Sadly, unions have stepped up their campaign against overseas 457 visas and the Enterprise Migration Agreement (EMA) secured by Gina Rinehart in WA. 

Three thousand workers joined a rally in Perth in early July with the slogan “local workers first”. Despite denials by union leaders, it’s clear that this campaign is directed against overseas workers on 457 visas—and has all the nationalism and racism that goes hand in hand with such a campaign.

The nationalism is obvious in the CEPU’s Terry Hayes’ speech to the rally, “At the end of the day, it’s our gas, it’s our rocks and it’s our jobs.” Since when did workers own the gas?

And the racist sentiment is exposed by the comment of a Western Australia MUA Secretary to an earlier rally in the campaign, on March 15: “Barrow Island is only 60-70 kilometres off Karratha. They are going to flood it with 457s. They’re bringing in foreign labour. At Cape Preston we’ve got 5000 workers. All signs are in Chinese.”

Union leaders have defended the campaign by saying it’s about fighting for more training programs and job opportunities for unemployed local workers. Since the Barnett government was elected, youth unemployment in the Perth suburb Kwinana has almost doubled. But 457 visa workers are not responsible for unemployment.

The 'local workers first' campaign is promoting the idea that overseas workers are to blame for job losses and unemployment

Yet with the slogans emphasising “local workers”, the campaign is explicitly aimed at pressuring the government to cut temporary 457 visas and reduce the use of EMAs. It suggests 457 workers are responsible for unemployment.

The anti-foreign worker message was also obvious in MUA National Assistant Secretary Mick Doleman’s comments to the Perth rally that migrant workers were welcome and that unions “will look after those [457 migrant] workers… we will make sure they are paid and treated the same as Australian workers”—but only “once all Australian workers have a job and are trained”. The message is that overseas workers are not welcome.

Organising 457s

Thankfully, despite Doleman’s threat, in practice, unions have done some great work in recent years organising and protecting 457 workers.

A number of unions, the AMWU and CFMEU in particular, have put serious effort into organising and fighting for the rights of 457 workers. The AMWU’s pamphlet “The 457 visa handbook” is an excellent guide to fighting for the rights of 457s.

But tragically, the unions’ anti-457 campaign has given the employers a stick to beat them with and is allowing bosses to create divisions between 457 and permanent workers.

The campaign has enabled the Minerals Council—the very profiteering bosses who seek to exploit 457 workers—to take out ads in Western Australian newspapers condemning the union opposition to EMAs as “sometimes xenophobic”.

Employers and the government are more than happy to use racism, against refugees for example, for their own benefit.

The unions have been a crucial part of the refugee campaign opposing the fear mongering and the myths that refugees are taking services away from workers. But this campaign risks undoing all that good work.

The left’s response

There is a serious debate to be had within the union movement about the dangers of the “local workers first” and “Aussie jobs” approach. The left should be agitating for unions to welcome 457 migrant workers into their ranks to fight together for jobs, wages and conditions. But shamefully, most of the left have abandoned their internationalist principles. Rather than take a lead against nationalist and inherently racist slogans they are supporting calls to oppose 457 visas.

The unions and the left say they oppose 457 visas because they do not give rights to permanent residency and so leave workers vulnerable to exploitation by the boss.

But a call for permanent residency is an empty slogan unless there is a willingness to actually fight for 457s right to residency. In the context of calls for “Aussie jobs”, opposing 457 visas is just another way of opposing the right of migrant workers to come to Australia.

Some union leaders indicated that the Perth rally is the start of an ongoing union campaign demanding “local jobs” and that the rallies would go national. This would be a set back for the union movement.

The thousands of recent job losses in manufacturing and construction were not caused by immigration or 457s. Liberal governments in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia are sacking thousands of public servants and teachers. Fairfax is cutting 1900 jobs to cut costs and boost its profits. Bread supplier Goodman Fielder is cutting 540 jobs to “improve efficiency”.

A fight for jobs is urgently needed. But that fight needs to target the Aussie bosses who cause unemployment—not overseas workers on 457 visas.

James Supple and Ian Rintoul

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

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