“We’re All In This Together”: Inequitable relations vis-a-vis the state
Simon Metcalfe

‘migrant workers create that wealth parasitic postmodern capitalism would otherwise not know how to suck out of the blood of the proletariat’ (Hardt and Negri 2000:397-8).

COVID-19, in some respects, affects society ubiquitously and indiscriminately; and yet, the effects of the virus and the treatment of citizens are inequitable. Extending beyond a health crisis, the pandemic has precipitated an acknowledgement of the need for care in the social realm. Progressive welfare policies introduced in various parts of the world have sidelined conservative ideologies, producing policies that would have previously been abhorrent to many. And yet, in various parts of the world, migrants have been excluded and ignored from this government assistance and have been disproportionately abused and affected by the virus (Devakumar et al. 2020; Kluge et al. 2020).

My research sheds light on the disproportionate effects of COVID-19, notably on the position of temporary migrants in the Australian labour market and their experience of political membership. Embedded within our neoliberal society, this article looks at how Covid-19 has exacerbated and exposed the neoliberal destruction of societies collectivities; reflecting the historical dismantling of state capacities in favour of superior efficiency under the auspices of economic rationalism.

In light of this, we argue that the current pandemic unearths a hidden exploitative relationship vis-à-vis the state. We put forward that temporary migrants in Australia are embedded in the ‘infra-economy’, in the form of ‘infra-structural’ labour (Gidwani 2015). This labour is simultaneously vital for the reproduction of everyday life; and yet is rendered invisible and denied recognition by the state and civil society.

Consequently, I argue that Covid-19 is not merely just a health crisis, but is also a reflection and amplification of systematic forms of economic and social inequality, which undermines the intersectional fabric of society.

Hence, the case of temporary migrant labour is symptomatic of broader theoretical conceptions of political membership in contemporary neoliberal societies, pointing toward the socio-political dimensions of the Australian state following a binary and unjust logic.

To demonstrate this phenomenon, we consider and test these facts through Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) as a normative framework and socio-political lens to examine sources of wealth and inequality in society, that is human life and human labour. The purpose of using this conceptual framework clarifies two points: first, capitalisms dependency upon exploited labour; and second, the subsequent devaluation of reproductive labour.

We can see the lack of care, derived from the withdrawal of the nation-state, demonstrated by the exclusion of temporary from processes of welfare, combined with their widespread exploitation and the institutional discrimination endemic in the Australian labour market.

This research is guided by a theoretical analysis demonstrating the role that migration plays in the neoliberal era. Consequently, a dual, or segmented market theory approach is used to explain the apparent mistreatment within our labour market. This article concludes by considering the juxtaposition between the role that migrants play in the Australian labour market, and their economic and noneconomic exploitation.

Migrants and Globalisation:

Migrants are inextricably linked to, and exploited by, the political and economic geopolitical transformations that occurred in the era of neoliberal globalisation (Triandafyllidou 2018). The current contemporary epoch encompasses a paradox that simultaneously pushes towards transnational openness, in the economic sphere; alongside increasing pressure for territorial closure, that is shown by rhetoric and commentary portraying migrants as a threat to the nation (Teitelbaum and Weiner 1995). 

In order to alleviate these incongruent demands within the neoliberal era, the government introduced migration status, guised as ‘mobility schemes’, to reconstitute the nation-state’s primary purpose towards the promotion of economic globalization (Cohen 2001: 77; Ong 1999). In conjunction with the reformation of state priorities away from the protection of citizens, the 1970s were characterised by the deregulation of the labour market, brought in the need for low-skilled employment in the Global North (Sassen 1991). 

Consequently, the emergence of casualised and flexibilised employment emerged as a precipitant for the mistreatment of temporary migrants. Low-skilled casualised employment is rooted in the secondary or segmented labour market (SLM), derived from dual labour market theory. This theory proposes that the labour market is split between a ‘primary’ and a ‘secondary’ sector that corresponds with high and low: wages; job stability; and, employment security (Wachter et al. 1974:638-39). Moreover, SLM theory further differentiates employment, on the basis of limited internal labour market structures present in the SLM (Doeringer 1971:167).

With this in mind, migrants secure employment for those in the primary sector by absorbing cyclical and seasonal economic fluctuations (Bauder 2005:20). Consequently, locals are spared from the expectation of working in the secondary sector (Castles and Miller 2003), providing the country with cheap and expendable labour (Piore 1979). In this scenario, migrants are entwined in the SLM, employed in subcontracted labour and/or unorganised workplaces (Ong 1999), in an ‘unwritten social contract’ with the neoliberal state (Harris 1995). Recognised as highly precarious labour or forced labour, the vulnerable migrant is often used as a regulatory market tool by the neoliberal state, often to the detriment of the individual (Bauder 2005). To this end, it is argued by scholars that international migration is a ‘structural necessity’ for economies (Cohen 1987: 135).

Social Reproduction:

Since the 1970s, social reproductive practices have been emphasised by socio-political feminist-theorists as a necessity for capital accumulation. Situated within a ‘mixed economy’ involving the state, market, and the family, care is a foundation for social life (Fine 2005:253). Embedded within the neoliberal context that devalues ‘care work’ and subsequently fragments structures and feelings of care, normative understandings of family and gender roles are intimately linked (Daly and Lewis 2003). Against this background, care is considered a form of reproductive, unremunerated and invisible labour, signifying gender-related inequalities in the labour market (Schmitt et al. 2018).

In Australia, the coronavirus crisis has exposed and clarified the importance and necessity of care work, through: the identification and glorification of ‘essential’ or ‘key’ workers, formerly recognised as low-skilled; and, in policies implemented such as augmented welfare packages and the Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package providing fee-free childcare for families during the crisis (Department of Education, Skills and Employment 2020). In other words, the individualistic and alienating sense of normality derived from neoliberal ideology has been disturbed, awakening us to our vulnerabilities and interdependencies that sustain life (Leyva Del Rio & Medappa 2020).

Irrespective of the apparent acknowledgement of care work, the fee-free childcare for families was one of the first supplements to be cancelled (Hayne 2020), along with the proposal of a university fee overhaul that disproportionately affects fields occupied by women (Hurst 2020). The pandemic has identified the overrepresentation of women among low-wage workers on the frontline, demonstrating the gendered and unequal structures involved in the crisis (Bahn et al. 2020). In light of this, Nancy Fraser points out that those who sustain the highly inequitable productive processes of capital are the ones that are paradoxically and disproportionately affected. (Fraser 2016a)


On 3 April 2020, the Australian Government announced the Commonwealth safety net, which excluded 1.1 million temporary migrants, based on the rationale that the government had to ‘draw the line somewhere’ (Cash 2020). Disturbingly, the government also invoked exclusionary and incognisant rhetoric encouraging temporary migrants to ‘go home’ (Coleman 2020). Furthermore, any federal government assistance towards temporary migrants, albeit limited, was oriented around helping Australian instead of the migrant. Apart from, the Early Access to Superannuation Scheme, policies such as the extension of working rights beyond the 40 hours per week threshold, was permitted for student visa holders who were already employed in vital industries such as: Australia’s major supermarkets; aged care facilities; NDIS registered employment; or hospitals (IDP 2020).

Consequently, emerging large-scale survey data of temporary visa holders, conducted during the pandemic showed that: 65% of participants lost their job; 43% were skipping meals on a regular basis; and, 34% were already homeless, or anticipated imminent eviction (Unions NSW 2020). A recent survey conducted by Berg & Farbenblum (2020) identifies the financial, physical and psychological damage of temporary migrants during Covid-19. Specifically: increased abuse and violence at home; exploitative work conditions; and experiences of racism, abuse and harassment. Furthermore, participant responses describe the migrant experience in the Australian society as: ‘ATMs of the Australian government’ (ibid:9), while eliciting stark and dehumanising language to describe their experience: ‘like we do not exist’, ‘like I didn’t matter” (ibid:90). Accordingly, this papers posits that COVID-19 is not merely just a health crisis but is also a reflection and amplification of systematic forms of economic and social inequality, undermining the intersectional fabric of society.

Australian context:

In examining the Australian context,we acknowledged that temporary migrants are: significantly integrated in the economy; and are more highly educated compared to their non-migrant counterparts. And yet, they occupy the lower-skilled sector of the market. Their labour is recognised as essential, yet they face widespread exploitation. Identifying the contributions of temporary migrants substantiates claims concerning: ‘their role in the labour market as foundational for society and the production of capital’. It is acknowledged and argued that migrant vulnerability is augmented by the temporary nature of the visa status.

Encompassing the largest migrant workforce in the OECD per capita (OECD 2019), Australia has shifted its migrant labour scheme towards a ‘guest-worker’1 system by the creation of temporary visa categories, amounting to an unprecedented expansion of temporary migrant labour (Wright & Clibborn 2017). As a main driver of population growth (OECD 2018: 41), migration in Australia follows a pattern that has simultaneously cut permanent migration, and increased the number of temporary entrants (Markus et al. 2009:9). 

Whilst they contribute to tax revenue, temporary migrants do not receive free or subsidised government assistance, resulting in less pressure on social services and a net benefit to government budgets (CEDA 2019). Furthermore, migrants provide a ‘brain-gain’ for Australia (ABS 2016); and contribute $32.4 billion to the economy through participation in Australia’s higher education system as an export commodity (Ferguson and Sherrell 2019).

Following the logic of dependency upon migrant labour, ‘Essential Work’ during Covid-19 has been a heavily discussed topic, notably the link between the importance of ‘key workers’ and migrant labour, in maintaining reliable food supplies and care work.  

As of 2016, 70% of seasonal horticulture and vegetable workers in Australia were temporary visa holders2 (Valle et al. 2017:9). A similar structural dependency on temporary migrant labour subsists in the care work sector, whereby, as of 2016, 37.1% of all frontline care workers3 were born overseas (Eastmann et al. 2018:1). The percentage of care workers arriving on temporary work visas has increased from 46.8% during 2007-2011, to 76.3% during 2012-2016, owing to Australia’s ‘guest-worker’ system (ibid:4).

Further research indicates the positive role of temporary migrants in Australia’s economic success, such as: the median age of temporary migrants is 22.2 years, falling in-between schooling and retirement (ABS 2018); labour market shortages; GDP contributions; regional economies; human capital; broader social and cultural benefits (CEDA 2019); entrepreneurial advancement; workplace diversity (Collins 2003); regional economies; and, broader and social cultural benefits (CEDA 2019; Deloitte Access Economics 2016). 

1. Pivotal features of ‘guest-worker’ systems include the curtailment of workers’ rights, agency and bargaining power, in favour of short-term benefits for businesses and governments  (Papademetriou and Sumption, 2011).


Aligning with segmented labour market theory, the disproportionate economic and noneconomic exploitation of migrants in the Australian labour market is derived from the nexus between: migrants’ vulnerability; and, employer practices in a poorly regulated market, often to the benefit of non-migrants and the state (ACTU 2018; Tham et al. 2016). 

Extensive studies confirm that exploitation in the Australian labour market is endemic and intrinsic, ascertaining that 30% of participants earned $12 or less per hour (Berg & Farbenblum 2017:5-6). According to a Senate Enquiry into the temporary work visa program in 2015, types of rorting and exploitation reported against temporary migrants included: excessive working hours; provision of sub-standard accommodation; workplace bullying; severe underpayment; debt bondage (with interest on loans); and, threats for joining trade unions (ACTU 2015: 63-64, see also: FWO 2016). Discrimination and ‘ultra-exploitation’ has also been identified as intrinsic to international students in the Australian labour market (Marginson et al. 2010). Noneconomic exploitation, regarding: work conditions that do not comply with Australia health and safety standards; physical or sexual abuse; sexual violence; and, harassment, is likewise prolific for temporary migrants (Farbenblum et al. 2015: 12-18; Charlesworth in FECCA 2019;).

Identifying the exploitation of temporary migrants, juxtaposed to their contributions to society, allows for recognition of the punitive treatment allocated during COVID-19. The pandemic has illustrated the unrequited relations temporary migrants have with the state as ‘infra-structural’ and essential labour. With regard to the labour market, non-compliance with minimum employment standards has been identified as a ‘major and ongoing challenge’ (Howe et al. 2013). This understanding is linked to neoliberal understandings of ‘market-friendly, union hostile state sanctioning, with low labour standards’ and weak institutional protections (Tham 2020:72).

Specifically in Australia, temporary migrants are deeply embedded in industries with low levels of union representation (Department of Immigration and Border Protection 2014), leading to the proliferation of labour hire contractors that augment large-scale worker exploitation. These conditions become permissible by the deregulation of the labour market and the decline of trade union strength, owing to a truncated capacity to bargain for decent working conditions (Wright and Clibborn 2020). 


In this paper, Social Reproductive Theory, as a conceptual framework and socio-political lens, is effectually tested on temporary migrants in the Australia context, revealing broader theoretical conceptions of political membership. Covid-19 has unearthed the devaluation of the care economy as a requisite for capital accumulation and human life, identifying the similarities between temporary migrants as a structural necessity, and the gendered exploitation embedded in globalised neoliberal nation- states. Consequently, migrant labour is harnessed as a regulatory labour market tool for the benefit of the neoliberal state, and to the detriment of the vulnerable migrant.

This research has further revealed how the creation of segmented labour markets, in combination with the increase of temporary migration, allows for widespread exploitation of temporary migrants. The consequential deterioration of citizenship’s reciprocal and solidaristic ethos is symptomatic of the contemporary variant of capital accumulation, neoliberalism, and its dependency upon exploited labour.  

Accordingly, based on analyses juxtaposing the inputs and exploitation of temporary migrants, the seemingly reciprocal relationship vis-à-vis the Australian state has been unveiled, revealing a ‘contractualized relationship’ (Walsh 2014). Consequently, social and moral qualities of the relationship have been stripped, whereby migrants are mere economic inputs for the propagation of capitalist accumulation.

Hence, I argue that in the absence of reproductive capacities lost in the era of globalised neoliberal-capitalism, temporary migrants, in Australia, emerge as society’s new form of ‘infra-structural’ labour.

Research extracted from a journal article to be published, by Simon Metcalfe and Associate Professor Claudia Tazreiter.  


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