An open letter to Paul Howes on ‘guest’ workers

Dear Paul

I read with interest your column in the weekend’s Sunday Telegraph, in response to criticisms of trade union views on the importation of temporary foreign workers through Enterprise Migration Agreements (EMAs).

Your concern for the rights of foreign-national workers suffering illegal super-exploitation by local and multinational companies is to be commended. The story you tell of oil and gas workers from the Philippines being paid just $3 an hour is, as you say, not a rare exception these days. It also fits with the long, shameful history of locally based employers using migrant labour to undercut wages and conditions.

Most mainstream supporters of the EMA deal between the government and Gina Rinehart have little concern for the rights of any workers, permanent resident or otherwise, and are really defending the interests of the giant corporations involved. We should have no truck with their hypocritical arguments.

However, despite this, I fear your overall argument sends a mixed message, and one that could prove very dangerous to the workers’ movement in increasingly tough economic times.

You write of the great work done by your members in defending the rights of the workers you mention. But, rather than use this as an argument for the strengthening of union organisation and cultures of solidarity against rapacious bosses, you focus much more on the hope that government action will deliver them better rights. Yet the very case you describe shows how weak legal rights are by themselves, without strong and active workers’ organisations to defend them.

Even with a Labor government in power, we have seen in recent years how little protection workers and unions can rely on from the state. While the Fair Work Act is an improvement over WorkChoices, it hasn’t tipped the balance back to the greater rights enjoyed before the Howard era. Last year’s Qantas dispute was a case in point, where relatively limited industrial action by unions was trumped by bosses’ greater ability to use the law to bring disputes to an end. More worryingly, Julia Gillard backed exactly the outcome that Alan Joyce was seeking: Forced arbitration that greatly advantaged the employer.

It is your second argument — of ‘defending Australian jobs’ — that worries me even more. You seek greater government monitoring of local labour market conditions in making decisions about work visas and that unions should be politically active to make sure this happens.

The problem with this approach is that it accepts employment as a zero-sum game. Despite what many economists and pundits claim, there is nothing natural about rates of employment and unemployment. They are always a function of how much the state and business are willing to invest to create jobs, which in turn depends on corporate demands for maximal profitability. By tying the entry of foreign workers to the number of local unemployed (even accounting for particular skill shortages, etc.) you accept that the priorities of the corporate sector should be the ultimate determinant of employment. In this scenario, unions’ role is effectively reduced to demanding a ‘better’ balance in how jobs are divided between local and foreign workers.

This approach is not far from the nationalist ideas peddled in the ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ union campaign of several years ago, which (although claiming to be against employers) was soon directed against overseas workers who had sought a better life by working in Britain. It was not long before unionised UK-resident workers were involved in ugly incidents of intimidation against foreign workers.

It would be very troubling if the union movement went back to accepting the same kind of nationalist myth that sat at the heart of White Australia policy – that Australian workers had to stick together with their bosses against foreign workers. Shouldn’t trade unions instead see their primary role as organising and building solidarity among all workers, regardless of where employers and governments hire workers from? And shouldn’t they be demanding government policies of full employment so that this kind of ‘fighting over the crumbs’ becomes irrelevant?

I fear that the economic ‘realism’ accepted by most of the Labor movement leadership means that such ideas are seen as passé even though they are more needed than ever. And if the economy sours further, this kind of nationalist argument can feed an escalation in anger at skilled migrant workers rather than at an employer class that has overwhelmingly benefited from the boom. Those same employers will be happy to see workers divided against each other in a downturn. Lest we think this is unlikely, the rise of far right nationalist parties in a Europe wracked by crisis and austerity should serve as a salient warning.

Your article is especially concerning to me because your past record has been to stand against the xenophobia that has all too often infected the political debate in this country. Not only (as you mention in the article) have you changed AWU policy on foreign workers, you were an important figure in Labor for Refugees and took an admirable public stand against the renewed scapegoating of asylum seekers in late 2009.

I ask, therefore, that you revisit your position on these issues. I would ask you to think about the deleterious effect that nationalist arguments about jobs can have in giving legitimacy to frank anti-immigrant and racist arguments. I would ask you to highlight the good things unionised Australian workers have done through their own actions in promoting internationalism and defence of migrant workers – refugees and otherwise – as against the parlous track record of employers and governments in exploiting divisions.

While I am not a member of your union and we approach this issue from very different political traditions, I’m writing to you because these are important and very difficult questions confronting those of us who are both trade unionists and opponents of racism. I’m also writing because I believe that for progressives this is a debate that is now more pressing than it has been for many years.


Tad Tietze
Left Flank blogger & union member

Tad Tietze

Tad Tietze is a Sydney psychiatrist who co-runs the blog Left Flank. He’s written for Overland, Crikey and The Drum Opinion, as well as music reviews for Resident Advisor. He was co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys & Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, right terror, racism and Europe. He tweets as @Dr_Tad.

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