On November 6, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the mining division of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) announced they would jointly donate $10,000 to the 78 asylum seekers aboard the Oceanic Viking.
The unions' action comes after calls from leading unionists, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and Unions New South Wales, for the Rudd government to abandon its "Indonesia solution" of sending asylum seekers to detention in Indonesia while their claims for refugee status are assessed.
On November 5, Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon joined religious leaders in signing an open letter to the federal government, which called for the asylum seekers on board the Oceanic Viking "to be processed on Australian soil, under Australian law".
The statement went on to call for "an honest discussion that reflects the comparatively small number of refugees seeking to come to Australia … We imagine that if we were in similar circumstances we would also engage people smugglers to try to save our families".
Support for the plight of asylum seekers among unionists is growing.
Dave Noonan, national secretary of the CFMEU construction division told Green Left Weekly: "We are extremely concerned about the debate on refugees, and on immigration returning to the days of the Tampa where [previous coalition prime minister] John Howard blatantly used racism as a means of frightening the Australian population and demonising refugees."
"Those who are seeking asylum ought to have their claims assessed in a balanced and proper way and not used as a political football, and we are very concerned about the tenor of the debate and where politicians seem obsessed with being tough on this issue. Australia must live up to its obligations under refugee conventions."
MUA assistant national secretary Ian Bray told GLW: "We found ourselves in a situation which hasn't been handled the best by the Rudd government … We found it disturbing that we weren't taking responsibility in our own waters for people who could be genuinely seeking refugee status.
"When you look at it on percentage terms, the numbers of people arriving by boat is minimal as opposed to those who are arriving by plane. The real reasons why these people jump into leaky boats and risk everything to get to a safe place is because of persecution.
"We've just lost scope of what we should be doing. If these people are genuinely in need of assistance, that's what we should be doing, not running a debate based on who's going to win a few more votes in the next election."
Both unionists expressed solidarity with Tamil asylum seekers who have been forced to flee persecution in Sri Lanka.
"We understand that there are so-called refugee camps in the region and that there are up to 300,000 Tamil people in those camps", Bray said. "We understand that they suffer persecution and even torture.
"If there are human rights abuses in the camps, then that surely needs to be dealt with as well so that these people can go forward and live their lives in dignity."
Noonan said: "There are great concerns about the welfare of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka and it is certain that there are and there will be genuine refugees coming from that area.
"I don't think that everyone is necessarily genuine, but there are processes that should be followed to process people's claims, and they ought to be treated decently while that happens."
Both said Labor needed to adopt a genuinely humane policy on asylum seekers.
"It's obviously a difficult issue, but as in so many things, the Rudd government is attempting to appeal to two different constituencies", Noonan said.
"They know that a lot of people who voted for them did so because they were disgusted with Howard and [former Coalition immigration minister Phillip] Ruddock's policies. But at the same time, people are scared of immigration.
"Like so many things, they seem to get caught in no man's land and please nobody. It's a bit like their industrial relations policy.
"But there are some times when I think it's important for them to stand up and call it as it is. Continued rhetoric about being 'tough' isn't going to move the debate along, it's simply going to reinforce the fears of those who are misinformed or ill-informed about the issue."
Bray agreed. "I think it comes down to this — these people don't jump on leaky boats or place their lives in the hands of scurrilous people who profit from people's misery because it seems like a good thing to do at the time.
"We would like to see that if these people are willing to take such a risk that they are treated with dignity and respect [while their claims are assessed]. Those that are genuinely seeking refugee status, we need to open our doors and offer them protection."