Twenty-first century capitalism has sentenced millions of workers to near slavery in the form of various migrant labour schemes that underpin the mega profits of many giant corporations. From Singapore to Dubai to the US, such schemes spell super-exploitation. So would a "guest
worker" scheme in Australia be much less exploitative?
The Rudd Labor government has announced a review of the Howard government's 457 temporary working visa regime to be headed by Australian Industrial Relations Commissioner Barbara Deegan. There is a new push from Australian capitalists — backed by Rudd's 2020 thinkfest — for a new scheme to bring in unskilled labour temporary from the Pacific islands to make up for seasonal labour shortages in
jobs such as fruit picking. This imitates a scheme already in operation in New Zealand.
The right-wing national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Paul Howes, has declared his union's support for such a scheme as long as "Australian workers" are given the first go at any job before it is filled by a "guest worker" and that the guest workers be given the same pay and work conditions. There's irony in this position because
in the early 20th century the AWU ran a disgusting racist campaign to deport Pacific island workers brought (sometimes kidnapped) to work as indentured labourers in sugar cane plantations in Queensland.
The former Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) national secretary and now Senator elect, Doug Cameron, opposed the scheme by raising fears of a racist backlash. However, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) has done the most to break from Australian trade unionism's shamefully racist traditions on this issue by actively campaigning for the rights of the workers exploited
under the Howard government's 457 visa regime.
In defending these workers the union discovered that the root of their super-exploitation was their bosses' power to dictate whether or not they were allowed to remain in Australia.
In 2007, the CFMEU collaborated with Sydney Morning Herald journalists in investigating the stories of three "guest workers" killed at work. The details had to be pried out because the Howard government wouldn't release any information.
As John Sutton, the national secretary of the
CFMEU, explained in a May 6 speech to a Catalyst Seminar, "Asia/Pacific Labour Mobility and the Two Track Labour Market": "One of the men, Guo Jian Dong worked mostly alone in the Cyprus pine forests of central Queensland. The living conditions of this worker were harsh — he lived in a tiny shack with other temporary migrants. The day he died, Mr Guo was sent out into the forest to work alone on
work he was not qualified to do and was not the basis of the
sponsorship visa. He died an agonising death trapped under a fallen tree and his body was only discovered many hours later.
"Mr Guo was from China. He left behind a bereaved wife and a baby daughter he never met. He had come to Australia to provide his family with a better life. Two Filipino workers Pedro Balading and Wilfredo Navales died at work around the same time — our union expects charges to be laid in the case of at least one of these fatalities soon. All those three men entered the country under the 457 skilled migration visa."
In the construction industry, Sutton added, on average one worker dies every week. This is alarming and unacceptable but the situation is even worse for workers on 457 visas.
Research by Bob Kinnaird, an independent migration and labour analyst, showed that 457 visa workers are almost twice as likely to die at work as the national average. "There are 3.0 workplace deaths per 100,000
workers nationally. That figure for 457 visa workers is 5.8. This figure is almost double that of local workers."
Sutton cited another case, that of Mohammed Nayeem, a 457 worker from India and now proud member of the CFMEU: "His former employer made him work 50 hours a week with no overtime. He was forced to sleep in a converted office off a workshop with five other 457 workers. For the privilege his employer deducted $100 per week from each of their wages. When Mohammed asked for his overtime pay he was sacked and told, 'I will break your legs and send you back to India'. He was then given 15 minutes to get his things. Mohammed
bravely told his story to the Sydney press even though he faced deportation. Unlike any, this story had a happy ending — our union found him a new employer and he now continues to work in Australia."
The heart of the problem, explained Sutton, was that the ability of the "guest worker" to stay in the country depends completely on his or her boss. This alone reduces their bargaining power. Most "guest workers" are paid the minimum legal wage, which in most instances is well below market rates of pay.
"Thus there is a substantial economic incentive for employers to engage these temporary workers. And when you understand that the worker's ability to stay in the country (and one day gain permanent residency) depends entirely upon the sponsoring employer maintaining the sponsorship you get the picture of why these guest workers will put up with almost any hardship or abuse."