BRISBANE — For two and a half months, 17 Central American workers, mostly from El Salvador, have been on strike protesting against racial discrimination on the job. Green Left Weekly's ZANNY BEGG spoke to Jorge Rodriguez, Salvador Ramos and Juan Henriquez about their fight for justice.
In May 1991, Jorge Rodriguez began work at the Steel Line Doors factory in Sumner Park. There were only a few Spanish-speaking workers when he first arrived, but management soon began encouraging Rodriguez and his workmates to encourage other Central American workers to apply. The Spanish-speaking workers were considered hard working and uncomplaining — just what management wanted.
But the conditions at Steel Line Doors were such that Rodriguez and his workmates found it hard to remain silent. It quickly became apparent that they had been singled out for special treatment. Their work conditions were unsafe, and they were subject to ongoing racial discrimination.
"The management kept the pressure on the Spanish-speaking workers", Rodriguez explained. "They would keep pushing the production lines every day, but they would push the Spanish-speaking workers harder. When we were making clamps, the English-speaking workers were allowed to sit down, but the Spanish-speaking workers were made to stand.
"The English-speaking workers were left alone when they stood around talking, but when the Spanish-speaking workers had a conversation, management always intervened. We were told to 'hurry up' all the time, even when we went to the toilet or had a drink. The English speaking workers did not face this discrimination.
"The harassment was aimed at keeping us down. They called us names like 'Mexican' or 'wog' to make a division between the workers. We were told by the owner that we were not allowed to speak Spanish even when some of the workers could not speak English."
The discrimination did not end with taunts and name calling. Garrie Gibson, the Labor member for Moreton, outlined more serious matters when he raised the question of conditions at Steel Line Doors in parliament.
According to Gibson, a Salvadoran worker "was almost run down by a supervisor driving a forklift. Other incidents have occurred ... One of the supervisors pushed a roller door on top of a worker. The worker had his leg cut and a hand damaged because of that accident."
The violence and intimidation eventually became too much for the migrant workers. Late in 1993, they began to meet to discuss what to do. After much deliberation, they decided to join the union. In April 1994, 27 Spanish-speaking workers and five English-speaking workers joined the Automotive, Food, Metal and Engineering Union. Rodriguez was elected shop steward.
Salvador Ramos explained this decision. "We joined the union to stop the discrimination against Spanish-speaking workers. We were suffering from racial discrimination at work for years. We joined the union to get some protection. Our second aim was to improve working conditions at Steel Line Doors."
"Once we joined the union", Rodriguez recalls, "the discrimination became worse. The management didn't like unions and was angry that we had joined. First we were suffering racial discrimination. Now we were suffering trade union activity discrimination."
Using the divide-and-rule tactic, management began wooing English-speaking workers away from the "trouble making Mexicans". "Management was very clever", Ramos explained. "They tried to separate the English from the Spanish-speaking workers to stop them joining the union."
"The management started to organise the non-union members", Rodriguez continued, "to divide the 'Mexicans' from them. Unfortunately, the five English-speaking workers left the union."
On November 10, 17 workers went on strike for better working conditions and an end to racial discrimination.
"The first three weeks of the strike were very hard for us", Rodriguez explained. "We did not receive any support from the trade union movement. Supporting 17 families was very difficult. Our first donation was for $400. That does not go very far between 17 families. We felt very alone.
"The first organisation to support us was Australian Aid for El Salvador. Then came solidarity from other groups including the Democratic Socialist Party. The support and money slowly began to come in. Our morale lifted."
A few weeks into the strike, the AFMEU began to show more support. In January the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Transport Workers Union placed bans on Steel Line Doors.
"Getting trade union support was very good for us. Solidarity is understanding that an injury to us is an injury to every other worker. We now feel that solidarity. We know that we are not alone.
"At the beginning the boss could easily beat us. We were only 17 migrant workers. We didn't even speak English. But now we are receiving support from the trade union movement. We are receiving support from parties like the Democratic Socialist Party. That makes us stronger."
But Ramos and Rodriguez are critical of the lethargy of the trade union leaderships in helping their struggle. "Most workers", Rodriguez asserts, "don't trust unions. Why don't they? Maybe we should ask the ACTU why they don't. It is hard to convince people that the unions are working for them. It is hard to convince English-speaking workers that they should join the union because they don't know it can help them get better wages and conditions. They haven't seen a union that is prepared to fight. The unions need to change their strategy."
Ramos argues that the workers at Steel Line Doors were "forced to organise ourselves. The union did not come to us. We had to approach them. We organised ourselves into the Central American Workers Community."
Rodriguez sees the issues that have been raised as relevant to all migrant workers. "We can be an example for all migrant workers who face similar discrimination."
During the picket outside Steel Line Doors on January 17, Rodriguez told the crowd about a group of Vietnamese workers who are being forced to work 12 hours a day, including weekends, without penalties. "They know it's illegal but they are afraid of losing their jobs, and they have language problems, so they do nothing.
"If we win our struggle", Rodriguez continued "then we will be more than an example for migrant workers; we will be an alternative".
Juan Henriquez believes that solidarity is the key to victory in the struggle against discrimination. "The only way we will win this struggle is through solidarity. We need the support of other workers. The problem is not just with Steel Line Doors; we see it as a problem for the working class as a whole. Through solidarity we can win. We feel confident because we are only asking for our rights."
[Messages of support and donations can be sent to Central American Workers Community, PO Box 368, Goodna QLD 4300.]