By Alexia Fuentes
Back in March early this year, when news of the coronavirus broke, we all assumed it would pass in six weeks. We were all caught off guard when we suddenly realized the magnitude and seriousness of it all when it became a global pandemic which would then cripple economies around the world and put a halt to the normal realities and working lives of many.
Fast forward to August 2020, the rising death toll and cases of outbreaks continue to skyrocket in different parts of the world. In Australia, both Victoria and New South Wales are struggling to combat a second wave. Stage 4 restrictions, border closures, and extended lockdowns have essentially taken over the daily lives of Victorians and migrant workers who now have to traverse a chilling new reality.
No industry had been hit the most like Airlines and the cruise ship industry as international borders began to close one after another throughout the year. Its chilling effects are expected to remain felt beyond 2020. On another hand, Retail and Hospitality were given a lifeline through JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes that many find themselves clinging onto with their lives. Whilst others can afford to work from home, the majority of Hospitality and retail workers simply could not. Therefore, when restaurants, retail shops, and other small businesses began closing down as well, many have either lost their jobs completely or were stood down and thrown into limbo, especially considering that not many workers were eligible for JobKeeper. This is the reality for most migrant visa workers.
Cecilia M., originally from France, works in hospitality as a receptionist in a hotel in Swanston street. She worked full-time until she was eventually stood down. We asked her how this pandemic and the ensuing extended lockdown impacted her work and daily life.
She has this to say, “We have been encouraged to leave the country when this all started. I believe people simply ignore what Australia means for us. We hold degrees and PhDs and come to this part of the world to work for $20 an hour or less. Why would we do this if we had better opportunities in our home countries? When the pandemic started, I was on a working holiday visa. No job seeker, no job keeper, no rent reduction, no student fund.
The pandemic was at its peak in my home country. I had a full-time job, I used to work around 40 hours a week for $20 an hour. Does this sound low? Yes, this is what we do, because we have no other way to create a better future for ourselves.”
She continues, “In April I was forced to sign a reduction of my hours, it was either this or being told to leave. Almost all of my hours were taken by an Australian coworker that, before the start of the JobKeeper program, was working only on a casual basis. I had to move to a cheaper place, far from the city. I had to stop using public transport and just use my bicycle for 30 minutes in the middle of winter at 6am in the morning in order to save the cost of the tram, I had to buy 75cents chickpeas and lentils from Coles and I started thinking that my Australian dream was over.
After a month I have been made redundant, and like me, all the other ‘foreigners’ that were working full time were all stood down too.
The owner of the place I used to work for has simply exploited the situation for their own advantage. We could not even say a word. I have called up Fair work and I was told that they are able to do this and get away with it. There is nothing you can do to protect yourself.
You can go home? No, I can’t even do that.
There is a flight ticket to pay, and nothing was waiting for me there.
I had days where the only thing I could do was sit and cry and think this was all so unfair. My life, my dream, was over. Overworked for months and then be treated like garbage. My qualifications, my hard work, and my skills had no value.
The only thing I am reduced to is nothing but a migrant worker. The stamp on my passport. The visa conditions, the nationality. The non-eligibility.
I am one of those lucky people that managed to find another job in the middle of this crisis, yet still not properly legal, but I can afford food and rent, and wait for all this nightmare to be over.”
Like Cecilia, Alejandra Rosario F. I., from Colombia has a similar experience.
“Does anyone know that the average cost of cooking school is $7000 a year more or less, and that’s if we chose the cheapest one? Does anyone realize that we are those who work till late or too early in the morning? That we are those who deliver your takeaways and prepare your UberEats? For those of us that still have a job at least,” he says.
“After I finished university I had no hope to survive in Colombia. I love Australia and I want to stay here. I have been more than happy to clean tables and dishes to make a living here for more than 3 years. I love this country more than mine. But then the pandemic happened.
We got nothing. No support, no JobKeeper, and my boss was cutting my hours just because I am not eligible for any government support,” he continued.
Santiago N. who is from Argentina, on the other hand, worked in Australia on a student visa. When asked how this pandemic affected him, he says, “I was doing cleaning for Airbnb and some offices before the pandemic. I am here to study English and find a better job for me to help my family back home.
The first lockdown was still ok, I could work less and still pay for food, rent, and my school. I asked for the student fund to pay for my bills, rent, and school fee. But it was only a thousand dollars, my money was running out soon. Australia is an expensive country. I am from Argentina. The second lockdown was terrible. No job, no support, no plane to go back. Now I share my room with other friends. I have no privacy. I can survive one or two months maybe, but if the lockdown lasts longer I don’t know what I can do. I sit at home all day. I sold my furniture and my computer. I keep looking for any job and still nothing. I do some food delivery and what I can earn in one day can be sometimes $30, sometimes $6. When I see the people taking my delivery I think they are so lucky and they just don’t know. We have a group on Facebook and some people donate food, I had to ask for free food. I feel humiliated but what can I do in this situation? There should be a minimum support for all the international students here with low salary or no job too.”
Lastly, we spoke to Antonio who came here from Italy on a working holiday visa. He says,
“I work in construction. My sister is here, and she lost her job. My friends who worked in restaurants lost their jobs too. My girlfriend decided to go back home because she had no support here and I couldn’t afford to help my sister, help her, or help myself.
Why isn’t the government remembering those who work in farms? Who work in the worst places? Why can’t we have even minimum support for food and rent?”
He continues, “I am still lucky and I help my friends. But many people remained with nothing after years spent working hard. If I can help people around me, why can’t someone else who are ‘up’ there,” pointing his fingers up, “understand we are all part of the same situation, and helping is the only thing we can do? Australia needs us and we need Australia,” referring to the Federal government.
A week in after the second lockdown in Victoria and hundreds of hotel staff who worked for Housekeeping in various hotels throughout Melbourne were also stood down. Most of them were Filipino migrant workers. To them, this “stand down order” is akin to a termination letter; with no JobKeeper or JobSeeker support, the uncertainty of the extended lockdown looms indefinitely.
Luisita, a Filipino housekeeper, also shares her sentiments.
“When they announced the lockdown, it affected the hotel industry. We lost all the international guests and many of us who cannot get JobKeeper or Jobseeker support were left to fight for scraps. The hotel reduced its hours of operations and they reduced their staff. Many of us were stood down and after they announced the second lockdown, many began to quit. The hotel said they cannot afford to pay us anymore. Those who remained on JobKeeper are taken advantage of as they began to take on shifts after shifts. After all, now that everybody’s gone, the hotel
was determined to work those who they can exploit the most for free, at least while JobKeeper lasts for as long as it will. After that, lucky as they are now compared to us, they are also being used as fodder. The people who run the hotel themselves have been heard that they don’t believe in the virus. These are the same people who refused to pay us sick leaves because they claim we might abuse it! Imagine working for dodgy companies like this at a time of pandemic! They only get worse.”
They all each share a similar story bound by a universal struggle. As we listened to their voices, we realized that countless more others are still not being heard. Especially for the millions of Filipinos back home in the Philippines who have to contend with combined higher COVID cases and anti-people attacks from the fascist Duterte government. What does this mean for the Filipinos in diaspora who cannot rely on an inept government unwilling to help them?
Yet these stories have been told countless times before as well. The pandemic only brought these to light as we are forced to face capitalism’s barest nature. When all the neoliberal pretenses have been shed and a global crisis merely exposes an already rotting system, the reality becomes clearer. This society needs to change.