Over recent weeks there have been a number of union rallies, particularly in Western Australia, around slogans such as, “Local workers first” or “Aussie jobs first”.
The unions’ “Local workers first” campaign is fundamentally directed at keeping out “foreign workers”, especially those employed on 457 visas.
Tragically, almost all of the left has got behind the union leaderships’ call for the abolition of 457 visas. In the context of a campaign against 457 workers coming here, this can only feed nationalist and racist responses to the economic crisis.
Many unions and left groups have tried to say they are for permanent migration, although they know full well that the bosses and the government set the migration quotas and there is no other avenue for the 457 workers to get here.
Socialist Alliance has explicitly called for scrapping both “Rinehart’s Migration deal and 457 visas” at the same time as promoting “full residency and industrial rights for migrant and guest workers”. But the call for full rights is empty if 457 workers are barred from entry.
Socialist Alternative unequivocally supported the “Local workers first” rally in Perth. Their more recent ambiguous and abstract slogan, “…457 visas should be scrapped immediately, with workers on such visas given full residency rights without qualification,” can’t hide that the rally was essentially a call to close the door to immigrant workers, rather than fight for their rights.
There is a tradition of working class internationalism and anti-racism in Australia stretching back to the efforts of the IWW and the Communist Party to unite migrant and local workers in struggle. Unions have supported the demands for Aboriginal land rights as well as refugee rights and the national liberation struggle in Vietnam.
In the 1990s, the left played a critical role mobilising opposition to the rise of One Nation—supporting mass demonstrations and protests directly confronting Pauline Hanson’s meetings.
There is an even greater need in the present situation for the left to play such a role in the union movement to ensure that the widespread concern about job losses is not directed at foreign workers.
No group on the left would ever suggest that the way to prevent the exploitation of international students is to deny them visas or cut their work rights. But the same support is not being extended to 457 workers.
Uniting 457s and local workers
The 457s are victims of the same bosses that cut the wages and conditions of Australian workers. They are placed in a particularly vulnerable position—forced to rely on their employer for the right to work in Australia and often forced into far worse conditions.
We can either allow the bosses to leave them vulnerable and create two tiers of workers or we can unite all workers to fight together.
The unions have done good work organising and defending 457 workers. The need now is to fight to extend that solidarity. Rather then falling behind the mobilisation against foreign workers, we need to advocate the right for workers to come, their right to work and their right to stay.
Allowing union leaders to deflect anger onto foreign workers will only make it more difficult to fight against the Australian and multi-national bosses that are responsible for unemployment.
The racist policies of White Australia did find support amongst the trade union leaders. The deep influence of left nationalism, suggesting there is something in common between Australian workers and Australian bosses, is a sad fact of labour history.
To fight for jobs means tackling Gina Rinehart and the mining bosses over rosters, the spread of hours, overtime, apprenticeships, outsourcing, and so on. The fight by miners in central Queensland has been a good example of what can be done. The unions also need to campaign for shorter hours with no reduction in pay.
These are things that the left has historically argued and fought for. 457 workers are allies in that fight. The 457 workers (and Rinehart) need to know that the unions will fight against any attempt to victimise them and also fight for their right to stay.
Of course, Gina Rinehart and other bosses would like to create divisions in the workforce, to have two tiers of workers on different sets of conditions. The tragedy is that the union mobilisations against 457s assists them to do that.
The Left can play a crucial role challenging the nationalism and underlying racism of the anti-457 campaign if it argues for its principles of and for a struggle based on internationalism, solidarity and anti-racism.
We urge you to support the 457 statement as a basis on which we can build a truly united campaign for workers’ rights.