Cracks are beginning to emerge in Scott Morrison’s big new return to the welfare state.
Despite spending over $200 billion to keep Australians employed and to expand existing payments such as JobSeeker and Youth Allowance, a recent International Money Fund (IMF) forecast suggested we’re facing the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, with unemployment in Australia set to reach a high of 8.9% in the next two years.
A lot of that hit will be taken by people who fall through the gaps in the government’s JobKeeper package. From migrant workers and international students, to entire sectors of the economy, there are millions of Australians for whom JobKeeper provides no relief.
There are 1.1 million temporary workers in Australia. They’re here under a range of different visa schemes, from international students working part-time jobs in service stations, to backpackers on working holiday visas working in agriculture, as well as refugees and asylum seekers. Many are centred in industries such as hospitality, which have been hit with particular ferocity by the shutdown.
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But JobKeeper does not cover people on temporary visas. So far, it has only been extended to New Zealanders on 444 visas, leaving about 900,000 temporary migrant workers stuck in limbo. Most come from China and India, followed by the United Kingdom, South Korea and Nepal.
Last week, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told foreign workers to go back to their home countries where possible. But with travel restrictions around the world and airlines barely running, that is not an option for many.
The only relief offered to such people has been piecemeal. Backpackers on working holiday visas have been allowed to extend their stays. Meanwhile, most workers on temporary visas will be able to withdraw up to $10,000 of their super.
Filling gaps in the JobKeeper net may be falling on the states and territories — the Northern Territory has announced a $20 million program for temporary visa workers and others not covered by the federal program.
A substantial chunk (about 500,000) of those migrant workers are international students. For years now, Australia’s higher education sector has been heavily reliant on their cash, to arguably dangerous levels. But the economic shutdown and travel bans have wreaked havoc on the entire sector, leaving thousands of international students stuck in Australia.
Many are casual workers, but not long-term casuals covered under JobKeeper, or haven’t been in their current job long enough (12 months) to qualify for support. Over the weekend, the government unveiled an $18 billion relief package for the tertiary sector, which Education Minister Dan Tehan said was “unashamedly” geared towards domestic students.
International students have been told by Scott Morrison to “go home”. It’s fallen on universities themselves to support those left behind — several have created emergency relief funds for international students.
The arts sector contributes over $100 billion to Australia’s GDP per year. But it has been hit earlier and harder than any other. More than half of the arts and recreation business in Australia have shut their doors in the last month, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. There’s been at least $330 million worth of income collectively lost sector-wide, with everyone from musicians, to comedians, costume designers and event security people affected.
Because the structural realities of the industry do not align with the narrow requirements under the JobKeeper scheme, thousands will not be protected. Mark Phillips, communications director at the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, said that most workers are casuals, or freelancers, working on commissions or short-term contracts, who don’t meet the 12-month minimum employment period test.
“The majority of people in entertainment or screen are employed on short-term contracts,” Phillips said.
“It’s very irregular or patchy, so it doesn’t fit the regular criteria of what JK does. You could be working 11 out of 12 months a year, but it might be on five to six different jobs.”
Others are migrant workers on temporary visas. And since many arts organisations receive money through grants or other patchwork sources, it’s difficult to show a 30% reduction in revenue (another key requirement for JobKeeper eligibility).
For casual workers more generally, protection is limited. The JobKeeper package only applies to long-term casuals who have been in one job longer than 12 months, taking cues from definitions in the Fair Work Act.
Workers who lose their jobs can access the expanded JobSeeker payment (previously called Newstart), but that would give them $400 less per fortnight. Frydenberg last week indicated the government might, in unforeseen circumstances, be willing to change the rules to expand coverage under JobKeeper. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, including short-term casuals would add an additional $5.7 billion to the cost of the scheme.
Phillips says these gaps in JobKeeper expose the scheme as taking an outdated, one-size-fits-all approach to employment.
“What this says is the nature of employment in Australia is very casualised and insecure, and I don’t think the system has caught up with how people are employed.”
This article was first published by Crikey.