About 100 people attended a forum on April 23 with the theme: "Change the rules for refugees".
The forum, organised by the Refugee Action Collective (RAC), aimed to show the links between the struggles for union rights and refugee rights.
Chairperson Lucy Honan, a member of RAC and the Australian Education Union, said that unionists and refugees are under attack by the same Coalition government. She noted that many refugees are themselves workers.
Honan highlighted examples of groups of workers who have fought for refugee rights, including doctors supporting refugee patients and teachers supporting refugee students.
Rosemary Herrera-Brennan, who worked on Manus Island as a teacher for three years, described the appalling working conditions there, including lack of resources and a "bullying, menacing culture".
She said that teachers were told not to make friends with their refugee students, but still became close to them. They saw healthy young refugees lose hope, become sick and in many cases become mentally ill.
Taqi Azra, a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan who is now an organiser with the National Union of Workers (NUW), spoke of the persecution that has driven many Hazaras, including his family, to flee the country. His parents took him to Pakistan, but Hazaras are not safe there either, being subject to bomb attacks.
Azra reported that hundreds of Hazaras are living in Australian-run detention centres, while hundreds of others are on bridging visas without the right to work. This leaves them "in limbo", and results in mental anguish. There are also 5000 Hazaras in Indonesia, where the United Nations High Commission for Refugees is not processing their cases.
Azra also spoke about the work of the NUW in organising farm workers, many of whom are refugees. He said the NUW had been able to organise workers from many different backgrounds.
Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) project organiser Matt Kunkel said that refugee supporters need to talk to their workmates about refugee issues. They need to join their union (if not already a member) and build rank-and-file support which can put pressure on union structures to take a stronger position.
Kunkel said that because of the severe penalties for illegal industrial action, most workers are unlikely to take such action for refugee rights at this time. This will only change when the laws change.
However he said unions can play a role in educating their members on refugee rights. The VTHC has a policy calling for closing the camps and bringing the refugees to Australia, which should be widely publicised amongst union members.
Kunkel spoke of the need to work within the Labor Party to change its policy on refugees. Several audience members emphasised the need to keep building the movement in the workplaces and on the streets even if Labor is elected to government.