Opinion: Baltimore bridge tragedy highlights the plight of migrants


The deaths of six workers who were fixing potholes when an out-of-control containership destroyed a bridge in the US city of Baltimore is metaphor for the plight migrants across the world.  

The six men were migrants from Latin America – from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – doing jobs most Americans would spurn.  

And their tragic deaths highlight the crucial role migrants play in keeping their host countries running.  

During the COVID pandemic, migrants were at the forefront the teams of people doing essential work – in customer service, in testing facilities and in places meatworks and food factories.  

And this flies in the face of the toxic rhetoric of nationalist populists across the world and at home, who stigmatise them as “invaders” or “criminals”.  

In Australia, we have long known that migrants do the jobs that we don’t want.  

They toil for long hours in difficult conditions and often for modest pay.  

From the Afghan cameleers of the 1880s to the factory workers of the 1950s and 60s, migrants have helped build Australia.    

The Baltimore tragedy comes at a time when migrants across the world are being denounced by politicians – from the US and UK, to Holland, Turkey, India, south Africa and many more nations.  

Often, these verbal assaults are motivated by domestic politics and are attempts to foment fear or division.  

For instance, the strident anti-immigrant messaging circulating in the US includes suggestions that, if elected, a new government would embark on a mass expulsion of people wrongly blamed for crime and drug addiction that are supposedly besetting America.  

But many of these demagogic nationalists do not see, or do not care about, the damage they are doing to social fabric.  

Australia is one of the world’s most desirable places to live. This gives an opportunity to use migration to address the dire skills shortages we are experiencing across most of our economy.  

Through carefully planned migration we can attract some of the 90,000 tradies we are told are needed to lift us out of the housing crisis.  

We can attract the nurses and doctors we need to staff out hospitals as well as the aged care workers we need to look after our elderly.  

Immigration is indelibly etched into Australia’s history and inextricably linked to its prosperity and growth.  

From the earliest arrivals, who came to these shores from the north more than 50,000 years ago, to the latest wave of skilled professionals from across the globe, our continent has been shaped by migrants looking for opportunity and a place to settle.  

This is why it’s important we get the immigration system right. While attracting the skills we need, it also needs to take into account public sentiment and be balanced against infrastructure and housing stress.  

We also need strategies that better accommodate people from different cultural backgrounds, including reviewing and modifying the outdated recruitment industry and its operating models and engaging employers to lift their awareness of the valuable skills and experience migrants bring would help.  

Also, visa holders need to be able to hold their employer to account for workplace exploitation. Protection against visa cancellation must be clear, consistent and broad enough to encompass the full range of actions workers may undertake in holding exploitative employers to account.  

While Australia is reporting rates of employment not seen for 50 years, not everyone is sharing in this. The level at which migrants and refugees secure jobs commensurate with their skills and qualifications lags far behind that for Australian-born job seekers.     

This means we also need to find ways of making to most of the skills and experience of migrants who are already here.  

Related: Refugee families are welcomed and supported by the local SA community at AMES Australia’s facility

We are fortunate in Australia to have a robust brand of multiculturalism that offers some protection against the divisive forces of nationalism and racism as well as acting a bolster to social cohesion.  

Australians continue to show strong support for multiculturalism and migration with a record 78 per cent of the population saying they are good for the country, according to the latest Scanlon Foundation social cohesion survey.  

The Australia Cohesion Index 2023, which measures tracks national progress on a number of personal, social and societal measures, found recognition and support for multiculturalism and diversity are growing, enriching Australia’s social fabric.  

Thirty-eight per cent of people agreed that ethnic minorities should be given federal government assistance to maintain their customs and traditions, up from 30 per cent in 2018, the survey found.  

But there was also a warning flag in the findings.  

Levels of reported discrimination were up, with 16 per cent saying they had experienced racism or discrimination in the past year – up from 9 per cent in 2007. 

What this tells us is that our high levels of social cohesion and successful brand of multiculturalism are no accidents.  

They need to be supported and nourished through government policy and legislation; and also through people and communities taking an interest in, and caring about, the benefits they deliver to all of us.  

Next time you hit a pothole in the road think about this.