Unions can be ‘opinion shifters’ on refugees

Aran Mylvaganam.

More than 100 people attended a public meeting called by the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) on July 24 to discuss how to break bipartisan support for offshore processing. The discussion focused on ways to change Labor Party policy.

Chairperson Margaret Sinclair read a message from Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus, who said Australia has a "responsibility to take a greater number of refugees than we do". She said the current intake is "shameful".

McManus said the ACTU has adopted a policy calling for the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru to be closed and "unions must play a role in changing the national debate through challenging misinformation".

ACTU president Ged Kearney said unions have "work to do with our membership". Many union members live in areas where it is hard to get a job or public housing, and can be misled into blaming refugees for these problems. Part of the solution is to get rid of the "neoliberal government that is threatening the social safety net and vilifying refugees," she said.

National secretary of the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia Michele O'Neil said Labor has had a "shameful bipartisan approach" to the refugee issue. To change this, she said, it is necessary to change public opinion, claiming that most politicians "follow public opinion, not lead it".

She said unions have a role as "opinion shifters". It is necessary to change the "hearts, minds and opinions" of union members, who will in turn influence workmates and family members.

This can be achieved in a number of ways. One is by focusing on the stories of individual refugees, such as Baby Asha. Another is by showing the huge cost of the policy, including the $5 billion spent on offshore detention, while the government fails to properly fund health and education.

Tamil refugee and Finance Sector Union organiser Aran Mylvaganam told the meeting he came to Australia in 1997, two years after his school was bombed by the Sri Lankan government, killing his brother and three cousins. He joined the ALP in 2002 but resigned in 2009, due to the Labor government's support for the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka.

The Labor government also deported 1500 Tamil asylum seekers and detained recognised refugees on "security" grounds, three of whom are still in detention more than eight years later. Labor has also supported wars that create refugees.

Mylvaganam was critical of union leaders who are reluctant to speak out until "after the next election". He said he was inspired by the #letthemstay campaign, which prevented the government's attempt to return Baby Asha to Nauru and blocked several hundred others from being sent to offshore detention.

Lucy Honan, speaking on behalf of RAC, said public opinion has begun to change as a result of the work of the refugee movement. This includes rallies, which keep the issue in the media, as well as workplace actions, such as that of teachers wearing pro-refugee T-shirts to school, and the strike action by teachers at a Queensland school when a refugee student was taken back into detention.

Honan said she believes Labor policy on refugees can be changed and advocated that activists put pressure on Labor MPs who are critical of current policy to speak out.

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