Pacific migration: Climate change and the reserve army of labour

Ian Anderson

Climate change hits different regions in different ways. An area scattered with low-lying atolls, the Pacific is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. Environmental migration must be a key consideration for socialists in this region.

Nations such as Tuvalu and Kiribati are already affected. Coastal erosion in Tuvalu, a nation comprised of atolls and reef islands, has already forced huge resettlement. Tuvalu has the second-lowest maximum elevation of any country, and it’s estimated that a sea-level rise of 20-40 centimetres could make it uninhabitable. By 2007, 3,000 Tuvaluans had resettled, most of them settling in Auckland. Kiribati is also vulnerable to sea-level rise and extreme weather events; less than a week before the Kyoto Protocol was signed, a “king tide” devastated coastal communities.

Global warming: Responsibility and consequences
Radical labour organiser Utah Phillips is quoted as saying, “The Earth isn’t dying, it’s being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.” In this case the responsibility lies with the big polluters of imperialist nations, including Australia and New Zealand. With the exception of Nauru, which is subject to heavy phosphate mining by Australia, smaller Pacific nations emit far less carbon per capita than Australia and New Zealand.

While imperialist nations produce the bulk of emissions, the smaller nations of the Pacific will bear the brunt of anthropogenic climate change. As seen in Tuvalu and Kiribati, low-lying islands will be hit particularly hard. Along with sea level rise, climate change means health conditions such as heat exhaustion; depletion of fish stocks; and crop failure, in a region where many still live off the land. Oxfam Australia predicts up to 8 million climate refugees from the Pacific Islands, and 75 million climate refugees in the wider Asia-Pacific, over the next 40 years.

Contested status: Migrants or refugees?
People forced to resettle by environmental conditions are widely termed as “environmental refugees.” However, existing refugee law does not cover environmental conditions. Some advocates also criticise the term because it implies fleeing persecution, when many (especially older migrants) would prefer not to resettle.

This contest over legal status also has economic implications. Rather than extending refugee status, Australia and New Zealand have extended work visa arrangements in countries like Tuvalu and Kiribati. This means I-Kiribati and Tuvaluans, threatened by rising water, must find work in order to emigrate.

Immigration serves many purposes, but for the ruling class it is mainly a reserve army of labour. Like reserves in a sports team, a reserve army can be deployed when needed. The capitalist class uses this threat of replacement to drive down conditions. Unemployed workers function as a constant reserve army; in the 1951 waterfront lockout, bosses used the New Zealand Army itself to replace dock workers; and New Zealand bosses take advantage of Pacific migration as a source of cheap labour.

When this reserve labour is no longer needed, the tap can be switched off. Although the majority of over-stayers in this country are Europeans, Pacific Islanders are more commonly targeted by police and immigration authorities. This racism is driven by the economic needs of imperialism, to keep a Pacific reserve army in check.

Europeans comprise the majority of overstayers, but Pasifika migrants are targeted more

Solidarity: Open borders and emissions reduction
Though bosses use Pacific migration to undermine local labour conditions, we overcome this through solidarity. Rather than opposing migration, we must demand full rights for migrant workers, or employers will use division to drive down conditions overall.

In February 2007, management at Go Wellington (owned by transport giant Infratil) introduced new conditions to cut down drivers’ access to overtime. When a number of drivers quit over these changes, the company shopped around for cheaper labour in Fiji, telling applicants to sign scab contracts rather than join the union. However, the migrant workers got wise to what was happening and the majority signed up to the Tramways Union. When the company locked the drivers out a year later, the majority were in the union, and public pressure resulted in a swift victory. This is much more effective than scapegoating migrants, and playing into the capitalist divide-and-conquer strategy.

This tactic, seeking temporary replacement labour, is a common way to drive down conditions. In October 2011, Warkworth company Southern Paprika Limited (SPL) threatened 13 of its employees with redundancy. The Company admitted that it was profitable, citing “efficiencies” to justify the attack. SPL aimed to replace 13 permanent Tuvaluan and I-Kiribati workers with temporary workers under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme. Permanent workers faced racist harassment from SPL. According to the sworn evidence of a former Cadet Manager, an SPL worker received a text message from a company phone stating that: “The best Christmas present I ever had was a nigger hanging from a tree.” In spite of this harassment, the workers persevered in challenging the company, and ultimately won the right to permanent work.

The Situationists, a radical student group of the 1968 French uprising, coined the slogan, “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” Necessary solutions to this crisis are, to all appearances, utterly impossible. Even the seemingly innocuous reformist demand of cuts to emissions has been repeatedly stalled, by imperialist nations still dependant on oil. We must fight for drastic emissions cuts by imperialist nations, open borders in the Pacific, and full rights for migrant workers.


  1. Slightly off the subject but has anyone noticed the pollution behind the boy holding the sign. The plastic and the pond I’m suspecting the pond isn’t tropical rain water.

    My fear is that global climate change has blinded us to other damage. That we create conditions where more energy is in the atmosphere is bad and the extreme weather conditions this creates will test humanity but it is the pollution other than CO2 that will be our downfall.

    Don’t fool yourself that climate change will drive these people out it will be a collapse in their environment due to over population and pollution. We admittedly brought Christianity and sell them the plastic but their initial downfall will be at their own hands before we wipe them out with climate change.

    as for open borders I agree I can’t understand how money moves without restrictions but people can’t. Although with out borders there is no nation state so how could the current healthcare and welfare system work and under such a situation would we fall back into tribalism?

    • Ross: “Don’t fool yourself that climate change will drive these people out it will be a collapse in their environment due to over population and pollution. We admittedly brought Christianity and sell them the plastic but their initial downfall will be at their own hands before we wipe them out with climate change.”

      Well, industrialisation was driven by European involvement.

      In terms of population, this is connected to economic disparity; more deprived areas tend to be more densely populated. The Pacific is actually fairly sparsely populated, but addressing any population issues means addressing inequality (which in turn means addressing colonisation and capitalism.)

  2. Hello and thank you for this article. So-called environmentally induced migration is multi-level problem. According to Essam El-Hinnawi definition form 1985 environmental refugees as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. The fundamental distinction between `environmental migrants` and `environmental refugees` is a standpoint of contemporsry studies in EDPs.

    According to Bogumil Terminski it seems reasonable to distinguish the general category of environmental migrants from the more specific (subordinate to it) category of environmental refugees.

    Environmental migrants, therefore, are persons making a short-lived, cyclical, or longerterm change of residence, of a voluntary or forced character, due to specific environmental factors. Environmental refugees form a specific type of environmental migrant.

    Environmental refugees, therefore, are persons compelled to spontaneous, short-lived, cyclical, or longer-term changes of residence due to sudden or gradually worsening changes in environmental factors important to their living, which may be of either a short-term or an irreversible character.

    According to Norman Myers environmental refugees are “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty”.

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