No safety net and now no jobs for many New Zealanders who call Australia home

Denham Sadler
Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images

Less than a month ago, New Zealand citizen Sven Nielson was working full-time in the tourism industry in Queensland and supporting his two Australian-born children.

Now, like thousands of other New Zealanders living in Australia, he is facing the prospect of having no income and a complete lack of government support or assistance.

With the Covid-19 pandemic decimating the tourism industry, Nielson’s hours were drastically reduced before being cut entirely. Because he is a New Zealand citizen living and working permanently in Australia on the special category visa, he is ineligible for virtually all forms of welfare, despite having worked in Australia for nearly a decade.

He is now looking for work but the prospects are not good. With his landlord helping with the rent, Nielson will be able to keep a roof over his and his children’s head, at least in the short-term.

“I certainly don’t have a month or two months’ worth of savings,” he said. “I’ve got a total lack of financial support due to a lack of work because of something out of my control. I’ve gone from full-time work to nothing.

“The end to this problem is not in sight. I’ll either find work or I’ll have to pitch a tent next to a park.”

Related: 'Clarity and compassion': what Australia can learn from New Zealand's coronavirus response

New Zealanders can live and work in Australia indefinitely on the special category visa, which they receive automatically upon arrival. But due to changes in 2001, they are ineligible for nearly all forms of welfare, including sickness allowance and the JobSeeker payment, as well as the National disability insurance scheme.

There are an estimated 650,000 New Zealanders living and working in Australia on this visa, many in casual or hospitality jobs either shut down or under threat due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Those who have lost work and are facing financial hardship due to Covid-19 are ineligible for the JobSeeker allowance, and have found it virtually impossible to return to New Zealand. Even if they did, they would have to quarantine for two weeks and then go into the full lockdown that has been imposed around the country.

With highly limited flights and skyrocketing prices, this is no longer an option for most. With jobs lost, little prospect for new work and no government support yet, many are now facing an uncertain future and potential homelessness.

I’ve spent my entire career here paying tax and building a network of clients, but there’s no support

Dan Codyre

Diane* has lived in Melbourne since 2004 and is married to an Australian, with two children. She works part-time in healthcare, but is ineligible for permanent residency due to the salary threshold.

“World-changing events like this are happening and you realise you don’t have the same safety net that people around you do,” Diane said.

“We’re living, functioning and contributing to society but we’re not considered in the same boat – we’re in immigration no-man’s land. They’re happy to have us here, have us contribute and get the benefits of that, but they won’t support us when we need it.”

Christel Broederlow, a New Zealander living in Australia who runs the Maori in Oz Facebook page, says she is receiving several messages every day from people worried about how they will survive over the coming months after losing their income.

“I’m getting inundated every day with messages from Kiwis who have lost their jobs all around Australia,” Broederlow said. “It’s upsetting. We’re finding it quite overwhelming.

“Some people will have savings for a couple of weeks or a month but if this is prolonged it’s quite frightening to think of the dire consequences for people.”

Labor has called on the government to temporarily extend the JobSeeker payment to New Zealanders currently in Australia on the special category, with shadow human services minister Linda Burney writing to social services minister Anne Ruston last week.

“We can’t let people in our country fall through the cracks, we need to support New Zealanders and other temporary migrants who contribute so much to Australia and will need support during the Covid-19 crisis,” the shadow minister assisting for immigration and citizenship, Andrew Giles, said.

Ruston now has the power to extend these payments to temporary visa holders without the need for new legislation, and has signalled that the government is mulling whether to do so.

A spokesperson for Ruston said: “We are investigating options for expanding support to vulnerable people which could include assistance for paying bills and buying other essentials such as food, clothing and petrol.”

They feel like their hands are tied ... and they’re frantically trying to reach out for some kind of financial assistance

Christel Broederlow

The New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has also raised the issue directly with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, calling for a “short-term exemption”.

“We are providing care to Australians here, we think it is the right thing to do,” Ardern said on Friday.

More than 200,000 people have now signed a petition calling for New Zealanders to receive full Centrelink support during the ongoing crisis.

This could save lives during the ongoing crisis, Broederlow says.

Related: 'It really hurts': the New Zealanders in Australia locked out of the system

“They just want assistance through this period,” she said. “We pay our taxes but in a crisis situation we’re not getting any financial help from the government.”

Many of these New Zealanders have made a life in Australia, but have not met the high salary threshold to obtain permanent residency. Returning home to a country they haven’t lived in sometimes for decades is now not an option.

Susan’s* government contract role is about to come to an end. With a number of jobs she had applied for now being scrapped, she is facing the prospect of having to try to return to New Zealand in the coming weeks.

“I’ve been here since 2013, this is my home, this is where a lot of my friends are. I have worked hard here,” she said. “Something needs to be done or there’s going to be homeless people, and there’s going to be crime.

“If we don’t have savings and we can’t access any type of support from the country we’re born in or the country we reside in, we’ll be forced to work to support ourselves and potentially spread the virus.”

Even for the New Zealanders in Australia lucky enough to currently still have employment, the constant uncertainty and lack of a social safety net to catch them is leading to stress and anxiety.

Dan Codyre is a freelance graphic designer who has been based in Sydney for nearly two decades. He has had a number of jobs cancelled due to Covid-19 already.

“Because the market is so soft at the moment, freelancers are the first people to not have work,” Codyre said.

If all of his work dries up, Codyre would be forced to return to a country he hasn’t lived in for 20 years, with no work or support around him.

“I’ve spent my entire career here paying tax and building a network of clients, but there’s no support,” he said. “It would really be a huge life upheaval. My life is here.”

This uncertainty is already having a huge impact on thousands of New Zealanders in Australia, Broederlow said.

“There’s been a huge increase in New Zealand citizens already feeling that stress and reaching out to get some mental health guidance,” she said. “They don’t know what to do. They feel like their hands are tied behind their backs and they’re frantically trying to reach out for some kind of financial assistance and assurance.”

Whether the federal government decides to temporarily extend some welfare payments to New Zealanders or not, those facing ongoing uncertainty need answers soon.

“If not we need to look at every other measure we can to help feed these families. We’ll have to pull out all stops,” Broederlow said.