Cross-posted from Larvatus Prodeo. Thanks to Mark Bahnisch for convincing me to return to this subject.
I have to confess that I couldn’t bring myself to watch Monday’s Four Corners on the scandal of Australia’s “offshore” asylum seeker processing regime. I’m on the Sydney Refugee Action Coalition email list and read horrifying stories from Manus Island on an almost daily basis. Rather than being numbed by this atrocity exhibition I am scared I will simply lose control of my rage and frustration if I have to actually see the human cost on TV.
What makes me doubly angry is that it is a Labor government doing this. Now, I’m one of those hardened Marxist types who expects the reformists to do bad stuff, but there is something debased in this government’s attempts to surpass Howard’s record in “toughness” on refugees. To hear that Labor is now back-flipping on its policy of keeping children out of mainland detention centres just days after the Four Corners special suggests that their strategy is to plough ahead undeterred by basic questions of human decency. Clearly this government is not for turning; at least not in this race to the bottom.
But there is something even more troubling going on: Currently we have the bizarre spectacle of the ALP pursuing not one but two anti-immigration strategies, whereas Abbott and Morrison can only manage one. I refer, of course, to the government’s decision to also “campaign” against the alleged failure of its own skilled migration program to prevent purportedly massive levels of “rorts” involving “illegitimate” deployment of 457 visas. I’m not sure I recall the last time a government tried to whip up support for a campaign against its own policies, but right now we seem to have the ALP shouting, “We demand we do something about this!”
Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor claimed on the weekend that over 10,000 of the 105,000-or-so current 457 visa holders are on visas that have in some way broken the eligibility rules regarding local skill shortages. He even went so far as to suggest that the system was spinning out of control: “If demand for these visas continues at the current growth rate, there would be 350,000 temporary workers from overseas on 457 visas in Australia in three years’ time.” And, just so people got a sense of the scale and urgency of the problem, he added, “That’s more than the population of Wollongong and at a time when locals are looking for training and promotion opportunities, this growth is unsustainable.”
O’Connor says he plans to introduce legislation to change the system before the election, although what this will mean is hard to tell. While he claims that this is action taken against bad bosses who are denying local workers jobs, in fact any crackdown is only likely to lead to foreign workers being punished for these infractions by being expelled from Australia when they cannot find a new employer in the short timeframe they are given. Given that the crackdown is predicated on a current downturn in job prospects, O’Connor is effectively suggesting that thousands of workers will be forced out.
If this wasn’t bad enough, there is no publicly available evidence that this mass rorting is actually happening. O’Connor points to a 19.2 percent increase in 457s since March 2012, but this figure hides a downward trend in approvals for the temporary visas since the peak in August, a trend that continued in the latest statistics released. Indeed, the AFR reported a spokesperson for the minister admitted that there are no statistics to back his claims, and that the evidence is “anecdotal”. The report also noted that, “Department of Immigration statistics show just 125 sponsors of 457 visa holders were formally sanctioned in 2011-12; another 449 sponsors were warned and 49 were issued with an infringement notice.” Simply put, there is no way that O’Connor’s numbers add up. Meanwhile, Fairfax journalists were told by the Department that some 457s were being used “in ways which may be legal but which are clearly against the intent and spirit of the program” — an exciting new definition of “rorting”.
When comparing Labor with the Coalition, then, perhaps the kindest thing one can say is that at least Labor is more consistent in exploiting nationalism with half-truths, insinuations and unsubstantiated anecdotes than its opponents. Few immigrants of any kind seem safe from their politicking.
Yet there is also cognitive dissonance here that is not recognised by some Labor supporters and trade unionists, activists who identify on the Left of politics yet support the 457 “crackdown”. And I’ve also had the uncomfortable experience of sharp debates with committed supporters of refugee rights who simultaneously want to defend the concept of “local jobs for local workers”.
Now, unlike the cynical operators leading the ALP towards a historic rout on 14 September, most people who take this position start from the perfectly reasonable worry that alongside “skills shortages” that 457 Visa holders fill, there are many thousands of unemployed or underemployed Australian resident workers, and that economic conditions are starting to turn down with portents of worse to come.
They can also rightly point to the problems with the rise of 457 Visas as the main immigration gateway into Australia. The shift from immigration based mainly on entry for permanent residency to one where temporary visas are a stepping-stone to but not a guarantee of permanency mainly occurred in the Howard years. The 457 Visa is a profoundly capital-friendly migration instrument because it allows employers to import already-trained workers for specific productive needs yet can have them quickly expelled from the country when they are no longer needed. In economic good times this is not such an issue, especially as there are provisions to apply for permanency, and indeed the main route to permanent residency these days is via a period on a temporary visa. But the uncertainty of having their stay in Australia depend on your employer’s benevolence means that many foreign workers feel too scared to rock the boat when bosses impose wages and conditions different to what a locally resident worker might get.
Sections of the union movement have fought excellent campaigns against such practices, organising the kind of internationalist solidarity that has too often been missing in this era of neoliberal globalisation. But increasingly we have seen highly visible union campaigns around slogans like “local jobs for local workers” and effectively demanding the sacking of workers employed in relation to 457 Visas. When the AWU’s Paul Howes polemicized against a government plan to allow Gina Rinehart a large number of 457 places for a new project, I argued that the workers’ movement needed to focus on solidarity and demands for job creation rather than calling on the state to move against guest workers. The AWU subsequently softened its line in public — perhaps because of Howes’ known pro-migration views, perhaps because it was causing too much heat from employers — but soon left-wing unions like the CFMEU and MUA were campaigning on “local jobs for local workers” and a picket by unemployed workers at a Werribee water treatment project hit headlines nationally with its banner reading, “Local unemployed tradespeople before visa (457) workers”.
These union campaigns had two tangible effects. Firstly, they provoked claims of racism from employers and the Coalition, leading some unions (like the CFMEU) to mount a defence by pointing to the naked self-interest behind such claims. While there can be no doubt about that self-interest, it doesn’t settle the question of the political consequences of the union strategy. Secondly, these campaigns led to a response by the Left of the political class — from Gillard infamously promising “to stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back” to the Greens’ Adam Bandt calling for a tougher 457 crackdown while simultaneously accusing Gillard of dog-whistling. In both cases there is an explicit appeal to the union bureaucracy and in the ALP’s case a further desperate slide into the dog-whistling dictated by the “Lindsay Test”. That slide, of course, is intimately connected with the ALP’s profound structural crisis, so that we get the weirdness of Abbott appearing to be on the Left of Labor on some issues.
I don’t intend to make a detailed case for opposing the “crackdown” on 457s here. Nor do I intend to debunk the economic nationalist argument (including its Left variant) that sees migrant workers as a threat to the livelihoods of local workers. Suffice to say, the problem with these approaches is that they do not go beyond the limits created by the interests of capital and enacted (often very coercively) by the state — a zero-sum competition between workers on the basis of nationality.
In my view immigration policy has always been shaped by the politics of nationalism and scapegoating (and very often racism also), and has pretty much nothing to do with apparently technical arguments about jobs, welfare bills, population, security risks or anything else the politicians dream up to justify their actions. The stark contrast in Australia between bipartisan support for mistreatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat and (until recently) bipartisan support for mass skilled migration to feed a capitalist boom should give some sense of the hypocrisies that infect migration politics. It is for this reason that I think the Left needs to argue for (real) open borders as the only realistic response to the shameful politics being played at the top of society.
But I will say one last thing to the Left defenders of Gillard and O’Connor’s antics. Many have raised how carefully the government has avoided using blunt racial language as proof that this is just about hitting nasty employers; i.e. a class policy. However, just as in the asylum debate, the actions of the state in removing people from their jobs (and the country) will cement the idea that yet another group of foreigners is guilty of something bad or illegal — or else why would the state be doing this? And when more sinister forces on the far Right gain confidence from this and simultaneously claim it is not going far enough, we have to recall it is the state’s practice that will have spoken this poisonous message more clearly than any number of words from a minister’s mouth.