The picket of Melbourne’s City West Water construction site, effectively demanding the sacking of 457 visa workers, shows just how dangerous and divisive the unions’ “Aussie jobs” campaign really is.

Not only are the unions demanding that 457 migrant workers be kept out the country—they are now calling for workers already here to be sacked. This appalling campaign is scapegoating foreign workers as to blame for unemployment.

In February, a group of unemployed tradespeople began picketing the state-owned water treatment plant in Werribee. But the picket clearly is backed by the AMWU. Its Victorian assistant secretary Leigh Diehm says he is, “110 per cent behind” the picketers and that the union would “prefer to see locals on the job”.

An AMWU organiser also told a company representative, “give these [local] blokes a job and the picket will end.”

The picket against 457 workers at Werribee shows why the racist Aussie jobs campaign has to be opposed

The company responded by flying in workers by helicopter—only for it to emerge there were just four 457 workers at the site.

There are also reports of incidents on the picket line of threats and abuse directed at the migrant workers.

Instead of campaigning against 457 visa workers, the unions could organise a real fight for jobs and campaign to unionise the construction site. Instead of trying to sack the four 457 workers, what about a campaign to unionise the contractor that employees them? That could lay the basis for a united fight for jobs.

Fair Work’s Construction Commission has now taken the AMWU to court, seeking millions of dollars in damages over the action.

In the past the AMWU has tried to organise 457 visa workers to ensure they are not exploited and underpaid by their employers. The union has even tried to find alternative jobs for 457 visa workers sacked for demanding their rights. Shamefully, the “Aussie jobs” campaign has now led them to campaign for the workers to be sacked.

This is a new low. A campaign for the sacking of 457 visa workers will do the union movement serious damage. It will feed the growth of racism and division amongst workers while doing nothing to target the bosses who are responsible for unemployment.

Union campaign

The union campaign encourages the racist idea that foreign workers and immigration are to blame for unemployment and job losses.

This all shows why sections of the left were wrong to support the union rallies against 457 visas and mining industry Enterprise Migration Agreements last year. Those rallies had nothing to with fighting for jobs or concern at the employment conditions of 457 workers.

Last month the CFMEU even called for employers to be able to legally discriminate against 457 visa workers and allow employers to sack 457 migrant workers ahead of “locals”.

Instead of trying to unite the workforce—migrant and local workers—to fight against sackings this helps divide it, encouraging workers to fight each other about who gets the sack first. This is poison for union organisation.

The CFMEU is also continuing its campaign against foreign workers. The CFMEU’s national conference last October launched a new advertising campaign on the mining boom called “Let’s spread it around”, including TV ads which argue that local workers are missing out on jobs because “thousands of temporary overseas workers” are taking them.

But the idea migrants are to blame for unemployment is a myth. The 1370 job cuts announced in a few days in January were all a product of corporate profiteering or economic slump: 500 jobs at Vodafone and 170 at Bluescope Steel in cost cutting drives designed to boost profits and 700 at Boral due to a slump in housing construction.

The idea that immigration is to blame shifts workers’ anger from the fight against the boss onto blaming migrants. It also hides the fact that the unions are doing almost nothing to fight to save jobs.

The “spread it around” campaign has pointed out that “thousands of Queenslanders are losing their jobs, and unemployment has leapt to 6.2 per cent”.

But what did the unions do to fight Campbell Newman’s Queensland government, which has slashed 14,000 jobs? After some promising rallies, the unions ended the industrial campaign, went to court—and lost.

There needs to be a serious debate within the union movement about the dangers of the “Aussie jobs” campaign and the Werribee dispute. Late last year the NTEU national council passed a motion expressing its concern over the campaign against workers. Union members need to pass resolutions in their unions and sign onto statements to oppose this backward union campaign.

James Supple

8 COMMENTS

  1. since when does having a Section 457 prevent you from being a SCAB?

    i think the issue of jobs for Aussies not being undercut by foreign labour who are cheaper and more easily exploited is something the union movement should be fighting for. i commend the AMWU for fighting for employee’s rights

    do you have socialism from below or don’t you? the alternative is an so-called elite telling the union that they are racist because they demand local employment and not on subpar conditions that foreign workers employ. hardly socialist.

  2. So you support workers being brought in by the bosses on special low wage visas but oppose jobs being exported to low paid workers overseas a la the Sensis dispute?? Somewhat hypocritical if you ask me

  3. Firstly, Nick. Jobs for “Aussies” can only be undercut by foreign labour if we don’t fight to defend the conditions of foreign workers, and focus on targeting them instead of targeting the bosses. Socialism from below is about fighting together in unity, not fighting for “Aussies” ahead of someone else.

    And Jessie, fighting *actual* sackings through an industrial fight for jobs is quite different to targeting 457 visa holders. It shows how jobs can be protected – not by excluding certain people and targeting other workers, but through standing together to fight the “Aussie” bosses and companies who are sacking people. In fact some workers at Sensis are on 457 visas and face possible deportation if these sackings go ahead! We however do not support any kind of nationalist rhetoric and will be arguing against it in the campaign. There is a great statement from a Filipino trade union in solidarity with the struggle at Sensis.

    cheers, Amy

  4. I am a unionist and socialist and I am in Australia on a 457 visa. I’ve lived here almost two years. I worry that some people in the union movement think that me and others like me are not actually part of the working class in Australia. I think that such a position makes us weaker not stronger. Why would you want to divide a workforce by arguing that some of them shouldn’t be there?

    @Nick – yes of course it is possible that a worker on a visa can be a scab. but the key point is being on a visa does not make a worker a scab. And lets not forget the ‘Aussie’ scabs too – it was Australians who were trained up to smash the MUA in 1998, and I am sure there are plenty of other examples.

  5. And, where will this campaign end up? With workers with brown skin or who don’t have ‘Aussie’ accents subject to extra suspicion and scrutiny when they turn up for a job? With union delegates asking to see people’s passports rather than their union card when they start? With exploited migrant workers being scared to go to a union for help because they might dob them in or campaign to get them deported rather than help them organise to get better conditions? And does this mean that the CFMEU, the AMWU and the MUA are going to tell their members not to leave Australia in case they displace a ‘local worker’ somewhere else? No, we are one international working class and it is the boss we need to fight, not other workers.

  6. Amy, you take a select approach to “fighting in unity”. The working class is international. Why don’t you support the workers in the Phillippines, where unemployment is high, from having the jobs of Sensis workers? By the logic of Solidarity, Sensis workers in Australia should defend the conditions of those workers in the Philippines. Arguing that they shouldn’t get jobs is racist otherwise. Actually, I presume Solidarity are backing a campaign calling to save Australian jobs at Sensis because the shifting of jobs to the Phillippines has nothing to do with solidarity between the international working class and everything to do with the bosses cutting wages and increasing profits. The logic is same with 457 visas. You oppose one campaign and support another. Could that be the opportunism of having a member at Sensis? Denouncing the union movement as racist doesn’t work so well in that context does it? I look forward to watching you dance around the hypocrisy of your duelling opportunistic approaches.

  7. Fighting the Australian bosses when they are sacking people, which is what the fight at Sensis is about, is not the same as targeting a set of workers and campaigning to have them sacked. One is a fight for jobs against Aussie bosses (that includes 457 workers), and will be strengthened by as much unity in action as possible, not nationalism. The other targets foreign workers for job losses. Pretty simple.
    The only people dancing around anything are those trying to justify a campaign against foreign workers – and trolling under pretend names. Happy to debate, but that is pretty lame.
    cheers, Amy

  8. Hi Seamus, we are fighting for jobs at Sensis against outsourcing because this is about cutting wages and conditions, attacking unions and increasing corporate profits.

    I would argue to defend conditions of workers in the Philipines because it is in our interests they get good wages and conditions, just like Philipines unions have sent a message of support to Sensis workers (see below).

    We had a rally to fight for our jobs, I argued against calling it a rally for “Aussie jobs” in the mass meeting we held that called it. The “Aussie jobs” slogan came from the union officials not my workmates. They are pushing this partly because it fits with a strategy of trying to re-elect Gillard (see her website/twitter etc full of “Aussie jobs” stuff), rather than an industrial strategy to fight for jobs.

    The campaigns against 457 visas won’t save or create a single job, they are diversion from the kind of fight we need. It is not an accident that I put the successful motion to take unprotected strike action, not the officials. Here at Sensis is a real fight for jobs that all unions should throw serious weight behind. When was the last time you can remember that workers took unprotected action against outsourcing and redundancies?

    Instead of trying to build an even bigger rally for Sensis jobs, the AMWU has called a rally against “457 visa rorts” next week. I will try to get Sensis workers to go to it and argue about backing our concrete fight for jobs.

    We have a small number of 457 visa workers at Sensis (on the same pay and conditions as the rest of us), they face deportation if these job cuts go through. Some are union members who took unprotected action with us. They are our workmates and friends, and they are part of a real fight to win jobs. I welcome that, I welcome them into the unions and think that we should demand permanent residency for them, rather than back campaigns that suggest they are not welcome here.

    Chris Breen

    motion from the Philipines:

    We, of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) express our solidarity to the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and to all call center workers whose right to jobs are being attacked. We join you in condemning the management of Sensis for its unilateral decision to eliminate 391 jobs.

    We have heard that Sensis will try to outsource call center and digital work to the Philippines. We condemn this attempt to divide workers. We see this as a blatant union-busting attack on you, motivated by the crude profit motive.

    The minimum wage here in Manila is just $10 per day for an 8-hour day, and most call center workers are paid near this poverty-level rate. The companies are taking advantage of the Cheap Labor Policy implemented by the current government of President Aquino.

    In the Philippines, the workload and standards set by most call center companies are inhumane. Many call center workers are forced to endure long working hours. Many are deprived of even the basic right to take biobreaks.

    Worst of all, workers are deprived of the right to form unions.

    This is the reason why Sensis would come to the Philippines – cheap labor, with a government guaranteeing giant companies that it will prevent and crush union organising.

    We want good, secure well-paid jobs here in the Philippines, but they won’t come from companies like Sensis.

    We hope you can succeed in your fight with Sensis, we hope that your union grows stronger, and will build the longstanding solidarity between our unions, and that together we can make a much better future for workers in both our countries.

    Please keep us informed of your campaign.

    Workers of the World – Unite!

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