A guest-worker state? The declining power and agency of migrant labour in Australia

30 June 2021

This article presents an historical and comparative analysis of the bargaining power and agency conferred upon migrant workers in Australia under distinct policy regimes. Through an assessment of four criteria – residency status, mobility, skill thresholds and institutional protections – we find that migrant workers arriving in Australia in the period from 1973 to 1996 had high levels of bargaining power and agency. Since 1996, migrant workers’ power and agency has been incrementally curtailed, to the extent that Australia’s labour immigration policy resembles a guest-worker regime where migrants’ rights are restricted, their capacity to bargain for decent working conditions with their employers is truncated and their agency to pursue opportunities available to citizens and permanent residents is diminished. In contrast to recent assessments that Australia’s temporary visa system is working effectively, our analysis indicates that it is failing to protect temporary migrants at work.