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Surviving precarity and crisis: temporary migrant workers, social welfare, and networks during the Covid-19 pandemic

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posted on 2024-04-11, 05:57 authored by Faiz Ullah

Temporary migrant workers’ schemes across the developed countries are built on the assumption that temporary migrants do not need social welfare. Most of these countries have excluded temporary migrants from their social welfare safety nets, such as universal healthcare or unemployment benefit schemes. Temporary migrants’ reliance on their own resources – which I call ‘self-insurance model’ - is potentially problematic for both the temporary migrants – who face the risk of extreme hardship during periods of need, like unemployment – and the host country – who have a significant proportion of the productive workforce living under economic vulnerability and social exclusion. These problematic aspects of the ‘self-insurance model’ are very likely to be accentuated during exceptional circumstances like pandemics.

This thesis is about how temporary migrants – normally excluded from social safety nets – experienced large-scale unemployment during the Covid-19 pandemic. It focuses on the macro and micro-mechanisms which facilitated their survival during periods of economic precarity. There are three main empirical articles (chapters) that form the body of this thesis, with the first two focused on how a temporary extension of the welfare state – in the form of unemployment benefits for temporary migrant workers – lead to dramatic improvements in both the medical and social situations of temporary migrants. The third article focuses on the more micro-level mechanisms by which temporary migrants survived periods without social welfare. This third paper focuses on the roles played by not only ‘routine organisations’ (organisations that involve participants in regular meaningful task oriented communal work) but also what I call ‘atomised networks’ (networks of residual contacts from previous life stages, incidental or fleeting contacts, and bureaucratic charities, all of which are turned to for support when there are few other options) in facilitating survival during these periods of intense need.

The primary dataset for this thesis is qualitative interviews with 67 South Asian international students in Australia. These interviews took between 45 and 90 minutes and provided in depth insights into the day to day lives and struggles of temporary migrants. All interviewees had been paid employees in Australia, and experienced unemployment during the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020/2021. As international students, they were part of the single largest workforce of temporary migrants in Australia, so reflected the experiences of many of the 600,000 international students working and living in Australia during this period. 

The first two papers that form the body of this thesis take advantage of a unique natural experiment that occurred during the 2020/2021 Covid-19 lockdowns in Australia. The defining feature of this natural experiment was that temporary migrant workers were excluded from social welfare, and then included in social welfare, in two very similar waves of Covid-19. While, during the 1st Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, temporary migrants were excluded from the welfare scheme called “JobKeeper”, during the 2nd Covid-19 lockdowns of 2021, welfare was extended to temporary migrants in the form of the “Covid-19 Disaster Payments”. This provided a natural experiment on the impacts of unemployment without (in 2020), and then with (in 2021), unemployment benefits, and allowed me to test whether unemployment benefits bring significant protection to temporary migrant workers. I argue that this experiment tests the predictions of what I call the ‘self-insurance model’ (which essentially informs policy making around temporary migrants across the developed world) against the predictions of the ‘state-insurance model’ (that assumes the necessity of social welfare for all workers, regardless of visa status), and simply evaluates which models’ predictions are supported by the evidence. These papers find, perhaps unsurprisingly, that ‘self-insurance’ – protection of the worker from the exigencies of unemployment through personal savings and personal support networks – was largely not possible during the 1st Covid-19 lockdowns, and this had significant medical and social costs for both the temporary migrants and the Australian community more broadly.

The third paper asks how to temporary migrants survive during periods of extreme economic need, such as was faced during the first Covid-19 lockdown without any unemployment benefits. This paper engages with the literature on ‘routine organisation brokerage’ - the creation of support networks between vulnerable people through involvement in local organisations where community members are regularly engaged in cooperative, repeated, in-depth interactions. The existing literature argues that social networks brokered by routine organisations are important for the survival of individuals from low-income communities. This third paper argues that while ‘routine organisation brokerage’ played a significant role in the survival of temporary migrants during the 1st Covid-19 lockdowns – particularly places of worship and sporting organisations (especially cricket clubs!) – the atomised nature of international students’ social lives created by migration, lockdowns, and Australia's general lack of horizontal networks of community and cooperation has meant that a substantial number of the international students interviewed relied on personal networks and bureaucratic organisations for basic survival needs. 

Overall, this thesis points to both major challenges, and hopeful signs, for the future of temporary migrant workers in developed countries. 

The challenges include the continuing exclusion of temporary migrants from most forms of routine social welfare, and the atomised nature of many temporary migrants’ lives – atomisation created by migration and lack of horizontal social networks in developed countries – which leads to limited survival and support networks during times of personal financial crisis. 

The hopeful elements of this thesis are that, firstly, literally the signature of a Government Minister’s pen is all that is needed – at least at certain times – to change social welfare eligibility and extend basic social protection like medical leave and unemployment benefits to temporary migrants. In short, social welfare can be extended to temporary migrants, and this thesis shows that such extension makes an immediate and life transforming change to the living conditions of temporary migrants. 

The second hopeful element of this thesis is that routine organisations that broker the social support networks of temporary migrant workers can and do exist amongst temporary migrant workers. These routine organisations have a major impact on the living conditions of temporary migrant workers. For participants I spoke to, places of worship and sporting clubs played a crucial role in forming deep, solidaristic bonds between community members. While many participants lamented the lack of more organisations like these, and the relative atomisation of Australia society, the presence of some such routine organisations, and the strong bonds they formed between community members points to the potential for the growth and expansion of such organisations, and the creation of deeper, more interconnected community structures for both temporary migrant workers and Australian society more generally. Through my participants experiences of their home countries, and Australian society, they were able to see the barrenness of the Australian social landscape, but it is my hope that their insights can contribute to Australia reflecting on itself, and working towards building a more integrated, solidaristic society.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1.Introduction -- Chapter 2. International Students in Australia -- Chapter 3. Research Design -- Chapter 4. Social security as public health measure: Experiences of international students as temporary migrant workers during two Covid-19 lockdowns as a natural experiment -- Chapter 5. The welfare state can alleviate hardship for temporary migrant workers: Evidence from two lockdowns in Australia -- Chapter 6. The Brokered and the Atomized: Two types of survival networks during the Covid-19 pandemic -- Chapter 7. Conclusion


Thesis by publication

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Doctor of Philosophy

Department, Centre or School

Macquarie School of Social Sciences

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Nicholas Harrigan

Additional Supervisor 1

Shaun Wilson


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167 pages

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AMIS ID: 278549

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