Slave labour, unions and racism

Issue 

Emma Murphy, Adelaide

The February 13 Advertiser reported that the US-owned company Halliburton, which has a subsidiary based in Adelaide, has imported Indonesian workers and paid them slave-like wages to dig ditches at their gas extraction plant in outback South Australia.

It is alleged that the workers were brought over late last year and worked 12-hour shifts (in summer desert weather) for 80 days straight. For the first 40 days they were paid $40 a day. Later it was raised to $80 a day. They were working alongside Australian workers being paid $15 an hour. The meals provided sometimes contained pork, which meant the Muslim employees went without.

A Halliburton spokesperson claimed that the workers were paid a $108-a-day "bonus" on top of their wage. However, it is not the first time Halliburton's exploitation has made the papers. HalliburtonWatch.org reports that the company, which has raked in US$18 billion worth of "reconstruction" contracts in Iraq, bills the US military $50 a day per Third World worker in Iraq, workers whose daily wage is $5.

The latest allegations also raise more questions about Australia's department of immigration. When skilled migration visas are processed, DIMA is supposed to make sure that the conditions of such visas are complied with.

According to the Advertiser, immigration minister Amanda Vanstone "maintains that her department does an outstanding job in ... ensuring that the employers comply with the conditions...". However, if Halliburton has been paying workers $40 a day to do physical labour in harsh desert conditions, either Vanstone is lying or the "conditions" attached to the visas of these workers amount to slave labour.

ACTU president Sharan Burrow issued a statement in response to this and similar claims of super-exploitation that have recently come to light. Unfortunately, while calling on the prime minister to ensure that migrant workers are paid a decent wage, Burrow argues that his first job should be to "make sure that employers look to fill these jobs with Australians".

Burrows states: "Jobs for Australian workers are threatened whenever employers fail to properly test the local labour market and instead look to exploit foreign workers. I thought we were facing a shortage of skilled workers — not a shortage of ditch diggers and other unskilled workers."

The ACTU statement runs the risk of the issue of imported workers being used to ignite workplace racism or nationalism. Focusing on competition between workers, counterposing "Australian jobs" to "migrant workers" serves only our common enemies: employers who use the system of "guest workers" to get around providing decent wages and conditions, and the government, whose racist, anti-worker stance is increasingly clear.

Working people — regardless of where they come from — are our allies. Struggling alongside migrant workers — whether "legal" or "illegal" — to improve their wages, working conditions and rights will ultimately benefit all workers.

From Green Left Weekly, February 22, 2006.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.