Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Organise, don’t demonise migrant workers

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The announcement by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen that mining billionaire Gina Rinehart will use an Enterprise Migration Agreement (EMA) at the Roy Hill mine in Western Australia has once again brought the issue of skilled migration to the fore.

The details of the agreement are confidential with Bowen only revealing the broad outlines. The deed however allows Rinehart to employ 1715 migrant workers, roughly 20% of the entire workforce. The EMA also broadens the use of 457 visas. 457 visas are only meant to be used when there is a proven skills shortage and after jobs have been offered to local workers. These rules are routinely broken but this EMA allows for semi-skilled labour without the former stipulations.

By Simon Millar, Socialist Party

The agreement, unlike standard 457 visas, requires Rinehart to provide the same terms, conditions and living conditions as the rest of the workforce. But what this will actually mean in practice is yet to be seen.

The Liberals first brought in 457 visas in 1996. 457 visas enable employers to recruit skilled labour from overseas and employ them for up to 4 years. While they are now popular in construction and mining, 457 visas have been used is a wide range of industries with large numbers used in sectors like nursing and IT. The use of 457 visas rose by 88% between 2010 and 2011 and as of March this year 88,590 people held 457 visas.

While the Liberal’s want to see the use of 457 visas expanded, the Roy Hill EMA plus news that thousands of jobs on other large projects could be filled by migrant labour has brought about a mild revolt from the ALP backbenches and the trade union movement. This has forced Julia Gillard to set up a committee, which will include former union leader now Senator, Doug Cameron, to scrutinise the applications of resource companies who wish to use migrant labour. This committee is really nothing but a token gesture.

Julia Gillard has parroted former PM John Howard arguing that there is an insurmountable skills shortage and therefore it is better for migrant workers to be used temporarily. The real purpose of 457 visas however, is to provide employers with cheap non-union labour.

Temporary migrant workers, even if paid the same rates as local workers, are always vulnerable because the employer has the ability to terminate the visa at any time for any reason. Workers then have only two months to find another sponsor. Many 457 workers sign contracts restricting their movement in effect making them a form of bonded labour.

In an interview back in 2010 Julia Gillard attempted to cover over the motives of big business by using buzzwords like ”our sanctuary” and ”sustainable population”. In case you thought she was anti-immigration, Gillard was quick to point to her migrant credentials, referring to her parents as ”the right kind of migrants” that Australia needed at the time to build the nation.

When pressed as to how to distinguish the right kind of migrant from the wrong kind, Gillard says we need to “make sure we’ve got a focus on employers sponsoring people who are the skilled labour that they need . . . if we need skilled migrants, then of course we should enable them to come”.

The skills shortage is actually the result of the massive decline in the numbers of apprenticeships being offered since privatisation and the refusal of private industry to bear the cost of training in any significant way. Approximately 130,000 manufacturing workers have lost their jobs since 2008. Many of theses workers are skilled yet there is very little access to retraining let alone adult apprenticeships. The destruction of Technical schools and now the defunding of TAFEs has also contributed to the problem.

Unions especially in the Victorian construction sector mounted successful campaigns to enforce apprentice ratios over a decade ago. There has been a slight increase nationally in the numbers of apprentices due to demand, but these numbers still fall well short of what’s required.


The exploitation of workers on 457 visas and their use to undermine local wages and conditions is well documented. There have been some notable examples of unions successfully organising migrant workers such as the 550 Filipino workers employed in a factory near Swan River in Western Australia back in 2007.

The boss was paying a third of the market rate in wages and had 26 workers living in a house he owned charging them $160 each a week for rent! The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union through patient work was able to unionise these workers and get them to take action. Unions in the mining sector could learn something from this approach.

Unions should demand that 457 visas are scrapped but this needs to be combined with the call for all existing workers on 457 visas to be offered full citizenship. Otherwise you are effectively calling for the deportation of 88,000 workers who are not blame for their circumstances.

The Snowy Mountain scheme was built by migrant labour many who later became trade union activists and leaders. This was because they became full citizens which gave them legal protection and access to trade unions without the threat of deportation.

In the short term unions need to put the time and resources into organising migrant workers. They need to find ways to initiate joint struggle between migrant workers and local workers, as well as educating their members about the issue.

The nationalist call for “Aussie jobs for Aussie workers” will only feed the flames of racism and create divisions between workers when we should be striving for unity against those who are exploiting us all. Only a strategy that seeks to organise all workers against the real enemy can win.

The fight to scrap 457 visas and to force the bosses pay for the skills they wish to exploit are campaigns that in the end will only be won on the basis of a political shift in the labour movement. Rather than backing the pro big business ALP unions need to build a new workers party that seeks genuinely represent all workers regardless of their country of origin.


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