It is now clearer than ever that the attacks on 457 visa workers are being used to whip up xenophobia against foreign workers. Last week Julia Gillard added her voice to the false claims that migrants are to blame for unemployment.

The Prime Minister made the issue a key part of her pitch to Western Sydney. Julia Gillard launched a major media offensive scapegoating 457 visa workers for unemployment and insecurity, using her keynote speech at the University of Western Sydney to promise, “a fight to stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back”.

It was a foul and calculated piece of dog-whistling of which any racist would have been proud. One Labor Left MP told the Financial Review “It sounds like Philip Ruddock is back. I’d rather lose than stoop to that level.”

Gillard was swiftly backed by racist Pauline Hanson, who said she felt vindicated that the government was finally acting on her warnings about foreign labour.

In late February the Gillard government pledged to tighten the use of 457 visas and stop bosses using them to employ migrant workers on sub-standard wages and conditions. But her “crackdown” will increase the climate of hostility against 457 visa workers, and make it harder to unionise them and fight their exploitation. The cancellation of any worker’s 457 visa means they will face deportation.

Union campaign

The Labor government is so desperate for votes that it has adopted the racist populist policies that Pauline Hanson is proud of. Labor is also influenced by the union campaign for “Aussie jobs” and against 457 visas. A number of unions are determined to keep raising the issue, with several hundred manufacturing and construction workers in Melbourne joining what was billed as a “rally for jobs” last Thursday opposing the use of 457 visas in Victoria.

But the focus on blaming workers on 457 visas for unemployment lets the greedy, profiteering bosses and governments who are responsible for sackings off the hook. Instead of strengthening a fight against the bosses, it strengthens nationalism and focuses workers’ attention on demanding that the government keep out foreign workers.

The Gillard government itself cut 5400 jobs in the public sector last year, according to the Community and Public Sector Union. Gillard has handed hundreds of millions of dollars to the car manufacturers without requiring them to guarantee jobs. The banks have made billions dollar record profits but have cut hundreds of jobs in the process. Yet the government now trying to pretend that it is concerned about unemployment.

Twelve hundred jobs losses were announced in a single day in February. Eight hundred of these were at Sensis (a subsidiary of Telstra). Sensis workers took unprotected strike action in protest. Among their ranks were 457 visa holders who face deportation if the sackings go ahead. A broader industrial campaign aimed at hitting Telstra’s profits could stop these sackings. But the unions in Victoria focussed instead on organising a march against 457 visas.

It is now more important than ever that the left campaigns for a clear anti-racist and internationalist perspective within the union movement. The solution to the exploitation of 457 migrant workers is to take up the fight for them to be paid equal wages and demand that they have the right to permanent residency.

But Greens Deputy Leader Adam Bandt has tried to outdo Labor in his commitment to “Aussie jobs”, saying the government, “wasn’t really serious about putting locals first”, and demanding they force businesses to advertise locally before employing any 457 visa workers.

Even on the socialist left, many have been unwilling to point out the danger of the campaign against 457 visas. But the claims that the unions’ attacks on 457 visas could be part of fighting for permanent residency and full migration rights for 457 visa holders can no longer be sustained.

We urge everyone to raise motions and discussion about the issue in the unions and more broadly to help ensure that nationalism and racist responses to job losses and economic crisis are not further strengthened.

What you can do

1. Please help build support for the “Welcome 457 visa holders into the unions” statement by circulating it to your work mates and contacts and encourage them to sign on.

2. Late last year the NTEU National Council adopted a motion that “NTEU National Council expresses its concern over the anti-foreign worker sentiment expressed by some sections of the Australian community” with the text of the “Welcome 457 visa holders into the unions” statement as a supporting statement. Please consider passing a motion at your union branch or conference along the following lines (please email jsupple05 [at] gmail.com if you get any motions passed):

This [branch/union] registers its concern at the comments in Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech at the University of Western Sydney where she promised “a fight to stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back”. This follows the misguided campaign against 457 migrant visa workers by sections of the union movement.

This kind of rhetoric against foreign workers only serves to scapegoat them for unemployment and lets the greedy, profiteering bosses and governments who are responsible for sackings off the hook. The Gillard government itself cut 5400 jobs in the public sector last year according to the Community and Public Sector Union.

Our unions will be stronger if we fight to win 457 visa workers into the unions and demand they have full rights to permanent residency and equal pay and conditions. This will ensure we are more able to fight to defend jobs, wages and conditions.

3. Join us at a Solidarity public meetings to discuss how we can stand up to the scapegoating of foreign workers and build a real fightback for jobs

Melbourne: 6pm Tuesday 16 April, Melbourne University Student Union, 2nd floor

Sydney: 7pm Thursday 28 March, Brown St hall, Brown St, Newtown (above Newtown library)

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