The Economics and Social Costs of COVID-19

Aerial view of Sydney Customs House, a large Building at Circular Quay, Sydney

In Episode Seven of our Race in Society series—the final episode of season 1 on “Race and COVID-19″—Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I are joined by two guests to discuss The Economics and Social Costs of COVID-19. We examine the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on undocumented migrant workers, whose labour is being exploited.

The economy depends upon the work of racialised people, exposing them to higher risk due to casualised frontline services, which have kept the health system and other businesses going throughout lockdown. At the same time, racialised people are provided inadequate protections against infection, including poor personal protective equipment.

Our first guest, Sanmati Verma, is an Accredited Specialist in Immigration Law. She discusses the legal issues faced by temporary visa holders and migrants, as they lack access to economic security. Our other guest is Professor Sujatha Fernandes, who is Professor of Political Economy and Sociology at the University of Sydney. Her research explores the uses and misuses of storytelling to shape understandings of the political activism of racialised people. She discusses how “curated storytelling” narrows the public’s engagement with economic rights during the pandemic.

Sanmati Verma on undocumented workers

Sanmati Verma has analysed some of the punitive immigration policies that have impacted undocumented workers. She joins us to discuss how these patterns have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 outbreak. Sanmati notes that the techniques used to police Australia’s borders and control the population were first developed by the colonial state to oppress First Nations peoples. Sanmati describes that the term “undocumented” is mostly used in North America and the Europe to mean someone without visa status or people who have precarious visa status that imposes stringent limits. For example, people who need to engage paid work even when their visa doesn’t give them permission to work.

Australia uses a selective points-based skilled migration system that is mapped against specific visa categories (e.g. specific industries), and does not make adjustments based on age, educational background, or employment background. Sanmati notes that Australia’s system is stricter on admission and harsher than many other nations:

“The border serves the primary function of exclusion.”

-Sanmati Verma

Sanmati is influenced by Angela Mitropoulos, who shows how borders “commodify movement, to dictate its form, to deprive people of visa status, primarily in the interests of the state and of capital.”

Sanmati says there is an estimated 100,000 undocumented people in Australia. The longest standing undocumented population are Pasifika people who come from Pacific Island nations. They have a long history of being exploited under colonialism. (Read more on the history of blackbirding in the “Learn More” section below.) Sanmati explains that some Pacific Island workers who’ve come under guest worker schemes have overstayed their visas, leaving them undocumented. Another group of undocumented workers are former international students who had been in Australia for many years, but from 2009 faced a complete overhaul of the skilled migration system, leaving them little recourse for a visa. Other groups from Malaysia have overstated their visas, or applied for protection visas and are left waiting in limbo.

Sanmati argues the Migration Act has long limited visa applications. During the pandemic, many undocumented migrants fell into “essential services” sectors. For example, they do work that cannot be done from home, such as contract cleaning, farming, and care work. So to fill this gap, new visa provisions permitted people to enter critical sectors, and receive a 408 COVID-19 visa for 12 months on a rolling basis, so long as they continued doing frontline work.

Sanmati says this is akin to offering amnesty for undocumented workers, but how could these provisions be fairly broadened? A similar amnesty was implemented in Italy, that soon led to protests, that the amnesty was “for vegetables and not for people.”

Sanmati Verma is a woman of colour wearing large earrings and who leans against a wall, smiling. Quote reads: This is a form of immigration reform that is intended to preserve the economy and to preserve the ongoing function of capital as it currently operates. This is not about us. We're just sort of individual units in this border economic system.
Sanmati Verma

Sujatha Fernandes on curated stories

Sujatha explains her book, “Curated Stories,” which looks at stories that are told about marginalised and racialised populations, in the media, academic and social media. She argues marginalised groups “are often called to perform stories about being marginalised subjects.” These stories depend on racial stereotypes, including slavery, racial capitalism, or colonialism.

“During legal hearings for their domestic worker, bill of rights campaign, we’re often coached to tell these kinds of stories about their bad employer and how this individual single bad employer did such terrible things to them. And they’ve always discouraged from talking about broader systemic exploitation of the industry. And so we can see how these kinds of very individual tropes, as the bad employer draw from furthest tropes of, say the bad slave master under slavery versus the good and caring slave master. So that’s just one example of how some of the stereotypes that are used today in the media and in discourse have a very long history.

“I think another stereotype that’s particularly around undocumented workers is that they’re often asked to talk about what value they bring to the economy and that they should be valued because their labour is valuable. And one of the things that some more critical social movement advocates have argued is that why should they have to prove that they’re valuable to the economy just to be treated as human beings? We should see intrinsic value and worth in them as human beings.”

Sujatha notes that these racial stereotypes have been prevalent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes the early but insidious references to:

“The Chinese virus, and Asians were seen as virus spreaders. They were treated as infectious. And as the sort of villains of the story who had brought COVID to Australia and to the rest of the world, and this sort of fits uneasily with another stereotype about Asians who were from the very beginning, were often the ones wearing masks. And this led to another stereotype as Asians, as very obedient versus freedom loving Westerners who wanted to just exercise their right to do whatever they want…

“We’ve also seen a real upsurge in these colonial stereotypes in the media about Black and migrant people as being diseased, as being undisciplined, as unable to control their bodies. And that has even sort of spread into these as stereotypes of migrant and Black people as criminals. And even, I think we could include Indigenous people today. There was a video this morning just circulating of police grabbing an Indigenous woman who wasn’t wearing a mask.”

Sujatha notes that policing has intensified during COVID, and this has been “racially divided.” She notes how wealthy people who brought COVID into Australia via cruise ships, or ski trips in Aspen, evaded public wrath, while two Black teenage girls were accused of criminal deceit after they entered into Queensland from a hotspot. Similarly, affluent people in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney were free to move around, while migrant dominated suburbs in Western Sydney were heavily restricted. Migrants in public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne, Victoria, were also treated as criminals, as were the Black Lives Matter protesters in June and July 2020, who were harassed by the police.

Sujatha Fernandes is a woman of colour wearing a bright pink top and smiling. The quote reads: We'd seen many of these cases of these kind of racist, curated stories and stereotypes about Black people and First Nations people and people of colour since COVID has hit. And I think that part of this is how during a crisis, these marginalised groups become convenient scapegoats.
Sujatha Fernandes

Building solidarity

We asked our guests to describe practical ways that we can build solidarity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and undocumented workers, who have been subjected to these economic inequalities and racialised violence throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sanmati says: “A critical point of solidarity is to… understand the Australian States formation as a territory of exception, as a territory of legal fiction… the concept of Terra Nullius” (the false idea that Australian land was unowned before colonisation). Sanmati also warns us against becoming “distracted or enamoured” with terms conceived by the state, such as “essential work” and “essential worker.” These labels make workers seem neutral, and masks their racial status. She also asks us to stop replicating arguments about economic utility, which only serve to reinforce the idea that legal status is legitimised by ability to do certain types of paid work.

Sujantha suggests that we can support local organisations to help with mutual aid efforts, and to “push for policy changes, like sick pay, COVID leave, adequate health care for legal status.” Sujatha also calls for mobilisation; that we actively support Black Lives Matter protests, frontline worker strikes, and other industrial action. Other actions include contributing to funds to pay fines for protestors, organising teach-ins, and building coalitions between students, workers, and First Nations peoples.

Sujatha says:

“I think when we start to all realise that really what’s happening here is connected, and that there is a criminalisation of protest that’s going on right now, that’s going to affect us all. That’s moving us towards a police state. We need to find ways of coming together and supporting one another. I think there’s inspirational ways of how that’s already happening.”

Learn more: blackbirding

Blackbirding describes how Pacific Islander people (primarily South Sea Islander people) were tricked or kidnapped, and subsequently enslaved, in Australia from 1847 to 1903. The majority were forced to work in the sugar industry in Queensland, while others were enslaved into the pastoral industry in New South Wales, and pearling in Western Australia. This occurred well past the official abolition of slavery in other colonial nations, including the UK (1833), Peru (1854) and USA (1865).

Among the first laws of Federation in 1901, the Australian Government implemented the Pacific Islanders Labour Act that sought to deport 10,000 South Sea Islanders from 1906-1908, with many sent to Fiji or deported elsewhere other than their original islands. This history continues to impact South Sea Islander people to this day.

In July 2021, the Mayor of Bundaberg, Queensland, offered the first formal apology acknowledging this history.

A renewed practice of seasonal working visas from the 2012 repeats blackbirding, by targeting Pacific Islanders to work in arduous and highly exploitative conditions. Working long hours, they receive less than $10 weekly after deductions.

The 2018 Pacific Labour Scheme has provided three-year contracts to more than 20,000 Pacific Islander people. Since the pandemic, some of these workers have been forced to go home or face unemployment, while others have been stranded in Australia unable to return home.


Department of Home Affairs (2020) Temporary Activity visa (subclass 408). Australian Government endorsed events (COVID-19 Pandemic event). Canberra: DHA. Online resource:

Fernandes, S. (2017) Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mitropoulos, A. (2017) ‘Bordering Colonial Uncertainty,’ Political and Legal Anthropology Review,

Verma, S. (2019) ‘”We feed you.” The real cost of undocumented labour in Australia,’Overland, 22 March. Online resource:


ABC Australia (2021) “Blackbirding descendants fight for Australian South Sea Islander recognition,” ABC, 25 August. Online resource:

Archibald-Binge, E. (2021) ‘”They ruled our lives”: What impact has slavery had in Australia?,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 January. Online resource:

Armbruster, S. (2021) ‘Stranded in Australia away from family, these Pacific seafarers face a difficult dilemma,’ SBS News, 25 November. Online resource:

Christopher, E. (2021) ‘From the Caribbean to Queensland: re-examining Australia’s ‘blackbirding’ past and its roots in the global slave trade,’ The Conversation, 4 June. Online resource:

Davidson, H. and C. Earl (2020) ‘The fruit pickers: inside Australia’s seasonal worker program – a photo essay,’ The Guardian, 17 October. Online resource:

Davis, E. (Waskam) (2017) ‘Australia’s hidden history of slavery: the government divides to conquer,’ The Conversation, 31 October. Online resource:

Doherty, B. (2017) ”Full truth’: descendants of Australia’s ‘blackbirded’ islanders want pioneer statues amended,’ The Guardian, 24 August. Online resource:

Gregoire, P. and U. Nedim (2017) ‘”Sugar Slaves”: Australia’s History of Blackbirding,’ Sydney Criminal Lawyers, 29 September. Online resource:

Hermant, N. (2016) ‘Seasonal farm workers receiving less than $10 a week after deductions, investigation reveals,’ ABC News, 25 February. Online resource:$9-a-week/7196844

Marie, J. and S. Doole (2021) ‘Queensland mayor issues historic apology over blackbirding slavery of Pacific Islanders,’ ABC News, 30 July. Online resource: