The antics of Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer have served as a useful foil for Labor. They're like caricature capitalists lifted from a comic book.
Attacking them has given Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan the opportunity to make up for their earlier capitulation on the Rudd mining tax with a bit of populist rhetoric, while letting BHP and Rio Tinto just get on with it.
Meanwhile, Gary Gray, former Woodside Director of Corporate Affairs and Special Minister of State, was crafting Australia's first Enterprise Migration Agreement (EMA) for Rinehart's Hancock Prospecting. So it was no surprise the federal government was thrown into damage control when it was announced. The timing couldn't have been worse.
Union leaders were also caught off guard, but not necessarily by the EMA. It had been known for a long time. A fact sheet on skilled migration distributed at the ACTU congress in early May said:
“The first proposed EMA is for the Roy Hill project in WA. The proposal is for around 1500 457 visa positions over the three year life of the project, with the majority of these visas being sought in semi-skilled occupations. The number of overseas workers being requested is more than the total number of 457 visa holders in skilled and semi-skilled occupations currently employed in the entire WA construction industry as at November 2011."
Yet a month later AWU National Secretary Paul Howes was calling it "sheer lunacy". Why wait till then? Why not raise it with Gillard at the congress? It's embarrassing for the union movement that it took the business pages of the Sydney Morning Herald to say, “the Roy Hill deal is really only a surprise for those who weren’t paying attention – or those who have political reasons to feign ignorance and/or gobsmackery."
However the outrage felt by workers and many unionists is genuine. Many of the country's big employers have not spent a cent on training trades people for years, even decades. They'll poach skilled workers from small business, government and overseas. Anything but contribute to the cost of training the workers who make their billions.
Furthermore, most workers can instinctively understand how employers would seek to use EMAs to push down everybody's wages and conditions.
But what to do about it? One of the slogans raised at union demonstrations is that these companies should "train our kids", and so they should.
But that would require governments to scrap the policies that have caused the so-called skills crisis in the first place. It would mean restoring compulsory apprenticeship ratios, making training and apprenticeships a condition of government contracts, recreating the public enterprises that supplied trades people to the whole economy, increasing allowances to TAFE and university students, and much more.
Such a campaign is sorely needed, but is it even on the ACTU's horizon? Furthermore, even if big business is made to pay for its share of training, even if there is a "jobs board", we will still need migrant labour to feed the huge expansion in the resource sector.
So what's the problem? Australia was built by migrants. But with the exception of the terrible expulsions during the White Australia years, this has always meant permanent migration. The hundreds of thousands who settled here after the war were given permanent residency and citizenship.
However in recognising the inevitability of immigration, some unionists have made the mistake of accepting the underlying logic of the 457 visa system they are protesting against.
WA CEPU secretary Les McLaughlin said unions told Gray they were “not opposed to EMAs providing there are sufficient details and there is a mandatory jobs board,” the June 5 West Australian said.
But what details would make EMAs acceptable?
Similarly at the "Local Workers First" rally of blue-collar unions in Perth on July 4, CFMEU mining and energy district secretary Gary Wood said EMAs should be used only after all local labour was engaged. But how this can ever be truly measured and enforced?
We should be against a system of temporary visas that creates a special category of "guest workers" that bosses could send away when they don't want them any more. Or worse still, the spectre of the Australian born and their unions calling for fellow workers to be kicked out when there's a downturn.
Junking the 457 system and returning to permanent migration should be the strategic goal of the union movement. It treats the migrant worker as equal to the Australian born, and a union movement that accepts the idea of first and second-class workers will be defeated. Migrant workers are in a much stronger position if they are not dependant on the employer for residency. This strengthens the bargaining power of all workers.
Of course there are already workers in Australia on 457 visas, and there will be more. So the immediate task of the union movement is to reach out to these workers and join them up. Where workers on 457 visas are covered by union EBAs the boss can't use them to undermine conditions anyway. This has already been done in many workplaces.
Let's not underestimate the intelligence and fighting spirit of many migrant workers, some of whom have been active unionists in the face of much worse repression that we have here.
Actively fighting for both the immediate and long-term rights of workers on 457 visas is obviously the best way to convince them to join our unions. It's also in the interest of all workers.
This also prevents workers and their unions slipping into racist or nationalist rhetoric, a destructive dead end. This danger is real, especially in a country where refugee bashing has become the stock in trade of politicians trying distract the population while the big business has its hand in our back pocket.
The sight of the far right CEC conspiracy theorists, the Sustainable Population Party and Bob Katters Australia Party being drawn to the recent rallies like flies to a turd should ring alarm bells.
Our goals should be clear: make bosses pay for training, join 457 workers to our ranks and win full rights for migrant workers.