CURRENT POLITICS - FOREIGN WORKERS
coverage of the ALP’s deal with Rinehart to import 1,715 skilled and
semi-skilled construction workers for Roy Hill has been as intense as it
has been shallow. These notes place the 457 visas and Enterprise
Migration Agreements (EMAs) in larger contexts – industrial, economic,
political and social-cultural.
as variable capital
of that activity would be possible without variable capital. Deprived of
wage-slaves, Rinehart and her ilk would be in the same position as
Thomas Peel when he landed with the first permanent invaders at the Swan
River in 1827:
does not have to import capitalist power relationships since all workers
now face the necessity of selling their labour power in order to live.
Moreover, the state machinery is in place to organise capital and
disorganise labour, with 457s and EMAs as twin expressions of what a
ruling class does when it rules.
employment agent pointed out that the problem arose when corporations
waited till the last minute to start recruiting. He had never had any
difficulty in filling applications to his labour-hire firm – if they
came soon enough.
Whether or not there is a chronic or systemic shortage of skilled workers, there certainly is a shortage of local tradespeople who will work on the cheap and without protections. For fly-in/fly-out workers, the costs from maintaining two tables mean that a wage of $100,000 or more in the North-West becomes closer to the national average of $70,000 back in Perth.
on mine sites are not the same as shortages within the Australian labour
force. Skill shortages are in the pipeline because the sell-off of
government instrumentalities has slashed the number of apprentices.
BHP’s abandonment of iron-and-steel production has done the same.
less significant is the shortage of public servants and service sector
workers in the mining zones. Their absence is one more reason why
workers are reluctant to move there, or even to fly in and out. . This
is the old story of no support services from State governments that do
not exact royalties heavy enough to match these needs. In the 1960s,
Queensland workers across the Bowen Basin coal-fields struck to get
schools and hospitals. Rather than provide those amenities, their
absence has been marginalised as fly-in/fly-out.
a first-hand account of how hard life is see www.workontherigs.com)
the case of the workers who returned to a site to find that the bosses
had upended their living arrangements. They stopped work. Their unions
tried to sort things out only to be clobbered with million-dollar
penalties. The workers were cornered into agreeing not to take
industrial action for seven years to avoid thousands of dollars in fines
for each one of them. The company not only got off scot free but
benefitted from the no-strike clause. The bias is possible because
WorkChoices Lite (that is, Killard’s un-Fair Work Australia regime)
denies Australians the right to strike, a ban which contravenes
International Labour Organisation conventions.
if these state-enforced shackles were not bad enough, the bosses have
allies in the AWU – Australia’s Weakest Union. For 100 years, its
right-wing leaders have cut sweet-heart deals with employers. The AWU
offers lower wages and poorer conditions in return for ‘union’
coverage where the boss deducts the dues. This happened three years back
at the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne. Similar sell-outs are rife
throughout the resources sector.
example, a few years back, militant unions set about rebuilding
membership in the north-west to regain collective agreements. No sooner
had they succeeded in getting their numbers up again than the AWU butted
in with one of its sweetheart deals. With ex-AWU heavy Shorten in charge
of industrial relations, what chance is there that any of the Chinese
construction workers will get access to officials from the CFMEU, AMWU
unions must see whether the law against ‘slavery’, which is finally
being used to protect sex workers, can protect the EMA workforce. The
departments of Industrial Relations and of Immigration need to track the
entrants back to their points of recruitment. Only then can we be
certain that they have not entered into debt arrangements (peonage) with
‘labour-hire’ firms in China. Queensland unions recently exposed one
variant of that arrangement, putting those 457-workers were in an even
worse position than other wage-slaves. [Most of the Chinese who came to
the gold-fields in the second half of the nineteenth century were under
The lower the level of competency in English required under EMAs will increase the risks of injury. The government agencies responsible for OH&S never come within coo-ee of catching one violation in a hundred. (This deliberate failure is documented throughout my Framework of Flesh.) The only security is an active union with strong job delegates and site committees. But un-FairWork Australia outlaws those essentials. In addition, countless examples of underpayment exist along with cash-in-hand scams. When that dodge does not work, construction contractors arrange to go broke to escape paying entitlements - only to pop up the next day under a new company name. Given all these constraints, what chance will an individual foreign worker have of making sure that his wages and conditions are even up to the FairWork standards?
1788 and 1996, the only large-scale official importation of contract
labourers were the Pacific Islanders, mostly for the sugar industry.
Their arrival was part of Empire-wide transfers of labour under what
scholars call ‘a new system of slavery’ following the 1833 abolition
of chattel slavery across the British Empire. From 1863, some 62,000
workers were brought here, indentured on two-year contracts, after which
they were supposed to return home. Perhaps a quarter signed up for
further contracts, or for pastoral work. When the new Commonwealth
enforced its Immigration Restriction Act (White Australia) after 1906,
more than 7,000 were sent back. Some 1,700 were allowed to stay. (For
one of their stories see Faith Bandler’s 1977 novel about her father,
1945, the post-war immigration scheme aimed to build the population as
well as a labour force. To spur the assimilation of non-Britishers, they
were called ‘New Australians’. Whatever the failings in this
approach, it had the virtue of linking a job with citizenship. The
opposite was happening in Europe where Germany had Turkish ‘guest
workers’ while France drew on its North African colonies.
457 Visas ruptured the assumption that coming to work here opens the
path to citizenship. This disconnect compounds the rupture that
fly-in/fly-out inflicts on local communities and on unionism. From
Collinsville in Queensland to Wonthaggi in Victoria, coal miners had
learnt that class consciousness flourishes from living together as well
as working side by side. Bosses are well aware of the ties between
workplace solidarity and community. From the early 1950s, coal-mine
owners saw in mechanisation a way to break the militant Miners’
Federation through depopulating towns in the Hunter Valley.
current break between labour and community could prove as profound a
change as was the installation of non-discriminatory immigration from
the early 1970s. Persistent concentrations of non-citizen labour-forces
could erupt into conflict if their emergence is not blocked. The
interlock of citizenship and unionism therefore needs to be brought
forward in the debate about EMAs and 457s.
three policies – 457s, EMAs and the $5m. -
tell us how filthy lucre has conquered commitment to building an
Australia in which union activism is an element in citizenship.