Evidence of the relatively poorer work conditions experienced by many migrant care workers is now well-established across the OECD. However, the role migration regulation plays in shaping access to employment protections is less well understood, particularly where migrant and locally born care workers are formally entitled to the same employment standards.
We draw on a comparative analysis of the ways in which employment and migration regulation intersect to produce the conditions of work for migrants working in long term care (LTC) in Australia, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The proportion of formal LTC workers who are migrants is far larger in Australia than in the Netherlands or even in the UK. However, the presence of migrant workers is rising in all three countries as insecure wages and eroded conditions in LTC create incentives for employers to turn to migrant labour.
In the context of three different national LTC systems we firstly explore the forms of employment regulation that can protect migrant LTC workers in frontline jobs or expose them to additional risks. We find in all three countries a growing fragmentation of non-standard employment in LTC particularly temporary and ‘self-employment’. Increased precarity for most frontline care workers is driven by cost containment policies and individualised funding models. These shifts are underpinned by the limited and partial recognition in employment regulation that LTC work, especially in home care settings, is ‘work’ to which the full gamut of national employment protections should apply.
Migrant workers are more likely to work in sectors with the greater employment protection and enforcement gaps such as in for-profit employers and in home care. While in the Netherlands self-employed LTC workers are excluded from the more protective sector collective agreements, they do have access to minimum pay rates and some entitlements to paid leave. In contrast, in both Australia and the UK few if any employment protections apply to self-employed workers.
Secondly, we examine how migration regulation, particularly the conditions of entry and access to permanent residence in each country, can work to amplify employment protection gaps for certain groups of migrant workers. There are three particular risks: the creation of specific exemptions from employment regulation for certain types of LTC work; the lack of a pathway to permanency for temporary migrants in so called ‘low-skilled’ work, such as in LTC; and limits on access to social protection.
The precarity created through migration regulation exacerbates decent work deficits in LTC for many migrant workers. One example is in the Netherlands where care work undertaken as part of domestic and cleaning work sits outside the formal LTC system and its employment projections. Moreover, non-EU migrant workers in this grey sector may end up working as undocumented migrants if they overstay their visas. Without a residence permit these workers face significant additional vulnerability to exploitation. In Australia, where temporary migrants beach the terms of their visa, such as working hour conditions, any formal rights they may have to employment protections are voided.
In all three countries temporary visa status creates a raft of risks for many migrant workers from lack of access to social protection to the restriction of access to residency and citizenship, where pathways to better quality work may lie, particularly outside the LTC sector.
Our article also recognises the protective impact of historical migration and employment regulatory settings. For example, Australia’s historical system of permanent migration provides significant protections for many current LTC migrant care workers through permanent residence and citizenship. Likewise in both Australia and the Netherlands historically stronger employment protections for all workers have provided some buffer against the degraded employment conditions experienced for many years by migrant care workers in the UK.
However, the protective effect of these historical regulatory settings are waning in both countries. In the Netherlands the government is increasingly retreating from LTC provision and has specifically excluded some home care work from employment protections. While in Australia the rapid marketisation of LTC, the fragmentation of employment conditions and the increased reliance on temporary migrants with no prospect of permanency is creating poorer conditions for newer migrants working in LTC.
Finally, our article makes a strong case for more robust and substantive employment regulation to better protect all LTC workers, including migrant workers, from precarious work. Further, addressing the increasingly fragmented working conditions driven by individualised cash for care funding models in all three countries is crucial. Until all work in state-subsidised LTC is fully recognised in employment regulation as ‘work’, to which full employment protections adhere, migrant LTC workers will continue to experience decent work deficits, whatever their employment contract or migration status.
About the author
Sara Charlesworth is Professor at RMIT Univeristy, Australia.