Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Yes to Chinese workers; no to ‘Aussie’ nationalism | Via: En Passant » @johnpassant

It looks like the Cronulla riots gang might have found new heroes – some of the leadership of the Australian trade union movement.

Last week Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced an enterprise migration agreement (EMA) to bring in 1700 workers from China, the Philippines and Indonesia to work on Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill project.

Australian capitalism has for decades underfunded training and education and one way around this for Labor and Liberal governments and the bosses has been to bring in skilled migrants.

Our immigration program typically runs to hundreds of thousands a year, of which over 100,000 have been classified as skilled. For example the Government previously announced a planning level for 2011/12 of just a touch under 200,000 permanent residents, of whom over 125,000 will be skilled workers.

Official unemployment figures in Australia are low – currently just under 5%. However the criteria for being unemployed are fairly strict and Roy Morgan estimates the real figure at more than 9%. There are also a large number of people who want to work more hours but can’t. Roy Morgan says that for the month of March this year:

Unemployment was 9.3% (down 0.4% since February 2012) — an estimated 1,120,000 Australians were unemployed and looking for work.

A further 7.9% (unchanged) of the workforce* were working part-time looking for more work (underemployed) — 959,000 Australians.

In total 17.2% (down 0.3%) of the workforce, or 2.08 million Australians, were unemployed or underemployed.

The mining boom continues to demand workers. However despite the fact there can be high levels of unemployment and underemployment in the cities, not that many people want to up bags and hammocks and live in the remote areas of Australia or even work on the fly in fly out arrangements.

Typically these arrangements involve workers flying in to the mine and working 12 hour shifts for ten to 14 days straight and then flying home for a week or 2 weeks off. A Rio Tinto’s Pilbara mines for example:

A typical roster is ‘two weeks at work and one week off’, or 14 days on shift [12 hours per day - JP] followed by seven days on leave. Some roles follow a ‘nine and five’ roster, working nine days on shift followed by five days on leave.

The workers live in villages while there, with their families in the capital cities or regional centres enjoying a more hospitable existence.

Mine workers are well paid. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics they are on average the highest paid group in Australia averaging $117,500 per employee. That figure includes managers and administrators but it nevertheless gives an idea of the pay mining workers are getting. On the other hand they work long hours and suffer real privations for it.

But we need to be clear here. They might be well paid but they are the most exploited group of workers in Australia. The amount of profit they create at over $608,000 per employee is more than double the next industry value per employee created and goes not to them but to the Gina Rineharts, Clive Palmer’s and Twiggy Forrest’s of the world.

These bludgers get the benefits of the hard work the mining workers do.

It is not as if mining companies are large employers of workers. This is a capital intensive industry and employs less than 2% of all workers in Australia.

Such is the mining bosses’ commitment to workers that during the global financial crisis they sacked 15% of their workforce. As Ken Henry, the then head of Treasury pointed out, if other Australian businesses had followed the mining companies’ lead, unemployment in Australia during the GFC would have been close to 20%, not 5 or 6%.

When Chris Bowen announced the EMA with Rinehart, the world’s richest woman, the unions condemned it furiously. Paul Howes, the right wing leader of the Australian Workers Union was moved to ask:

Whose side are we on? This is a big win for Gina Rinehart, it’s a big win for Clive Palmer, it’s a big win for (Andrew) Twiggy Forrest, and it’s a massive kick in the guts to those 130,000 workers in the manufacturing industry who have lost their jobs since 2008.

This from the man who engineered the overthrow of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister because the mining industry, including Rinehart, Palmer and Forrest, we kicking up a stink about the Resource Super Profits Tax. Maybe we should ask whose side are you on Paul, given you did the bidding of mining capital back then and elevated Gillard to leadership of the Labor Party to negotiate a pathetic watered down version of the RSPT?

It also turns out Howes was a member, along with Jeff Lawrence, the Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and his successor, Dave Oliver from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, of an Industry Reference Group to the National Resources Sector Employment Taskforce. The task force recommended EMAs which are basically 457 (temporary foreign worker) visas for specified periods on specific projects involving more than 1500 workers and worth more than $2 billion.

Wayne Swan announced the EMA program in last year’s Budget. So it may be that the union movement doth protest too much. Why?

Workers are being laid off in some manufacturing and building jobs across the country. The unions have done nothing to defend these jobs. They accept the dominant role of the unelected owners of capital, the one percent, in deciding what is produced and how many are employed.

Complaining about ‘foreign workers’ hides that lack of fight. It also appeals to backward sectiosn of Australian society from the racists to the nationalists who want ‘Aussie’ jobs protected. Doug Cameron, former union official and now left wing Senator, didn’t bother with the niceties of a dog whistle when he criticised the EMA decision. He told Sabra Lane on ABC’s AM program:

I’m gobsmacked. I just think that in the week where Australian workers are being marched off the job in Kurri Kurri and Tullamarine, that we’re marching Chinese workers on to Roy Hill; it just defies logic to me.

That looks to me like an appeal to racist sentiment. Racism has a long tradition in some sections of the Australian union movement.

It is also a reflection fo the failure of the class collaborationist politics of Cameron and the rest of the nationalist left over the last decades. They can’t and won’t fight to defend jobs in manufacturing (]other than through protectionist, essentially anti-foreign worker policies. They believe in and practice class collaboration, the idea that jobs will ‘trickle down’ if we are nice to bosses and basically give them what they want (but keeping the dominant role of the trade union bureaucracy as the retailers of the price of labour power to the bosses.

The other thing is it is madness to imagine workers in Sydney or Melbourne sacked from their jobs are all just dying to work in the back of woop woop away from their families.

The point is to create jobs in the places where workers are, and a strong militant union movement could fight for that and win it. We haven’t ahd that in Australia since the 70s.

One way to do create jobs in the community would be o campaign for a 30 hour week on current pay to share the benefits of the boom to all working Australians. That would also redress the shift to wealth to labour from capital. The share of national income going to capital is now at its highest since records began to be kept in 1964.

Ian McAuley has a graphic representation of this in his article Abbott’s phony class war in New Matilda and I strongly recommend readers have a look at the graph and the article.

The task force I mentioned above reported that ‘…the resources sector could be 36,000 tradespeople short by 2015. If these workers are recruited from other sectors there will be skills shortages in those industries.’

So the Howes,Cameron, Oliver opposition looks very much like crocodile tears born of the fact they haven’t really fought against capital for jobs.

None of this is to side with Gina Rinehart. In fact despite their protestations to the contrary Labor and union figures kowtow to her and the power her $29 billion in wealth brings.

The unions and the left must side with the workers to be bought in and not adopt the fake flag of nationalism. If ‘Aussie’ workers are superior to foreign workers, how long before Australian bosses are better than foreign bosses. Oh hang on, that is the whole political point of the nationalist left.

Some time ago Karl Marx and Frederick Engels finished the Communist manifesto with a call to arms for the working class movement.

Workers of the world, Unite!

What would that internationalist working class unity look like in relation to the EMAs? Well, if capital is so keen to undertake its projects and needs these workers, as it does, the demands must be around defence of current conditions – full pay, proper safety. adequate living conditions for all workers on site. Only the union can enforce that so it would mean a permanent presence on site, paid for by the Rineharts of the world.

It would also mean of course the union being able to recruit the workers and they would need translators, paid for by the companies, to help them do that.

It should also involve the demand that all anti-union laws and practices in the construction and mining industries – for example the Australian Building and Construction Commission or its new incarnation, the Fair Work Australia branch that does the same thing, be abolished and all restrictions on strikes over anything, including safety, wages, jobs and conditions, be repealed.

For the overseas workers it also means regular union inspections of their conditions on and off the job, checking their well being and fighting for their right to get permanent residency if they want. Full and immediate access to Medicare and other social entitlements must be part of any internationalist response.

Playing with nationalism never saved a single job. It gives respectability to the John Howard’s of the world and those like the Cronulla rioters who wrap themselves in the Australian flags or those who vilify refugees seeking asylum in Australia. Painting Chinese workers as the enemy of Australian workers give comfort to the racists who see in every dark skinned person an enemy.

It plays into the hands of the real enemy – the bosses from whatever country who cheer every time there are divisions in the Australian working class along the lines of race, nationality, gender or sexual orientation.

As to addressing unemployment, putting under workers control (i.e. nationalising) companies which sack workers is one demand. A 30 hour week on full current pay is another.

The chronic government underfunding of training and education both both Liberal and Labor governments must end. The union movement could lead that fight. At a time when Ted Baillieu is cutting TAFE funding in Victoria and Vice-Chancellors in Canberra and Sydney are trying to sack hundreds of staff a fighting response by workers walking off the job indefinitely has the best chance of driving back the educational barbarians.

The climate of capitulation cannot go on forever. Strike time lost is now just five days per thousand employees compared to over a thousand in the early 70s.

The ramifications of this collapse in class struggle are clear for all to see – growing inequality, more wealth being shovelled to the wealthy, long working hours, high levels of disguised unemployment and politically a cowered trade union movement meek in its mildness and terrifying in its timidity, with a Labor Party whose raison d’etre appears almost indistinguishable from the Tories.

Instead of attacking Chinese and other ‘foreign’ workers we should welcome them and fight for them. In doing that can we begin rebuilding our capacity as a movement to defend all jobs and help keep at bay the nationalist flag of racism.

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