Unions can’t cave in on migrant workers – solidarity needed

 Jared Phillips


Almost every day union leaders across different sectors make public comments and statements with which revolutionary socialists disagree. Often we publicly oppose them. Sometimes it is completely necessary to oppose them.

 In response to the economic downturn the Engineers Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) leadership has started an information campaign declaring that the recession has brought crunch-time to workers. But it’s not just crunch-time for the workers locked into the struggle for bread. It’s also crunch-time for the union leaderships. Will they stress unity and look to generalise class resistance, or will they identify less worthy sections of workers to be first on the chop-up blocks as part of a crisis-management process brokered by union bosses and ‘the’ bosses?

 On March 17 a major New Zealand newspaper – The Press – carried the headline ‘Get rid of migrant workers first: unions’, the TV1 website carried the story ‘Union: Kiwis before migrants in hard times’, and a popular weeknight current affairs show, Campbell Live, ended a segment with Andrew Little – leader of the EPMU – stating ‘We are saying that where the employer is left to choose between New Zealand workers and migrant workers on short term visas then they ought to favour New Zealand workers’.


A Little bit of national chauvinism

Both Andrew Little and Graeme Clarke, who is the general secretary of the Manufacturing and Construction Workers Union (M&C Union), have made comments and taken initiatives that have led to the media spike. Their admissions directly contradict a socialist perspective by conceding that the employing class and the state are – albeit under pressure from the union movement – entitled to control the movement of international labour.

 The M&C union has made a complaint to the Labour Department regarding the decision of an employer to make 28 New Zealand workers redundant while retaining 24 migrant workers on short-term contracts. The Press reported that the union had submitted to the government that employers should re-prove the need to employ migrant workers and quoted Clarke as saying “Our answer has always been ‘yes, you can import people’, but now we want it proved again that the shortage still exists.” If it is true that Clarke said this, his view of international labour mobility does not clash with that of the National Party’s Immigration Minister Jonathon Coleman who reckons “Temporary visas are more of a tap that can be turned on and off.”

 Little has emphasized that it is better for employers to retain New Zealand workers because they will be able to give longer service to businesses whilst migrant workers, employed under two-year permits, will not be as beneficial to firms in the longer term. This is quite a spin, begging the question as to why it should be accepted that workers from other countries should be placed on insecure and temporary permits. Instead of appealing to the needs of migrant workers, Little has appealed to the needs of the bosses.

The cruel irony here is that large numbers of workers still absorb the bureaucratic idea that the employer will treat them better for giving loyalty and service. Time and time again this has proven to be wrong. The competitive nature of capitalism ensures that employers look after their short-term gains, not the men and women who sing the company song and wear the company hat.

 Clarke has a strong history of militant unionism and a past association with radical politics. Little has recently become president of the New Zealand Labour Party. Neither have called for the deportation of migrant workers and nobody is arguing that either of them would want to see the return of large scale deportations as in the early 1980s when economic downturn and joblessness was resolved through reaction. However, without being hysterical, it should be noted that the perspectives they are putting forward are not inconsistent with perspectives that finally led to such disgraceful events.

 If migrant workers lose their positions with sponsoring employers they are sent back to their origin countries. In the final analysis, the reported position held by Clark and Little can lead to deportation.

 Anti-capitalism: Left-nationalism or Internationalism?

Socialists argue that NZ-born workers must oppose attacks on migrant workers and not fall for the left-nationalist position of “kiwi jobs for kiwi workers” perpetuated by some or most union leaderships. Socialists start from the interests of workers as a global class. Socialists oppose national chauvinism on moral grounds but it’s not just about liberal principles. It’s in the actual material interests of NZ-born workers to see things in terms of class and not immigration status, and then act accordingly.

 The interests of the international working class take precedence over the limits of capitalism. Capitalist limitations are not natural, they have been socially constructed over centuries. Socialists insist on defending every job – workers should not take or share any responsibility for the woes of the capitalist system. If the goal is to build an anti-capitalist movement then socialists and workers must reject the idea that any section of workers should pay the price of a capitalist recession.

Union officials, even left ones, accept the limits of capitalism and therefore accept layoffs, seeing their job as managing the layoff process. Once unionists (and also workers themselves) start picking and choosing which workers should go, the working class gets divided and redivided; it becomes weaker and less able to defend the rights of any section of the working class.

 Further, accepting lesser conditions for migrant workers puts NZ-born workers in the camp of the boss. It means union officials are saying that the bosses’ profits and the state’s ability to manage recession are more important than the rights of a group of fellow workers.

Migrant workers are not only a part of the working class, they bring all kinds of useful things into the working class in NZ. They help make it more cosmopolitan, more international, they bring a range of experiences from their home countries which can strengthen the fight for workers’ rights here.

 Impacts on the union movement

It is important to recognise that all actions have consequences.

 For unions that are based in the lower-paid sectors, where organising migrants (particularly new migrants) is not an ambition, but is an absolute necessity in order to ‘grab’ these sectors. The last thing that unions in these sectors need is public statements from union leaders who are putting migrants into lesser categories.

 In fact migrant workers have been at the forefront of the wider-movement’s ‘offensive’ (not defensive) struggles that have led to increased wages and improved conditions across all sectors.

The EPMU leadership has come under pressure from migrant workers within it’s own ranks to reverse the stated position.

That migrant workers reaction is entirely justified. For the sake of a narrow defensive gain for New Zealand-born workers in their own sectors, these union leaders have disadvantaged other workers and have acted contrarily to the organising efforts of other unions .

 Class unity needed

The union leaders statements quoted above are not throw-away comments made in back-rooms. They are public statements from leaders who know the power and influence of the media. These signals need to be challenged and stopped before they gain more ground. The alternative is internationalist working class solidarity against capitalist cut-backs.


  1. Good article Jared.

  2. its very sad that we migrant workers are becoming the scapegoat in this times. the union now has became racist. we pay for your monthly dues and this is what we get. as for the retaining of migrants over new zealanders, its not always about the skill to do the job. but also the commitment to the job.we migrants are the ones easily called to do this or that because someone didnt show up for work. we are all for fighting reccession, both employeee/union and employer. but ultimately it should be the employers right also to choose who to let go and keep. why are unions so paranoid that employers are getting the upperhand when i comes to this things. A JOB IS A PRIVILEDGE GIVEN TO SOMEONE WHO DESERVES IT.IT SHOULD BE SKILL, COMMITMENT OR BOTH TO THE JOB. YOU DONT GET A JOB JUST BECAUSE YOUR A NEW ZEALANDER. YOU GET IT BECAUSE YOU ARE SKILLED AND HAVE THE COMMITMENT.ask employers why they prefer migrants to locals. they will give you an answer thats would be hard to swallow.

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