political power as in some other countries such as the US, where immigration activists have forced the topic into the public sphere. There are signs may be changing, however, as a major national union is making the radical call for amnesty for undocumented farm workers.
The illegal exploitation of immigrant workers’ labor does not need to take place. The Australian government has purposely created a system which incentivises these conditions via a system of mandatory serfdom for Working Holiday visa holders, and the threat of indefinite detention for the undocumented. The farming industry is happy to take advantage of the situation – indeed, that’s the whole point of the system: to create a reserve artificially cheap labor to prop up an uncompetitive industry. The system is perpetuated by the mainstream media organisations like the ABC, through stories with headlines such as Border Force crackdown on illegal foreign workers leaves Victorian farmers struggling to find pickers, as well as by the Border Force, who play a key role in ensuring that workers are in too precarious a position to easily organise and demand higher wages.
The lynchpin behind many of these anti-immigrant policies in Australia is the policy of mandatory and indefinite detention of any immigrant found to be in breach of immigration law. In this case, indefinite really means indefinite. The UN has recently called on Australia to release a disabled Tamil refugee who has been imprisoned by the Australian government for nine years and is currently at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney. Sickeningly, there is currently one child, sixteen-month-old Isabella, who has spent her whole life imprisoned in the Melbourne Immigration Transit Centre, and another, two-year-old Tharunicaa, who has spent more than half of her life in detention.
The conditions and treatment in these prison camps are abhorrent. Isabella has been to the hospital with the flu after weeks of her mother’s complaints about her fever had been ignored. The only reason she ended up getting medical care is that her mother’s immigration lawyer called an ambulance. In early July, after a whiteboard fell on her head, Tharunicaa received no medical care for five hours despite vomiting twice and her face swelling. A few weeks later, she had all of her teeth surgically removed: they were too rotten for her to eat solid food with – according to advocates, a result of a lack of both adequate sunlight and nutrition. A twenty-three-year-old man died under mysterious circumstances after being imprisoned for two years. Another man, who has been imprisoned for seven years, sewed his lips together after a two-week long hunger strike. All of these incidents occurred in the month of July at a single detention center in Melbourne. In general, deaths, hunger-strikes, riots, and lip-suturing have been familiar occurrences in Australian immigration prisons. And this is to say nothing of Australia’s offshore centres.
It should be obvious that when the political elite say that a country in which non-citizens are systematically robbed, imprisoned, deported and exploited is the pinnacle of what multiculturalism can be, they are telling a blatant lie which serves to placate the country’s more liberal-minded citizens and to obfuscate the actual material conditions of immigrants with meaningless platitudes. This vapid pride in an unexamined, surface multiculturalism is seen as something in need of protection, and is perversely used as an excuse to crack down even more on non-citizens – as if to say ‘we can only have all these wonderful immigrants by treating our immigrants terribly’.
These conditions are not new, especially when it comes with detention, and in the past have have attracted acts of radical solidarity. In 2002, activists gathered at the now decommissioned Woomera immigration prison – a camp in a remote desert area north of Adelaide known for its suicide attempts and hunger strikes – and used their own weight to bring down the razorwire around the compound, while the prisoners used a metal pole to pry free a post in the wall. Thirty-five people were freed that day, an incredible feat.
It is that radical solidarity that is needed today to break through the system created by the state, business and the media. A system that deports families because their children have disabilities, that keeps public school financially out of reach for many immigrants, that allows undocumented workers to make little to nothing, and that lets the teeth of a two year old rot before cutting them out. Both major parties have long-presided over these abuses and have done nothing to even mitigate these abuses. Vapid appeals to liberalism must be rejected and answered with action.