“The very week when workers are being given their marching orders out of a job at Kurri Kurri and Tullamarine, 1700 Chinese workers are given the go-ahead to march into Western Australia.” Those were the words of Labor Left Senator Doug Cameron in response to the approval of Gina Rinehart’s Enterprise Migration Agreement for her Roy Hill mining project.

But jobs for Chinese workers over 4500 kilometres away had nothing to do with the sackings at Caltex’s Kurri Kurri plant. Nor would providing jobs for “Local workers first” on far away resources projects be any solution for saving the jobs.

Like thousands of others in manufacturing, the Caltex workers are the victims of bosses putting profits first.
These job losses are far from inevitable. They could be stopped if there was a fightback in the workplaces where the cuts are happening. But this is exactly what the “Local workers first” campaign isn’t. Rather than fight for jobs many union leaders and Labor figures have taken the easy option of directing anger at foreign workers.

While the “local workers first” campaign is focused on Western Australian resource projects at the moment, the rhetoric about foreign workers is constantly linked by union leaders to the job cuts in manufacturing in the Eastern states.

When over 3000 people lost their jobs at Hastie’s in June (based in Victoria, ACT and NSW), ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver argued that there were “five hundred highly-trained experienced electricians available right now” to work on resource industry jobs, and that they should be considered before overseas workers. But what about saving their jobs at Hastie’s? The 630 jobs at Caltex, 90 at APV Automotive Parts, 440 at Ford, 200 at Darrel Lea, 164 jobs in aircraft engineering, the 1200 jobs at Fairfax all lost in July—where is the fight for these jobs?

It’s bosses, many of them “Aussies”, who are to blame for the jobs pain. And to fight them we need unity between migrant and local workers.

Fighting for jobs

Recent examples show how militant unionism at a workplace level can beat job cuts.

Perhaps the most inspiring union victory this year has been that of the Victorian nurses, who defied both their Liberal state government and Fair Work Australia.

At its heart, this was a fight for jobs that united 457 workers and others. The key issue in the dispute was preserving nurse-patient ratios. Accepting higher ratios would have meant nurses taking on more patients each, threatening staffing levels.

At Sydney University this year, staff and students saved 55 jobs with a campaign of rallies and occupations. Now, staff are fighting for better job security protections in their Enterprise Bargaining Agreement. This campaign involved overseas academics on 457 visas in a united fight against a nasty Vice-Chancellor.

Historically, migrant workers have played an important role in working class struggle in Australia. A nine-week strike at the Ford Broadmeadows factory in 1973 against a speed-up in production involved 6000 workers, 75 per cent from non-English speaking backgrounds, mainly Greek, Italian and Turkish. The strike was waged in defiance of the union officialdom and involved militant picketing and pitched battles with police. Despite attempts by management to divide workers along ethnic lines, they won.

The successful Baiada workers’ strike last year also united workers speaking many different languages in a common fight against the boss.

457 workers

The same approach of fighting together can be taken into industries with large numbers of 457 workers. At Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill project, the 1700 workers on 457 visas will work right alongside 6300 others employed there. Initiatives like multilingual union leaflets can help the unions recruit on site and prevent attempts to pit workers against one another.

Many unions have done good work organising 457 workers, but that is at risk if they focus on fighting to exclude them. The CFMEU WA’s website section on their 457s campaign begins with, “If you’re in the construction industry and have been told there is no work, only to discover the job has been given to temporary visa workers we want to know about it.” A 457 worker suffering exploitation is pretty unlikely to call the advertised number—or to join any union that argues “Aussies” or “locals” should get jobs before them.

There is no doubt the conditions for 457 workers are designed to make it harder for them to fight back. Racism from the union movement will only compound that and make it easier to exploit them.
To fight for jobs we have to fight together.

Amy Thomas

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