What is in fact a very old dispute has currently been simmering again in the labour movement, about migration in general, and in particular about unskilled migrant access to Australia. This always-present controversy has now sharpened around a new scheme requested by the governments of small Pacific states, and introduced by the Australian 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 significantly different to 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 to this conservatives in the indigenous community who advocate pushing their fellow indigenous people off welfare oppose the scheme, saying there should be a more or less 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).
In addition to this, in the Green Party, and in environmental circles, there is a certain traditional opposition to all migration by conservationists who believe that Australia is already overpopulated, (an extremely dubious proposition in my view). 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 successfully the AWU federal conference to support the scheme, with the following 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 asserts that 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 a reasonable 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 significant improvements, or oppose it outright.
THE EXTRAORDINARY CHANGE OF STANCE OF THE AUSTRALIAN WORKERS UNION TOWARDS MIGRATION
The fact that the AWU has come out in support of the scheme, while suggesting some improvements is, to anyone with any 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 in Australian history, (despite this, thousands of Kanak workers managed to evade the deportations and there are now 20,000 or 30,000 of their descendants scattered all over Central Queensland, particularly around Mackay).
In the 1920s, the AWU even opposed Italian and Maltese migration, classifying Italians and Maltese 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 access for Pacific workers 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 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 as a whole are beginning to fight back against the negative features of federal and state Labor governments.
A feature of this fightback, so far, has been an entirely healthy united front in the beginnings of this fightback between both “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 THE ACCESS OF PACIFIC WORKERS TO THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR MARKET
Unfortunately, true to its erratic form, the DSP Majority, adventurers that they are, have rushed into this argument with the crudest and most reactionary and confusing arguments that they could assemble, in Green Left Weekly, on the side of the forces opposing the new labour scheme.
They have recently had several comments attacking the Pacific scheme and they have now produced what amounts to a line article under the by line of Jody Betzien, a DSP activist in the Metal Workers Union in Victoria.
They also promptly posted the same article on a website they influence, Australian Asia Workers Links. 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.
This 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 objectionable 457 scheme. They also try to create the impression that it’s somehow like the notorious blackbirding or 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 now East Timor wants to join the scheme. Far from being blackbirding of any sort, the scheme is voluntary for the workers involved. Where’s the blackbirding?
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 how there are many undocumented workers working 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, so to speak, 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, which it does from time to time, tries to join them up in 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 industrially very badly. 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 for 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 right side, as most pictures of industrial disputes when they take place show.)
SOCIALISTS SHOULD NOT GIVE AN INCH TO BACKWARDNESS IN THE WORKERS MOVEMENT ON THE MIGRATION QUESTION
The appropriate response of socialists to these kind of trade union problems is not to give an inch to a certain traditional chauvinism in the workers movement, in relation to migration while, however, conducting the debate in a careful and responsible way so as to not divide the trade union front between workers and union officials, whose unions have opposed views on these questions.
Another argument is used in this article which is obviously pitched towards making friends with the anti migration current in the environment movement. The last paragraph in the article says that “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 to the real causes of poverty in the Pacific.” This ending quite adequately sums up the reactionary anti migration policies that the DSP Majority have lurched into.
Apparently they are opposed “to super-exploited migrant labour” in Australia. The paragraph comes after the fig leaf cover they try to give themselves, in which they say they want permanent migration, but in current labour movement reality, it’s not their fig leaf that matters, it’s the DSP leadership’s glib adaptation to the old anti migration sentiment that still exists in some of the unions.
The first thing that has got to be said about this sentence is that the business about development models for the Pacific is a complete phony. For socialists, none of us have much chance of imposing a perfect development model for the Pacific under the still prevailing capitalist system. We should obviously raise the idea of a better development model for the Pacific, but we are forced to, in the day to day, choose between the different schemes on offer. In the absence of adequate development aid to the Pacific Nations from the two imperialist nations, 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 a 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 is sure beats the hell out of the previous arrangements, from the point of view of the exploited masses of the Pacific.
A second point of importance, 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 comes at a time when the Left trade unions are, in an uneven and contradictory way, clearly moving towards a better position on migration. It seems to me that the DSP leadership see some advantage to their pretensions to being a significant force in the labour movement by adapting to what they see as the prevailing sentiment in a particular union in which they operate. From the socialist point of view, the proper name for this kind of tactical approach is reckless opportunism.
The alternative possibility which the DSP leadership clearly reject, is the more correct one from the socialist point of view. Such a position embodies giving critical support to the new scheme, while trade unions monitor it extremely carefully to see that the prevailing rate is paid, the workers join the appropriate unions, and such parasites as migration agents are eliminated from the process. In addition to this 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 all 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. It seems to me that 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 amongst 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.