Foreign workers

  Humphrey McQueen (2012)

Media coverage of the ALP’s deal with Rinehart to import 1,715 skilled and semi-skilled construction workers for Roy Hill has been as intense as it has been shallow. These notes place the 457 visas and Enterprise Migration Agreements (EMAs) in larger contexts – industrial, economic, political and social-cultural.

Labour as variable capital
Our analysis starts from an apparent paradox: the import of labour is the import of capital. Indeed, labour  power is capital’s protean form. Marx identified the human capacity to labour as ‘variable capital’ because that is the only form that can add more value (i.e. vary) than goes into its production. Marx calls that extra ‘surplus value’. Profit comes through selling the commodities in which that surplus value is embedded. In turn, profit provides the means to accumulate more capital.

None of that activity would be possible without variable capital. Deprived of wage-slaves, Rinehart and her ilk would be in the same position as Thomas Peel when he landed with the first permanent invaders at the Swan River in 1827:

“Mr Peel …. took with him from England to … West Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. Mr Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 3,000 persons of the working-class …. Once arrived at this destination, ‘Mr Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.’ Unhappy Mr Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River.” (Marx, Capital, volume one, chapter 33)

Rinehart does not have to import capitalist power relationships since all workers now face the necessity of selling their labour power in order to live. Moreover, the state machinery is in place to organise capital and disorganise labour, with 457s and EMAs as twin expressions of what a ruling class does when it rules.

The willingness of corporations to enter into EMAs seems to be at odds with their opposition to pattern bargaining. After all, mining corporations and the Business Council have been driving individual workplace agreements. Those employment deals are built on the lie that equality can exist between a corporation and an individual. In pursuing EMAs, the BCA and Mining Council have not abandoned individual contracts. Rather, they intend to impose them on each immigrant, just as they force other wage-slaves to register as independent contractors so they can underpay them. Therefore, it is vital for the Chinese that their contracts not be ‘commercial in confidence’?

What shortage?
Three question marks hang over talk about labour shortages: which kinds of labour are in short supply?; where are the shortages?; can the demands be met without importing labour? The bosses spin their case for EMAs by blurring these issues.

An employment agent pointed out that the problem arose when corporations waited till the last minute to start recruiting. He had never had any difficulty in filling applications to his labour-hire firm – if they came soon enough.

Whether or not there is a chronic or systemic shortage of skilled workers, there certainly is a shortage of local tradespeople who will work on the cheap and without protections. For fly-in/fly-out workers, the costs from maintaining two tables mean that a wage of $100,000 or more in the North-West becomes closer to the national average of $70,000 back in Perth.

Shortages on mine sites are not the same as shortages within the Australian labour force. Skill shortages are in the pipeline because the sell-off of government instrumentalities has slashed the number of apprentices. BHP’s abandonment of iron-and-steel production has done the same.

No less significant is the shortage of public servants and service sector workers in the mining zones. Their absence is one more reason why workers are reluctant to move there, or even to fly in and out. This is the old story of no support services from State governments that do not exact royalties heavy enough to match these needs. In the 1960s, Queensland workers across the Bowen Basin coal-fields struck to get schools and hospitals. Rather than provide those amenities, their absence has been marginalised as fly-in/fly-out.

(For a first-hand account of how hard life is see

Take the case of the workers who returned to a site to find that the bosses had upended their living arrangements. They stopped work. Their unions tried to sort things out only to be clobbered with million-dollar penalties. The workers were cornered into agreeing not to take industrial action for seven years to avoid thousands of dollars in fines for each one of them. The company not only got off scot free but benefitted from the no-strike clause. The bias is possible because WorkChoices Lite (that is, Killard’s un-Fair Work Australia regime) denies Australians the right to strike, a ban which contravenes International Labour Organisation conventions.

As if these state-enforced shackles were not bad enough, the bosses have allies in the AWU – Australia’s Weakest Union. For 100 years, its right-wing leaders have cut sweet-heart deals with employers. The AWU offers lower wages and poorer conditions in return for ‘union’ coverage where the boss deducts the dues. This happened three years back at the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne. Similar sell-outs are rife throughout the resources sector.

For example, a few years back, militant unions set about rebuilding membership in the north-west to regain collective agreements. No sooner had they succeeded in getting their numbers up again than the AWU butted in with one of its sweetheart deals. With ex-AWU heavy Shorten in charge of industrial relations, what chance is there that any of the Chinese construction workers will get access to officials from the CFMEU, AMWU and MUA?

Those unions must see whether the law against ‘slavery’, which is finally being used to protect sex workers, can protect the EMA workforce. The departments of Industrial Relations and of Immigration need to track the entrants back to their points of recruitment. Only then can we be certain that they have not entered into debt arrangements (peonage) with ‘labour-hire’ firms in China. Queensland unions recently exposed one variant of that arrangement, putting those 457-workers in an even worse position than other wage-slaves. [Most of the Chinese who came to the gold-fields in the second half of the nineteenth century were under contract.]

The lower the level of competency in English required under EMAs will increase the risks of injury. The government agencies responsible for OH&S never come within coo-ee of catching one violation in a hundred. (This deliberate failure  is documented throughout my Framework of Flesh.) The only security is an active union with strong job delegates and site committees. But un-FairWork Australia outlaws those essentials. In addition, countless examples of underpayment exist along with cash-in-hand scams. When that dodge does not work, construction contractors arrange to go broke to escape paying entitlements – only to pop up the next day under a new company name. Given all these constraints, what chance will an individual foreign worker have of making sure that his wages and conditions are even up to the FairWork standards?

Alongside the economic and industrial aspects of 457s and EMAs is the linking of one’s rights at work with one’s status in society. All immigrant wage-slaves should be able to become citizens.

Between 1788 and 1996, the only large-scale official importation of contract labourers were the Pacific Islanders, mostly for the sugar industry. Their arrival was part of Empire-wide transfers of labour under what scholars call ‘a new system of slavery’ following the 1833 abolition of chattel slavery across the British Empire. From 1863, some 62,000 workers were brought here, indentured on two-year contracts, after which they were supposed to return home. Perhaps a quarter signed up for further contracts, or for pastoral work. When the new Commonwealth enforced its Immigration Restriction Act (White Australia) after 1906, more than 7,000 were sent back. Some 1,700 were allowed to stay. (For one of their stories see Faith Bandler’s 1977 novel about her father, Wacvie.)

After 1945, the post-war immigration scheme aimed to build the population as well as a labour force. To spur the assimilation of non-Britishers, they were called ‘New Australians’. Whatever the failings in this approach, it had the virtue of linking a job with citizenship. The opposite was happening in Europe where Germany had Turkish ‘guest workers’ while France drew on its North African colonies.

Introducing 457 Visas ruptured the assumption that coming to work here opens the path to citizenship. This disconnect compounds the rupture that fly-in/fly-out inflicts on local communities and on unionism. From Collinsville in Queensland to Wonthaggi in Victoria, coal miners had learnt that class consciousness flourishes from living together as well as working side by side. Bosses are well aware of the ties between workplace solidarity and community. From the early 1950s, coal-mine owners saw in mechanisation a way to break the militant Miners’ Federation through depopulating towns in the Hunter Valley.

The current break between labour and community could prove as profound a change as was the installation of non-discriminatory immigration from the early 1970s. Persistent concentrations of non-citizen labour-forces could erupt into conflict if their emergence is not blocked. The interlock of citizenship and unionism therefore needs to be brought forward in the debate about EMAs and 457s.

Around the world, some seventeen million people are in refugee camps. The proposed 1,715 imports are one in ten thousand of those. If there does prove to be a shortage of workers inside Australia, why not ask the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to sort through the computer lists for suitable applicants? They could all be recruited from the Palestinian camps. That solution is in keeping with what Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell did in the late 1940s by taking displaced persons.

A few days before the news splash about the 1,715 imports for Rinehart came word of another policy, one which has been lost from sight. The minister announced that a Chinese could buy permanent residency for an investment of $5m. Will ASIO interrogate these queue-jumpers? It is unlikely that anyone on the mainland could have accumulated a spare $5m. without being corrupt. The entry fee is a reversion to the property qualifications once needed to stand as a candidate or to vote. This $5m. scheme is thus un-Australian in the sense that social democrats fought for over 100 years to remove such expressions of class power.

These three policies – 457s, EMAs and the $5m. –  tell us how filthy lucre has conquered commitment to building an Australia in which union activism is an element in citizenship.