Paul Howes, foreign workers & the dead-end of union nationalism
I’m reposting a recent piece I wrote for Overland Journal’s blog, in response to the debate over the contentious Enterprise Migration Agreement negotiated between the Gillard government and Gina Rinehart to allow the mining billionaire to import up to 1700 skilled workers from overseas. It was written as an open letter to Paul Howes after an op-ed he wrote. He has indicated he’s interested in responding formally at some point.
For some background on the question of migrant workers in the context of the notorious “British Jobs for British Workers” campaign a few years ago, this excellent essay by UK-based political economist Jane Hardy is highly recommended.
And here is an excerpt from a speech by AMWU Western Australian State Secretary Steve McCartney at a fringe event at the recent ACTU conference.
AN OPEN LETTER TO PAUL HOWES ON ‘GUEST’ WORKERS
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.
Left Flank blogger & union member
Regarding Howe’s second argument (defending Australian jobs: testing of labour market and equal pay), you say:
“The problem with this approach is that it accepts employment as a zero-sum game. (…) They [i.e. employment and unemployment] 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.”
I am not sure I follow the previous paragraph.
I would appreciate it if you could elaborate on it: what’s the economic argument behind it?
Equally important: what is it, precisely, that you propose unions to do?
Hi Magpie, happy to oblige.
The level of employment is driven by a variety of factors, the chief one being the decision of employers (private and state) to invest in activities that employ workers and then actually employ them! These are conscious choices made by those making the investments. So, for example, today in the US there are masses of profits that are not being deployed because capitalists don’t see sufficient opportunity (sufficient potential return on investment) in doing so. There is nothing natural or unavoidable about such a situation.
Once workers or unions accept that the basis of such decisions by capitalists are not only rational in capitalists’ interests but are a rationality that workers must submit to, then the number of employed or unemployed gets treated a fact of life that workers’ demands for jobs must fit within. Thus you get the idea that the choice is who fills the jobs the capitalists are willing to create, not an argument that more jobs must be created in the interests of the working class, whatever impact this has on profitability. That’s what I mean by “zero-sum”.
I would argue that in the case of 457s and EMAs that unions should fight for equal wages and full unionisation of the guest workers, as well as their automatic right to full permanent residency and employment rights; that is, to remove the inequality in the treatment of these workers with local-resident workers. The AMWU, for example, only a few years ago had a position much closer to this than their current slide into nationalism (see: http://www.amwu.org.au/content/upload/files/leaflets/457-visa-sign-on_1008.pdf)
On the wider question of jobs, that requires making much broader political demands for the right to work, for the creation of socially-useful jobs, whether or not the profitability of Australian business in jeopardised. The workers’ movement needs to stop treating employment levels as facts of nature. Of course such an approach implicitly challenges the basis of untrammelled capital accumulation, and opens debates about what kind of society we want. It is my belief that accepting the zero-sum approach undermines attempts to win that better society.
Regarding the answer to my first question.
Let’s see if I understood the core of your reasoning: a variety of factors (among them, profit expectations) drive employers to invest in activities that employ workers.
So, to put things schematically, this is the argument:
Various factors (incl. profit expect.) -> Investment -> Employment level
You also say that “there is nothing natural or unavoidable about such situation”, by which I suppose you mean that having profit expectations driving employment levels (and unemployment levels) makes sense under capitalism, from the capitalists’ point of view.
But neither capitalism is eternal, nor the capitalists’ point of view is the only point of view: there is also that of the workers themselves.
Am I understanding your argument correctly?
Regarding the answer to my second question.
What you propose unions to do is: “unions should fight for equal wages and full unionisation of the guest workers, as well as their automatic right to full permanent residency and employment rights; that is, to remove the inequality in the treatment of these workers with local-resident workers”.
I very much agree with this, although, I’d like to highlight two things: unions cannot force unionisation upon workers, if the workers themselves don’t want it; and unions have no power to decide about permanent residency rules.
On (1) what I am saying is that decisions to create jobs are decisions, not the result of something akin to a law of nature. Once workers accept the capitalists’ absolute right to make these decisions they are not actually fighting for jobs but reduced to fighting over what jobs the bosses and state deign to create.
On (2) I said “fight for full unionisation” not “force guest workers to join a union”. But I would maintain that recruiting guest workers to unions is made harder by immigration restrictions (e.g. 457s) that apply differential rights and conditions on guest and permanent resident workers, and by any sense that unions’ role is to treat guest workers as competitors, which is where I think the current “local jobs” campaign takes us.
I disagree that “unions have no power to decide about permanent residency rules”. Shouldn’t the point of collective workers’ organisation be to fight for political demands from the state as well as narrowly economic demands from employers? In the sense I criticise above they are already doing this.