Australian Human Rights Commissioners outline the challenges and solutions for marginalised workers post-COVID

By Chris Woods

Wednesday September 16, 2020


The Mandarin asks six commissioners at the Australian Human Rights Commission for their thoughts on what the new normal means for their respective groups, what government support should look like, and what research they can point to to back-up their concerns and solutions.

More than half a year into the pandemic, the Australian Bureau of Statistics last month put the official unemployment rate at 7.5%, although Josh Frydenberg notes its more realistically around 13% once JobKeeper is accounted for. According to the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, this means around 1.6 million job seekers are competing for about 114,000 jobs on Seek.

The next few months are likely to be tumultuous, with Melbourne stuck in a hard lockdown until at least late October, other states beginning to reopen, and the Morrison government about to slash their wage subsidy along with the Coronavirus Supplement; according to new Deloitte estimates, removing the latter completely and returning JobSeeker to pre-pandemic levels would, on top of everything else, cost the economy $31.3 billion and 145,000 full-time jobs over the next two years.

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As Australia looks to rebuild, what will this new, post-COVID employment ecosystem look like for some of Australia’s most marginalised groups, including but not limited to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island, aged, disabled, female and LGBTIQ, temporary-visa holder and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) workers?

Today, The Mandarin asks six commissioners at the Australian Human Rights Commission for their thoughts on what the new normal means for their respective groups, what government support should look like, and what research they can point to to back-up their concerns and solutions.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers

Throughout the pandemic, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar returned to her community in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, and she notes that she and her colleagues have been lucky enough to be able to work remotely.

But while other First Australians have similarly returned to the safety of their homelands, Oscar is concerned that without a complete re-set in how Australia “funds, values and invest in regional and remote living and community infrastructure — which, to date, have been poorly supported — the opportunity to gain and maintain jobs and have economically viable communities will be incredibly difficult.”

“Without proper investment into employment pathways, training and stimulating economies now, it is likely that Indigenous Australians already high rates of unemployment and extreme levels of financial insecurity will deepen post COVID,” Oscar says. “I am also very concerned for First Nations peoples living in larger urban areas and towns, particularly Melbourne where COVID-19 restrictions have been the most severe and lasted longest.”

“Recession and a loss of employment is a major threat to our families that have not been able to accumulate savings or intergenerational wealth and are living from paycheck to paycheck. Alongside financial insecurity, the disproportionate threat of COVID-19 to Indigenous peoples because of the compounding issues of poor health and poverty is incredibly frightening for our peoples. First Nations already have high rates of poor mental health and I am concerned that COVID-19 and a recession will have severe ongoing mental and psychological impacts.”

In a year that remote and regional Australia has suffered fire, drought, flood and now, COVID-19, Oscar calls for governments to start investing in regional, place-based and country-based economies. This includes opening up new economies for employment, such as: conservation estates, traditional land-management programs, cultural tourism, and increasing community-based education, Indigenous social and healthcare services. “These are the types of initiatives that would see remote and regional living as being viable and productive.”

Additionally, Oscar calls for the increased JobSeeker rate to remain and for less stringent requirements for the Community Development Program — “these social security measures are vital to safeguard financial insecure families through recessions” — and for policies that can support better education to employment pathways that lead to meaningful secure employment opportunities.

“Ultimately, we need more than just piecemeal financial measures. We cannot go on with plugging the gap with quick short-term policy fixes, otherwise our families will continue to live in poverty throughout an impending recession, potentially the worst Australia has seen in recent decades. We need a serious multi-pronged recovery approach.

“Australia needs a post-COVID-19 recovery and reconstruction plan. If we are to progress toward a healthy, resilient, economically and environmentally sustainable society, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples need to be equal participants in Australian nation building. Constitutional recognition, inclusion and a new First Nations body should start now as we work towards a recovery from COVID-19.”

Further reading:

  • The Centre for Social Impact’s Indigenous financial impacts and risks and COVID-19 has highlighted some of the initial impacts of COVID-19 and likely ongoing concerns of the financial impacts on First Nations peoples; this includes the fact many First Nations families are sharing income within their interconnected society and have few savings.
  • The Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy and Research’s Indigenous Australians and the COVID-19 crisis: Perspectives on public policy offers a compilation of perspectives on public policy issues and needs for First Nations people during and post-COVID; in particular, pieces look at high rates of unemployment and financial insecurity, the impact that recession will have on Indigenous peoples and communities, and the types of policy responses that are needed to both protect Indigenous peoples and aid in recovery post-COVID.
  • The Productivity Commission’s 20-year retrospective Why Did Young People’s Incomes Decline? found that young people are in a more financial insecure position today than previous generations; First Nation people have a high youth population and any financial impact on the general Australian youth population is likely to have a disproportionate impact for First Nations young people.

Women and LGBTIQ workers

Citing the fact that COVID-19 is forcing Australians to rethink the nature of paid and unpaid work, work more flexibly and create new caring obligations while putting increased pressure on grassroots service providers, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins argues that women are in many ways disproportionately on the frontline — “the majority of health care workers, social assistance workers and teachers are women, as are the majority of unpaid carers.”

For LGBTIQ workers, Jenkins argues that historical and continuing experiences of discrimination and ongoing disparities in mental and physical health and access to services have heightened their economic and health risks during the pandemic, and will require specific targeted measures going forward.

“The key economic challenge for women, now and going forward, will be overcoming the structural and systemic barriers to their full participation in the workforce and therefore their economic security,” Jenkins says. “These barriers, including high childcare costs, poor remuneration in feminised industries, and insecure conditions for part-time and casual workers, existed before the pandemic, but have been exacerbated by its disproportionate financial impact on women.

“Similarly, there is increasing evidence that the already tragic rates of domestic and family violence facing Australian women have increased during the pandemic period.”

In calling for the government, business and the community to work together to remove barriers to women’s workforce participation post-COVID, Jenkins identifies increasing access to affordable childcare as a uniquely important lever, noting that, earlier this year, KPMG found that increasing the Child Care Subsidy to 95% of the current hourly rate cap would create an annual benefit to GDP of almost 140% of the cost of the measure — an annual GDP benefit of $2.1 billion.

Similarly, she calls for government, business and community responses to COVID-19 to take into account and target the specific needs and circumstances of LGBTIQ people, especially those who are socially or economically marginalised, and cites a particular need to adequately fund mental health support services and programs for the range of LGBTIQ communities.

Job-creation efforts in the pandemic and post-pandemic period are important, and care must be taken to ensure that they do not solely target male-dominated industries like construction. Upskilling women in STEM and digital literacy and better supporting those who take time out of the workforce to deliver unpaid care are also useful tools available to government.

Accelerating efforts to prevent violence against women and support victim-survivors will also be crucial. It is also important that the government ensure that its decision-making bodies are diverse, and that all data collected during the pandemic is gender-disaggregated.

Further reading:

Culturally and Linguistically Diverse workers

For Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan, Australia’s pandemic has disproportionately affected the employment of people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities in that they are more likely to be in insecure work and sectors such as hospitality, retail, manufacturing and aged care. They also face related, systemic challenges such as barriers to re-employment, exclusion from social support, and outright racism.

“Workers from CALD communities who have lost their jobs face disadvantages in regaining employment,” Tan says. “We know it is more difficult for people from diverse backgrounds to find work, even if they have equivalent skills, language and experience. However, language and cultural barriers can be additional obstacles.

“Many migrant workers who have lost their jobs are on temporary visas and ineligible for social support. It means they must often rely on charity simply to survive, and it also compounds the challenges in finding new work.

“The pandemic has seen a rise in racism, which has implications for the ability of people from diverse communities – particularly Asian Australians – to find work, and to feel safe at work.”

Tan calls on governments to involve diverse communities in post-pandemic recovery plans to ensure people from those communities share in opportunities, are not further marginalised, see their skills fully utilised, and enjoy the same social support as Australian citizens.

“The Commission has consistently advocated for the Federal Government to extend social support services to all people living in Australia, including students and temporary visa holders.

“Governments should also commit to tackling systemic racism, which remains a barrier to people from diverse communities entering the workforce and being treated equally throughout their careers.”

Further reading:

  • Multicultural Affairs Queensland’s 2019 report, Seizing the opportunity: Making the most of the skills and experience of migrants and refugees, shows that more than 6,200 skilled migrants and refugees in Queensland had qualifications which align with current skill shortages, but they couldn’t get a job in any these much-needed areas. The report also found the Queensland economy could benefit from a boost of $250 million over 10 years, if the skills and experience of people who are migrants and refugees were recognised.
  • The 2011 Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics report, Does Ethnic Discrimination Vary Across Minority Groups? Evidence from a Field Experiment found that job candidates were more likely to get an interview when they anglicised their names.
  • Pages 4 and 5 of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia’s submission to the Independent Inquiry into insecure work cites research that many people from CALD backgrounds are employed in insecure, low-paid work, and are at greater risk when economic shocks occur. The submission also discusses the importance of work for CALD communities in terms of social inclusion.
  • This letter from the Victorian Multicultural CEO Network cites several concerns for CALD workers, including the need to be consulted in recovery planning decisions, having contracts paid out, social support for workers who do not have rights to social support.

Older workers

According to Age Discrimination Commissioner Dr Kay Patterson, the economic consequences of the pandemic are likely to amplify pre-existing issues with ageism and age discrimination — which pre-pandemic already worked to limit the recruitment, retention, promotion and access to training of older people — and potentially create new stigmas as jobs become more finite:

“I am also concerned about the increase we’re seeing in media coverage and public discourse accusing older people of being ‘job hogs’. The idea that there are a finite number of jobs and older workers are selfishly depriving younger workers of them is called the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy. Research has busted this myth time and again, yet we continue to see it perpetuated. If we’re to emerge from this pandemic in the kind of cohesive, caring society we want to live in, we all need to play our part in calling out deliberately divisive attitudes towards both older and younger people.

“We must make sure that age discrimination is not an unintended consequence as we move to address the economic impacts of COVID-19.”

Patterson notes that the groups most affected by the downturn include young people, older people and women of all ages — “so it is crucial that the government targets any strategies to support employment to these demographics in particular” — and cites the fact that, after previous periods of economic shock, transition to retirement becomes an increasing issue for organisations and individuals; people may wish to delay retirement for many reasons, so organisations should have policies and strategies in place to support and encourage those who wish to work for longer to do so. i.e. re-skilling opportunities and more access to flexible work arrangements.

As chair of the federal government’s Collaborative Partnership on Mature Age Employment, she has been advocating for the creation of strategies to assist older workers throughout the recovery phase, a partnership that has led to a new website, Mature Age Hub, to provide assistance to both employers and mature-age jobseekers and workers.

Post COVID-19, Patterson also encourages organisations to embrace strategies for managing multi-generational workforces,

i.e. the AHRC’s new free training program for NSW organisations and individuals ‘Upholding the rights of older workers’, the ATO’s inclusion of metrics on mature age employees as part of its commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

“In the COVID-19 context, organisations, including the APS, need to look at what they are doing and can do to support the employment of older workers – by retaining staff they already have and having recruitment processes that do no indirectly or directly discriminate on the basis of age.

“We need to foster a culture change about older employees—and human resources professionals, managers and those in leadership roles need to facilitate this change.”

Further reading:

  • Pre-COVID-19, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) conducted a joint survey, Employing Older Workers (2018). The survey found that up to 30% of Australian employers are still reluctant to hire workers over a certain age, and for more than two-thirds of this group, that age was 50-years-old.
  • The 2016 report from the Commission’s National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability, Willing to Work, confirmed the results of their earlier national prevalence survey of age discrimination in the Australian workplace, which reported that one in four (27%) people over the age of 50 had recently experienced age discrimination at work. The inquiry heard repeatedly that older staff are targeted for redundancies during periods of economic downturn, and that, once unemployed, older workers face much greater difficulty finding subsequent employment than their younger cohorts; on average, those aged 15-44 are unemployed for 45 weeks, compared with 76 weeks for people aged 55 and over.

Workers with disability

Disability Discrimination Commissioner Dr Ben Gauntlett stresses that, with the ABS’ 2018 labour force participation rate for people with disability was 53.4%, compared to 84.1% of people without disability, securing employment was already challenging for people with disability. Gauntlett anticipates that COVID-19 will only exacerbate existing barriers, which, according to Willing to Work, include assumptions made by employers or prospective employers and an absence of awareness of the government supports that do exist (for example JobAccess and the Employment Assistance Fund).

Further, Gauntlett notes that the pandemic created a number of specific challenges for people with disability that will need to be addressed as part of the post-COVID conversation, including the fact that the pandemic impacted access to support workers due to a range of factors: 

  • difficulty in accessing PPE,
  • concerns over support workers visiting multiple clients,
  • the impact of border closures on the supply of support workers who are often visa holders.

Looking ahead, Gauntlett calls for the government to ensure that, to the fullest extent possible, people with disability are specifically considered under the mainstream COVID-19 employment response measures (for example, JobKeeper, JobTrainer and JobMaker).

“However, government also needs to consider using its procurement power to ensure where economic stimulus or support is given (e.g. the airline industry), that there is a requirement to ensure people with disability are offered meaningful employment opportunities,” Gauntlett says. “Aspects of Disability Employment Services were not working well before the pandemic. All levels of government need to assess whether these services are effective and fit-for-purpose, especially during the economic recovery following the pandemic.”

Further reading:

  • The International Labour Organization has recently published COVID-19 and the World of Work, a brief outlining concern that the disadvantage experienced by people with disability in an employment context will be exacerbated as a result of the pandemic.
  • We know from the Journal of Disability Policy Studies’s 2015 report Employment and Economic Well-Being of People With and Without Disabilities Before and After the Great Recession that, following the economic recession in the United States due to the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis, people with disability were less likely to re-enter employment following job losses; in particular, this was the result of people with disability losing their jobs in good producing and service industries, which are industries that can be disproportionately affected during a recession.

Temporary visa holders

Finally, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow emphasises that the roughly two million temporary visa holders in Australia were generally not eligible for welfare support, leaving those workers on the “frontline” — everyone from health workers to people delivering food and other things to people’s homes — particularly vulnerable.

“When we move into the COVID-19 recovery phase, our biggest challenge will be to emerge on the other side having the kind of society we want to live in, Santow says. “We should strive to create a society that is more equal and places value on the human rights of everyone, especially people in vulnerable groups. We must not allow this inequality to further entrench itself.”

In April, Santow wrote to the Home Affairs Minister and the Minister for Families and Social Services to propose measures that would strengthen the social security net for individuals and families be urgently extended to all temporary visa holders in Australia; moving forward, he again calls for the extension of Jobseeker and Special Benefit to temporary visa holders who have lost their jobs and are unable to return home due to travel restrictions.

“While I appreciate that the economy has taken a huge hit from COVID-19, if we are truly ‘all in this together’ then we need to treat everyone in society equally and fairly. We need to ensure we lay the policy groundwork for a fairer society now.”

Further reading:

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