457 visas and “Aussie jobs”: to fight for jobs, we have to fight together

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen’s announcement of an Enterprise Migration Agreement (EMA) allowing Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill project to employ 1700 overseas workers on 457 visas has produced a wave of controversy.

Union officials have been quick to criticise the agreement. The ACTU Secretary accused Labor of rubbishing opportunities for workers and siding with the billionaires.

Dave Noonan, national secretary of the construction union, said, “I think there is a huge amount of disquiet among working Australians, particularly blue-collar Australians, manufacturing workers and tradies, about why Labor would engage in what is actually a sell-out of Australian jobs in the interest of a few greedy billionaires”.

The concern is understandable given workers face rising unemployment and the series of closures and job losses in the manufacturing industry in recent months. The collapse of Hastie, putting over 2500 jobs at risk, is just the latest high profile announcement.

But the Hastie jobs are not at risk because of guest workers. The engineering company went bankrupt because of greedy Australian bosses trying to make mega-profits and fiddling the books.

Campaigning for “Aussie jobs” in Western Australia is no way to fight the layoffs. In fact, it is a diversion from the fight that is really needed to protect jobs. The “Aussie jobs” slogan has allowed right-wing MP Bob Katter to pose as the workers’ friend, saying: “These are the plum jobs in this country, almost all of them above $100,000 a year, and they will go to foreigners and not to Australians.”

Guest workers exploitation

There are claims that 250 Chinese workers on the Sino Iron project in the Pilbara are getting $70,000 to $80,000 for jobs for which local workers would be paid about $150,000.

This emerged from the first investigation by the Immigration Department into alleged underpayment at the site—after repeated assurances from Canberra since September 2010 that any attempt to underpay foreign workers on the $5.4 billion project would be stamped out.

Jetstar too is being taken to court for using cabin crew recruited in Thailand for half the wages of local staff on domestic routes.

Focusing on

But the way to stop their exploitation is not to try to keep these workers out of Australia, but to welcome guest workers into the unions and fight to defend their conditions and their right to work.

The AMWU has done some good work to defend 457 visa workers from exploitation. Hundreds have been recruited into the union. The union has produced a useful booklet to let all AMWU members know about the rights of 457s.

The biggest issue for 457 visa holders is that their right to work is totally controlled by the boss. If they are sacked, they have only 28 days to find another employer—otherwise they have to leave the country.

Legally, 457 visa holders must have the same pay and conditions as Australian workers, but as long as their boss has the power of determining whether they stay or go, they remain open to exploitation.

The best thing to ensure 457 visa workers are not exploited is to ensure that they have a right to permanent residency in Australia. This has to be a central demand of the union movement in order to break any attempt to divide the workforce between local workers and 457 guest workers.

We need to go back to the kinds of demands made by the Builder’s Labourers and other unions in the 1960s when migrant workers were being drawn into the unions. These included the need for information in different languages, translators on the job, English classes paid by the boss and access to training.

‘Aussie jobs’ campaign a mistake

Unfortunately, some unions are mobilising their members around the scaremongering about “Aussie jobs”.

In Perth, the MUA and the CFMEU held a protest against the EMA deal for Roy Hill. Western Australian MUA Secretary, Chris Cain, told the rally, “If you come into this country the right way and emigrate out here… you have the right to work in this country and so do your kids.”

This is dangerous territory. The language about “coming here the right way” is very similar to the language used to demonise asylum seekers. And determining what is “the right way” would remain totally in the hands of the Government and Immigration Department who have always regulated immigration, fiddling skilled and unskilled migration quotas, in the interests of Australian capitalism.

Opposing the government’s approval of the EMA to Gina Rinehart, as some on the left have done, simply feeds into this hostility to overseas workers. Union opposition to the EMA has been framed in terms of opposing overseas workers taking “Aussie jobs”. The left must clearly support the right of overseas workers to come here, including 457 workers, and fight for them to have equal pay rates and permanent visas.

Fighting for “Aussie jobs” is no way to fight Gina Rinehart. Gina Rinehart and other “Aussie bosses” exploit Australian workers and guest workers alike—in Australia and in their operations overseas.

“Aussie jobs” are not under attack by foreign workers. They are under attack by Australian bosses determined to cut the wages and conditions of all workers. It is Australian bosses that outsource to contractors, impose short time and push to casualise the workforce. More than 3700 jobs went in the first five weeks of 2012—from banks, Telstra, Heinz, Mortein and others.

Qantas recently announced 500 job cuts from its maintenance workforce. The campaign for “Aussie jobs” in Western Australia is a diversion from actually fighting to stop job cuts. Getting the Qantas jobs back would take industrial action across Qantas.

With their week-long strikes, the mining division of the CFMEU in central Queensland is showing the way to effectively fight the mining bosses over jobs, contracting and conditions.

Governments and bosses constantly use racism and nationalism to try to divide workers. But Australian workers have far more in common with workers from other countries than they do with Australian bosses.

When Pacific Brands closed factories in Australia, the Daily Telegraph tried to say that the fight at Pacific Brands was a fight to save “Aussie jobs” and that people should “buy Australian.” But the truth was different. Pacific Brands was closing almost all its factories—in Australia, New Zealand and a major factory in China itself. Workers in Australia, New Zealand and China had a common interest in fighting Pacific Brands.

The best way to fight Gina Rinehart and other bosses is to recruit the 457 workers into the unions, fight for their right to stay, and build a union movement that is willing and able to fight for every job.

Ian Rintoul

Solidarity has produced a statement “Welcome 457 visa holders into the unions” that is available here

Read AMWU Western Australian State Secretary Steve McCartney’s description of work his union has done fighting to organise 457 workers into the union here.


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