The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare in every affected country structural health, economic and social strengths and weaknesses with unprecedented speed and ferocity. In the case of multicultural Australia, aspects of the Australian conservative government’s economic response to the pandemic have exposed significant xenophobic and neoliberal economic biases towards its 1.1 million temporary visa holders (TVHs) by excluding them from key worker support policies. Among these visa holders are approximately 2,000 Greek citizens who migrated to Australia after 2010.
I will focus here on the reporting of the Melbourne Greek-Australian newspaper, Neos Kosmos, on the pandemic’s impact on the Greek TVHs, and through this also illustrate the significance of the role of diasporic/ethnic press. Neos Kosmos is a major centre-left newspaper published three times a week and with a daily digital English version. (Here I cover 6 months of the Greek print version.) It has a significant number of digital subscribers, around 50,000, and it is distributed across Australia.
Diasporic/ethnic press performs various critical overlapping roles such as it sustains and refreshes the Greek identity and association of its readers, it provides information in the heritage language about settlement and adaptation in the host country, and it can mobilise and inform the community on various local community, host country and diasporic issues.
Temporary visa emigrants form one of the most vulnerable working groups in Australia. They constantly have to satisfy various and changeable immigration bureaucratic criteria to remain in the country, have no welfare rights, few civil rights and a tenuous sense of belonging to multicultural Australia.
The most affected business by the COVID-19 lockdown announced by the Australian Government in March were hospitality, travel and entertainment, which employ many TVHs. The employment conditions of TVHs were further exacerbated by their exclusion from the government’s Jobkeeper Payment program (a wage subsidy program for employees of business that have lost a certain percentage of their turn over). In April Prime Minister Scott Morrison exhorted international students and temporary visa holders without work, ‘it’s time to go home’, echoing past conservative government rhetoric to mobilise public opinion against refugees and migrants attempting to reach Australia by boat. This statement was widely criticised for its xenophobic, insensitive and damaging impact (e.g., Australian universities have over 560,000 international students who are also TVHs).
In the following weeks the Australian government made a series of changes to temporary working visas by changing some of their conditions of employment, particularly for those connected to essential services and sectors, e.g., agriculture and health. A survey by trade unions in early April, found that 50% of the TVHs were without work and 18% were working significantly reduced hours. At present, most States have introduced various cash and non-cash initiatives to support TVHs.
The majority of the Greek TVHs are adult students, who are allowed part-time employment, and the rest are on various temporary visas with employment rights, including sponsorship by employers. The majority of these TVHs are aiming to get a permanent visa. A critical factor contributing to the attention of the plight of the Greek TVHs by Neos Kosmos is their high visibility in the hospitality sector where many Greek-Australians run small businesses. In 2016 around 19% of all new Greece-born arrivals in Melbourne/Victoria (and a similar percentage in Sydney/New South Wales) were working in the hospitality sector, and this percentage is even higher among TVHs.
Neos Kosmos mobilised the Greek-Australian community politically by raising awareness of the impact of the lockdown and by explaining the government’s policies towards TVHs. It called on key Greek-Australian institutions, such as the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria (the Community) and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia to make representations to the Australian government to give special exemptions to Greek TVHs. Neos Kosmos also reported extensively on its contacts and interviews with government immigration Ministers and officials. No special changes were made for Greek TVHs.
The Consul General of Greece in Melbourne advised Greek TVHs to follow the Australian government’s advice and leave Australia as soon as possible, even though he acknowledged the serious practical difficulties of this. The policy of the Greek government was to provide general consular support but not to contribute to the airfares of Greek citizens that had wanted to leave Australia. There was no change on this policy even after the Community wrote directly to the Prime Minister of Greece for financial support for this group.
In contrast, by May/June Greece, having dealt successfully with the first wave of the pandemic, was very keen to tap into the financial capacity of the Greek diaspora to holiday in Greece to assist in its economic recovery. Australia was one of the target countries of the Greek government, as it had dealt successfully with the pandemic. Neos Kosmos ran a series of interviews from Greek Ministers and senior officials, government promotions and even Greek regional promotions, inviting Greek-Australians to holiday in Greece. It was a largely pointless exercise because the Australian government is not allowing international travel of Australian citizens and permanent residents.
A number of Greek TVHs managed to leave Australia but most had very limited options. The actual repatriation process was a daunting experience given the distance involved from Australia to Europe. By March nearly all airlines operating in Australia had started cancelling flights in Europe; only Qatar Airways flew to Greece, while the price of air fares became prohibitive. From the newspaper reporting it is clear that many Greek TVHs have established new lives in Australia (at least 500 persons were estimated to be in the process of permanent visa application), others have young families, so leaving suddenly was not a realistic option. There was also uncertainty among TVHs as to whether they would be allowed to return back to Australia.
The newspaper also appealed to the Greek-Australian community to raise money, food, and other necessities and to take action to support the most vulnerable members of the community, including the TVHs. The community responded and many examples were reported, such as the establishment of a telephone hotline by the Community for Greek TVHs. In addition, Neos Kosmos ran a number of reports and advertisements on the impact of the lockdown on Greek-Australian restaurant/café businesses aimed at presenting their situation, that of their employees and promoting their services.
Two examples, one from a student and one from a spouse of a recent emigrant published in Neos Kosmos, describe graphically the conditions faced by Greek TVHs. Student: “All the money I had, I used it to pay fees for my school and apply for a bridging visa and I can’t work to survive…You’re forced to find ways to make black money and I, currently, the way things are with coronavirus, can’t even find that”. The other from the lady whose husband was working in a restaurant: “The only right we have right now is that of work. We don’t have health care and I dread the thought if we have to see a doctor or to go to hospital… There are newcomers who are facing survival issues, with no work, no support…A couple lives in a rented room, both are unemployed. Where? In Australia, where they came to find shelter from Greece’s economic crisis”.
Harry Theotokatos-Field, Independent Researcher, SEESOX Associate in Australia