Julia Gillard’s new rhetoric about foreign workers has been welcomed by the unions, who have been leading a campaign for “Aussie jobs” against 457 visa holders. A number of unions are determined to keep raising the issue and it has the support of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

Many union leaders and others on the socialist left have defended the campaign by claiming they are simply campaining against the 457 visa category, but not against the foreign workers themselves.

The CFMEU’s (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union) Dave Noonan responded to criticism that “our campaign against the rise in 457 visas is pandering to and igniting racist tendencies in the Australian working class” in an article on the online opinion web site New Matilda. He points to the good work the union has done organising 457 visa holders in the past.

The campaign against 457 visa holders is an attack on foreign workers

Yet he exposes how the union focus has changed by following on from this with claims 457s are taking jobs from union members and that this is lowering pay and conditions.

The demands of the “Let’s spread it around” advertising campaign, led by the CFMEU, are not about fighting for 457 visa holders to be given permanent residency, or encouraging them to join the union. There are no demands to this effect, only demands for “local jobs” and buying Australian-made.

A rally of several hundred manufacturing and construction workers in Melbourne in March opposing 457 visas in Victoria was replete with t-shirts with a map of Victoria and “457s” with a cross through it, and placards with the nationalist slogan, “Aussie unions fighting for Aussie jobs”.

The February picket at a Werribee plant demanded that 457 workers who had been employed there be sacked and replaced by “local workers”. If this had happened, those 457 visa holders would have faced deportation if they do not find a job within 28 days. The union campaign is effectively calling for 457 workers to be sacked and deported! How is this anything but a campaign against foreign workers?

The campaign is only going to alienate 457 visa holders and foreign workers and make them feel unwelcome in the union movement. This will only make it harder to fight for their rights and permanent residency and make them more vulnerable to hyper-exploitation.

The campaign is already having the terrible effect of encouraging xenophobia and racism in the community. The CFMEU even commissioned a survey asking if “Aussie workers” should come before 457 workers—and 89 per cent of respondents said yes.

By James Supple and Amy Thomas

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