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Issue #1550      6 June 2012

Importing workers

Unity the key

The government’s decision to allow mining magnate Gina Rinehart’s company Hancock Prospecting to bring in 1,715 workers on temporary work visas to Australia rightly shocked the union movement. The Communist Party of Australia has condemned the decision in the strongest terms. “The decision is particularly offensive to working people given the recent spate of large scale layoffs from Australian workplaces,” CPA president Vinnie Molina said. (See CPA statement.)


Gina Rinehart

The prime minister frantically attempted to plead ignorance and distance herself from the decision.

Every week more workers are being sacked in the manufacturing, retail, airline and other industries across Australia. Last Friday’s decision from Fair Work Australia for a paltry $17.10 a week increase in the minimum wage added insult to injury. Rinehart accumulates (the workers create it) more wealth in 15 minutes than low paid workers do in a year.

Qantas is dumping 500 engineers, 344 jobs have gone at the Kurri Kurri aluminium smelter, hundreds more in the Hasties collapse, and so the list of job losses grows.

Rinehart’s estimated net personal wealth has risen over the past 12 months from $10.3 billion to just under $30 billion. (BRW Rich 200, 24-05-2012) Not just the richest person in Australia, the richest woman in the world, she looks set to become the richest person in the world within a few years if the government continues to license her unfettered plunder and rape of the Australian people’s resources. The super-exploitation of overseas workers is just the cream on the cake in profit gouging.

Rinehart’s $9 billion Roy Hill iron ore project in Western Australia is the first to be granted an enterprise migration agreement (EMA). The government describes the EMA as “a new temporary migration initiative to help address the skill needs of the resource sector”. But Rinehart got her EMA without first advertising to determine whether there is a skills shortage.

Her aim is to employ overseas construction workers on lower wages and undermine working conditions. That is what EMAs are designed to do.

The government says companies sponsoring workers under an EMA will hold 457 visas, “pay Australian market salary rates” under the provisions of the Worker Protection Act 2009. But under the Act the resource company must pay the sponsored worker at least the minimum salary level. There is a huge gap of tens of thousands of dollars between the award wage and the actual wage won by trade unions in collective agreements (EBAs).

For example, the wage rate in the mining and construction union CFMEU’s agreement with Chevron’s Gorgon Project on Barrow Island, is $3,500 per week. This is for a 70-hour working week, fly-in fly-out 26 days on and nine days off system. If the award rate were paid, it would be $1,400 per week – and overall saving of 60 percent and corresponding increase in profits!

It also means two groups of workers – local and foreign – on different wages and working conditions.

The whole process has an insidious element, that of fostering racism, of splitting the working class, one being pushed hard by the mass media. It is portrayed as foreign workers taking Australian workers’ jobs, to ensure workers are not united in defending wage and working conditions, including job security and entitlements.

To call it “a temporary migration initiative” is misleading. Whichever way you interpret the meaning of that statement – a temporary initiative or temporary migration – it is a lie. The measure is not temporary. It is the thin edge of a wedge which the government will spread to other industries if it is not halted. The migration is not temporary. That is a contradiction in terms.

If it were about a migration program, where the workers coming to Australia were genuinely being welcomed as migrants with permanent residency visas, that would be a different story. All workers coming to Australia should have the right to permanent residency and to bring their families. But that is not the intent.

Workers on 457 visas are not only subjected to intense exploitation, they are extremely vulnerable. If they dare to join a trade union, speak out for their rights, demand safe working conditions, then they face the sack and deportation. Their families are left at home. EMAs are yet another device to split and undermine the unity of the working class and attack the wages and working conditions won by unions.

EMAs also have the aim of assisting employers in shutting out trade unions and avoiding the negotiation of collective agreements.

Just the beginning

The big mining corporations are lining up with their demands for EMAs and the government looks set to comply, with reports of around 35 in the making.

GVK (an Indian conglomerate) and Hancock Coal have won approval for their Alpha coal project in Queensland and are believed to be after an EMA.

The US energy corporation Chevron is seeking an EMA for its $43 billion Gorgon liquefied natural gas project in the Pilbara, WA.

Interest is not confined to the resources sector. Australia’s largest beef producer and multi-million dollar agribusiness, the Australian Agricultural Company (ACC), has plans to fill 260 positions in its new abattoirs in Darwin with workers from India on Section 417 (working holiday) and 457 visas.

ACC’s chair Donald McGauchie is a union-basher, who made his name during the waterfront dispute in 1998 when the Coalition government joined employers in an attempt to rid the waterfront of union labour and destroy the Maritime Union of Australia. McGauchie was president of the National Farmers’ Federation at the time and chairman of P and C Stevedoring, the company set up to employ scabs trained in Dubai to take over the jobs of waterside workers on Melbourne docks.

ACC’s CEO David Farley is also no friend of the trade union movement.

Political agenda

Rinehart inherited her initial riches from mining magnate Lang Hancock who is credited with discovering the largest iron ore deposits in the Pilbara in the 1950s. Hancock was nothing short of an extremely ruthless, profit-driven capitalist. He is renowned for his appalling attitude to workers, whose loss of life he saw as the “price of progress”.

He opened the Wittenoom asbestos mine in 1938 and operated it for over 20 years before selling it to CSR. The Banyjima people were used as labourers to mine asbestos. Many lost their lives and others saw their health suffer seriously. They also lost their land. The dangers of asbestos were well known at the time. Residents in Wittenoom were also exposed to deadly amounts of dust from the mine.

Hancock was a close friend and ally of former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, another reactionary enemy of the working class who was notorious for his attacks on the trade unions (1980s SEQEB dispute in particular) and democratic rights (right of assembly, right to march).

Wikipedia quote Hancock as saying, “Nothing should be sacred from mining whether it’s your ground, my ground, the blackfellow’s ground or anybody else’s. So the question of Aboriginal land rights and things of this nature shouldn’t exist.” (Coyne, Michael; Edwards, Leigh (1990), The Oz Factor: Who’s Doing What in Australia, East Malvern. p. 68)

According to Wikipedia, Hancock suggested forcing unemployed Indigenous Australians – particularly “no-good half-castes” – to collect their welfare cheques from a central location: “And when they had gravitated there, I would dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in the future.” (http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/couldnt-be-fairer/
clip2/ in a 1984 television interview)

Rinehart is her father’s daughter, a reactionary political beast, one of a growing group of capitalists intervening more directly in the political processes of the country. She exerts considerable power over governments, (as her father did), and fought very hard and publicly against the carbon tax and Resources Super Profit Tax which later became the Mineral Resources Rent Tax. The MRRT will cost her peanuts. Under the package, royalties paid to state governments will be refunded by the federal government.

The aim of Rinehart and her mates Andrew Forrest and Clive Palmer is zero tax on profits as well as full deregulation of the labour market and the abolition of unions. Workers, pensioners and the other people whose wealth they plunder should foot the tax bill through the GST and other indirect taxes.

Here, working class unity is the key – unity between Australian workers and imported workers – in defeating this agenda.

Rinehart has bought significant shares in Channel 10 (10% stake) and Fairfax Media (13% of its shares) where she is in a battle for a seat on the board. Her aim is to change and control the editorial direction of these important media outlets.

Skill shortage myth

Mining minister Martin Ferguson, known as the little darling of the industry, insists that the aim is to overcome skills shortages. The government’s actions do not match his words.

There is no proven skills shortage, but there is a shortage of skilled union labour prepared to leave their families and work their butts off for 70 hours a week for $20 an hour.

Despite all the talk about skills training and education being priorities, the government is destroying TAFE and making it harder for school leavers and workers to undertake further studies.

Student allowances are below the poverty line, apprenticeships on $6.30 per hour and hefty fees make it almost impossible for many people to gain further qualifications and skills.

Meanwhile the plunder of Australia’s resources is racing out of control, with no planning to consider Australia’s longer term needs or interests, no thought to the environment and planet with the opening of new coal mines. Most of the profits go offshore. It is a capital intensive industry with relatively few jobs.

The overseas workers are used to split the working class, undermine the wages and working conditions of EBAs and exclude unions from the workplace. In other words boost profits. That is the real aim of EMAs.

The whole process constitutes an obscene brain drain from poorer nations. It denies the workers coming to Australia the right to bring their families, and does not offer them training.

In a pathetic attempt to save face and placate angry backbenchers, the Labor parliamentary caucus has agreed to a committee to monitor the EMAs. It will have no teeth and no veto over government decisions. It will just watch and report on what happens. And the government wonders why it is on the nose with the electorate!

The CPA statement concludes with a call to workers, their trade unions and the community to fight and overturn this reactionary decision. The unions are planning to fight the EMAs.  

Next article – Editorial – Sackings and the propaganda of the “boom”

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