Bob Gould, 2008

Support Pacific workers’ access to Australia

Source: Ozleft, September 2, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

A dispute with a long history is simmering again in the labour movement: immigration in general, and in particular unskilled migrantion to Australia. This always-present controversy has sharpened around a new scheme requested by the governments of small Pacific states and introduced by the Labor government for organised and controlled access of seasonal workers from the Pacific nations to Australia to fill specific labour shortages in unskilled jobs in agriculture.

There’s general agreement in the labour and trade union movement that the Howard government’s 457 visa scheme was a disguised form of super-exploitation, and should be eliminated.

The new scheme is differs from the objectionable 457 visa scheme in a number of respects. Firstly, the governments concerned, of both Australia and the Pacific states, have stated that Australian award wages and conditions are the minimum basis of the scheme.

There are two points of view on the new scheme in the trade union movement, with several of the left unions adopting a traditional trade union attitude of deep reservations about migration, particularly unskilled migration, and therefore opposing the scheme.

In addition, conservatives in the indigenous community who advocate pushing their fellow indigenous people off welfare oppose the scheme, saying there should be a compulsory alternative scheme that obliges unemployed indigenous people to move 1000km or so to fill the gaps in the agricultural labour force, thus forcing them off welfare, (implicitly speeding up the abandonement of many indigenous outstations).

As well, in the Green Party and in environmental circles, there is a traditional opposition to all migration by conservationists who say Australia is already overpopulated, (an extremely dubious proposition).

The Liberal opposition in the federal parliament has also opposed the scheme. The indefatigable and articulate conservative populist-anti migration lobby, the Monash Institute of Population Studies, also opposes the scheme in its usual publicity seeking, rather bellicose way.

On the other hand, Paul Howes, the new federal secretary of the Australian Workers Union, which covers agricultural workers, a youngish bloke in a bit of a hurry, has persuaded the AWU federal conference to support the scheme, with some provisos:

That there be agreements with the country of origin to provide facilities for the union to interview the workers in the country of origin and join them up and make them familiar with Australian award conditions, trade union coverage and eligibility.

That they should be paid not just the minimum award rate but the prevailing rate in the industry, which is generally higher than the award.

Howes says he has agreement from the governments in the countries of origin to the first, and with the Australian National Farmers Federation for the second. A grey area seems to remain about whether several seven-month stints in Australia will get the Pacific workers reasonably speedy access to a migration path via the existing points system for permanent residency.

As a matter of urgency, in my view, the AWU should press this point strenuously to remove the possibility that these temporary workers are kept as a permanent pool of relatively low-wage workers, by Australian standards, without access to permanent migration.

A question arises immediately for socialists, as to what attitude they should have towards this scheme, whether to support it critically while demanding improvements, or oppose it outright.

The AWU’s extraordinary change of stance on migration

The fact that the AWU has come out in support of the scheme, while suggesting some improvements, is to anyone with knowledge of Australian working class history, a matter of great importance.

The AWU was the heart and soul of the labour movement aspect of the racist White Australia Policy.

In the 19th century and the early 20th century it fought against Chinese, Indian and Pacific migration. It was the main force in the labour movement that campaigned for the deportation of the Kanak workers from Australia at the start of the 20th century, a most lamentable episode, (despite this, thousands of Kanak workers managed to evade deportation and there are now 20,000 or 30,000 of their descendants scattered around central Queensland, particularly Mackay).

In the 1920s, the AWU even opposed Italian and Maltese migration as “coloured labour”. It is a most extraordinary commentary on how far the working class movement has come that the AWU is leading the trade union charge for Pacific workers to have access to the Australian labour market. (I have written more extensively elsewhere on the history of the Australian labour movement’s attitudes to migration and the impact of migrants in Australian society).

Paul Howes is rather proud of the fact that in his recent visit to Vanuatu to negotiate about the labour scheme he made an official apology on behalf of the AWU to the government of Vanuatu for the kidnapping of islanders for forced labour (“blackbirding”) and the subsequent expulsion of the Kanak workers from Australia (the painful contradictions of migration were encapsulated in the experience of the Kanak workers who replicated the experience of the Irish before them. After the Revolution of 1798, thousands of Irish rebels were deported to Australia. When their sentences concluded, despite the forcible nature of their deportation to Australia, many of them decided to stay because living standards in the colony of NSW were better than in Ireland, and this started chain migration to Australia, with many of their relatives coming to join them. Much the same thing happened to the Kanaks later in the 19th century. Despite the brutal nature of many kidnappings by the Queensland labour trade, after the event many thousands of them decided to stay because of the better living standards in Australia, which made their subsequent deportation so poignant.)

The left and migration

One of the traditional weaknesses of the left in Australian unions has been a negative attitude to migration. This issue has again erupted at a time when the unions are beginning to fight back against the policies of federal and state Labor governments.

A feature of this fightback, so far, has been an entirely healthy united front between “left” and “right” unions. My impression is that the active members of all the trade unions involved, the left-wing metalworkers and the CFMEU, and the right-wing AWU have no intention of letting disagreements over migration interfere with this united front.

Nevertheless, differences in approach on the migration question clearly exist in the trade union movement, and it is in the interest of everybody who is active in the labour movement to conduct this discussion in a careful way.

The DSP leadership’s opposition to Pacific workers accessing the Australian labour market

Unfortunately, true to its erratic form, the DSP majority, adventurers that they are, have rushed into this argument in Green Left Weekly with the crudest and most reactionary and confusing arguments that they could assemble on the side of the forces opposing the new labour scheme.

They have had several comments attacking the Pacific scheme and have produced what amounts to a line article under the byline of Jody Betzien, a DSP activist in the metalworkers’ union in Victoria.

They also promptly posted the same article on a website they influence, Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific (ASAP). This DSP line article puts the arguments against Pacific worker access to the Australian labour market in the crudest and most reactionary way. It opposes the new scheme out of hand.

The article has a number of tendentious and implicitly reactionary features. For a start, the DSP leadership tries to create the impression that the new scheme is essentially similar to the Howard government’s objectionable 457 scheme. They also try to create the impression that it’s somehow like the notorious “blackbirding” (kidnapping) of island labour in the 19th century.

This implied slander of the new scheme is a bit barefaced when you consider the fact that the governments of the island nations have been pressing for such a scheme for years, and that East Timor wants to join the scheme.

Far from being blackbirding of any sort, the scheme is voluntary for the workers involved.

A second argument used in this article is also extremely problematic. A great hullaballoo is put made about how agricultural labour is poorly paid by Australian standards, which is of course true, but it is spiced up with unsubstantiated stories about there being many undocumented workers in the industry.

This is a dubious line of argument from socialists. The maximum slogan, often used by activists in the refugee movement — “no one is illegal” — surely applies here.

It hardly behoves socialists to be implicitly blowing the whistle on workers who are deemed to be illegal immigrants.

To its great credit, the CFMEU, which on balance tends to be sceptical about migration into lower paid jobs, when it encounters undocumented workers, as it does from time to time, tries to join them up to the union and get back pay for them, and doesn’t make a big hullaballoo, as this Green Left article does, about their undocumented status, at least not in such a way as to encourage their deportation.

It would be naive to gloss over the problem that these questions present to a number of unions. From time to time, some low-wage immigrants are used very badly in the workplace. Many Australian unionists remember vividly the striking images of big islander blokes in balaclavas scabbing in the MUA dispute.

To the great credit of the officials of the maritime unions at that time, they deliberately discouraged workers from attacking the scabs over their country of origin. They even made strenuous efforts to get them to join the Maritime Union.

Happily, these days most big islander blokes working in different sectors of industry are well and truly in trade unions, and on the correct side, as most shown by pictures of industrial disputes.

Socialists should not give an inch to backwardness in the workers movement on migration

The appropriate response of socialists to this kind of trade union problems is not to give an inch to a certain traditional chauvinism in the workers movement on migration while, however, conducting the debate in a careful and responsible way so as to not divide the trade union front between workers and officials whose unions have opposed views on these questions.

Another argument is used in the Green Left article, which is obviously pitched towards making friends with the anti-migration current in the environment movement.

The last paragraph says: “in reality support for the pilot program based on arguments about Pacific Island developments is allowing big business to get away with establishing a program that will result in more super-exploited migrant workers in Australia, while failing to address the real causes of poverty in the Pacific.”

This quite adequately sums up the reactionary anti-migration policies that the DSP majority has lurched into.

Apparently they oppose “super-exploited migrant labour” in Australia. The paragraph comes they try to cover themselves with a figleaf, saying they want permanent migration, but in current labour movement reality it’s not their figleaf that matters, it’s the DSP leadership’s glib adaptation to the old anti-migration sentiment that still exists in some unions.

The business about development models for the Pacific is completely phony. Socialists don’t have much chance of imposing a perfect development model for the Pacific under the capitalist system.

We should, obviously, raise the idea of a better development model for the Pacific, but we must choose between the different schemes on offer. In the absence of adequate development aid to the Pacific nations from the two imperialist powers, Australian and New Zealand, both the governments of the Pacific nations and the overwhelming majority of the population in the Pacific nations desire whatever access they can get to the Australian and New Zealand markets for labour.

If a tiny place like Kiribati can send a couple of hundred workers to Australia, and they send back half or even a third of their wages to their families, that is an important gain for the people of Kiribati.

It is certainly not the socialist revolution, but it beats the hell out of the previous arrangements.

A second point concerning domestic politics in Australia, is that when migrant workers fill a perceived gap in country towns, that’s a very substantial practical step towards internationalism, and it tends to break down racial, religious and other prejudices in rural Australia.

The really bizarre feature of the DSP’s locating itself on the extreme right of the debate in the labour movement on this question is that it does so at a time when the left trade unions are, in an uneven and contradictory way, clearly moving towards a better position on migration.

The DSP leadership seems to see some advantage to their pretensions to being a significant force in the labour movement in adapting to what they see as the prevailing sentiment in a union in which they operate.

From the socialist point of view, the proper name for this tactical approach is reckless opportunism.

The alternative possibility, which the DSP leadership clearly rejects is the more correct one from the socialist point of view. Such a position involved critical support to the new scheme, while trade unions monitor it extremely carefully to see that the prevailing wage is paid, the workers join the appropriate unions, and parasites such as migration agents are eliminated from the process.

In addition, the unions involved should insist vigorously that the seven-month workers are brought immediately into a clear and reasonably short pathway to permanent residency and migration status.

The DSP leadership’s attempt to act as attorney for the backwardness that still exists in some trade union circles on the question of migration, should be comprehensively rejected.

PS: I apologise in advance to Jody Betzien, with whom I have never had a conversation on this question, or on anything else, for taking an article with his name on it as my point of departure in this piece. A line article of this sort is to some extent a collective effort and I make the quite reasonable assumption that the article has been workshopped by the DSP leadership. I say this without prejudice to the fact that as your name is on the article, you obviously support the propositions in it.