For Australia's temporary visa holders, the coronavirus crisis means 'everything is broken'

With no job or entitlement to welfare support in Australia - and no way to fly back to their home country - many workers on temporary visas say they're not sure how they're going to cope during the coronavirus crisis.

Sourabh Sanam and Manoj Rathod have been stood down from their jobs

Sourabh Sanam and Manoj Rathod were stood down from their hospitality jobs last week. Source: SBS News

When Sourabh Sanam was stood down from his job as an intern chef at a high-end Sydney restaurant last week, he was left facing the prospect of not being able to pay his rent in a month's time and not knowing when he can fly back to India.  

The 27-year-old's visa conditions on a subclass 407 training visa mean he is not able to apply for another job and he is required to leave the country within two months of losing his employment. 

Mr Sanam is also unable to return to his home country because of travel restrictions.

Due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, he is one of more than two million temporary visa holders in Australia either at risk of losing their job or already unemployed with no income support. 

"I have to pay for my own rent and day-to-day expenses like food and everything using my savings," he told SBS News. 

"I can barely keep that going in the coming months so I'm going to have to raise some funds from somewhere like friends or anything like this. Like right now, it's really hard." 

Mr Sanam arrived in Australia in late 2019 to train to be a chef. He says he is now worried about his wife and parents back in India who he helps to support financially. They have been in lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak there since last week.  

"Because everything is locked down, there is no income right now," he said.

"I already stopped work last Monday so any kind of help from the Australian government would mean so much for us." 

'Everything is broken'

For Manoj Rothod, a former colleague of Mr Sanam's and also from India, coming to Australia to train and work as a chef was a dream come true, but he says the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the hospitality sector to its knees. 

"The hospitality industry has kept going since last decade, we never thought it was going to be closed, it was just all quick, one day we had a job, next day it was gone," the 23-year-old said. 

"I came here with dreams and now everything is broken. We have a group of friends here from India, we are all in a similar situation and we are just trying to support each other." 

Manoj Rathod worked as a chef at a high end restaurant in Sydney.
Manoj Rathod worked as an intern chef at a high-end restaurant in Sydney. Source: Supplied

Mr Rothod's one-year visa does not permit him to work for another business other than the designated sponsor employer. 

He hopes the federal government will consider relaxing visa restrictions for those on temporary visas given the economic crisis facing the country. 

"It will be really great if my visa restrictions could be relaxed and they allow us to work and apply for other jobs as well," he said. 

No financial assistance

Temporary visa holders like Mr Sanam and Mr Rothod are not normally entitled to government welfare payments, which are paid to Australian citizens and some residents.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday confirmed that while New Zealand residents on special category visa 444 are supported by the new JobKeeper allowance, workers on temporary visas from other countries will not be eligible. 

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is urging the federal government to consider protection for workers on temporary visas. 

ACTU president Michele O'Neil said there is no reason workers on temporary visas should be treated any differently from other workers. 

"The work that people are doing on the visa schemes is very important work that should be safe," she said. 

"And importantly, while they are here and while they can’t leave because of the restrictions that have been put on travel, we can’t leave people without money without the capacity to feed themselves or to be able to look after themselves.

"Such policy has big implications."

Shadow minister assisting for immigration and citizenship Andrew Giles says the Morrison government should outline what support it has provided to temporary visa holders trapped in Australia. 

"The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate based on someone’s visa status," he said. 

"It's critical for everyone’s health that we make sure people get testing, can afford to self-isolate and get medical care if required, regardless of their visa status. It’s the right thing to do so all of us can get through the COVID-19 crisis.”

A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs told SBS News: "Non-citizens seeking to extend their stay in Australia should review information on the Department’s website and apply for another visa.

"Any visa application will be assessed considering the COVID-19 enhanced border measures and an applicant’s individual circumstances." 

The Department also advised that applications for a new visa should be made before their current visa expires. 

The Department of Social Services told SBS News a ‘Special Benefit’ payment may be available for some temporary visa holders who face significant financial hardship beyond their control.

“Special Benefit may be available to certain temporary visa holders if they face significant financial hardship.

“Special Benefit is paid at the JobSeeker Payment rate and recipients will be eligible for the Coronavirus supplement of $550.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments.

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6 min read
Published 31 March 2020 at 4:05pm
By Lin Evlin