Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


The Struggle for Migrant Rights

by Habib Fares

The following paper was presented to the Sydney District Conference of the Socialist Party of Australia, in July 1994.

Our Party needs to pay much more attention to and to do much more work in the areas of multiculturalism, migrant rights and migrant struggles.

Migrant workers, particularly migrant women and older people, are still amongst the most disadvantaged groups in our society. They suffer the most from current socio-economic crises, the increasing attacks on workers' rights and welfare and the current policies of rationalisation, privatisation and micro-economic reform.

An analysis of 1981 census data shows that 90 per cent of males from non-English-speaking backgrounds working in Melbourne in the manufacturing area were employed in production jobs compared to only 62 per cent of Australian-born and 67 per cent of UK-born workers. (Retrenched Workers' Right Project (RWRP))

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures for 1990 show that the rate of women as tradespersons and blue collar workers was 17 per cent for Australian-born and 18.3 per cent for women born in English-speaking countries, but 37 per cent for women born in non-English-speaking countries (ABS, Brisbane, 1992, in Alcorso and Harrison)

Migrants from non-English-speaking countries also experience higher rates of unemployment than people born in Australia.

The ABS labour force survey for the month of August 1992 shows that whilst the official Australian unemployment rate was 10.95 per cent, the unemployment rate for those born overseas in places identified as not "main English-speaking countries" was 14.5 per cent.

Within the latter group, some birthplace groups fared worse than others. People born in Vietnam and Lebanon, for example, had unemployment rates of 33.6 and 24.9 per cent respectively. (ABS, 1992, in RWRP)

According to the ABS 1986 census of population and housing, the difference in employment rates between Australian and overseas-born women is 34 per cent in favour of Australian-born women. (ABS, 1986, in Alcorso and Harrison)

The difference between unemployed youth is 30 per cent in favour of Australian-born youth. (ABS, 1984, in Unemployed Migrant Youth)

The retrenchment of older migrants from manufacturing has led to a divergence from the overall pattern of migrant unemployment. For instance, overseas-born persons of 55 years of age and over have experienced double the rate of unemployment of other Australians.

From the early 1970s to 1987, labour force participation rates of overseas-born males of all ages dropped from above to below that of the Australian-born. (RWRP)

In the case of retrenched migrant workers, economic factors such as restructuring and over-representation in the unskilled areas of manufacturing are obviously a primary cause of unemployment. However, just as the attributes of individual unemployed migrants are likely to be over represented in workplace retrenchments, they also help identify barriers to workforce re-entry. (RWRP)

Of the factors used to explain migrant unemployment, English language proficiency has been found to be the most important. Using the 1987 ABS Characteristics of Migrants Survey and the 1986 census data, Wooden found that the stark differences in the probability of unemployment between migrants of English-speaking and non-English-speaking backgrounds (with the exception of migrants who entered Australia as refugees) disappeared when differences in English language proficiency were taken into account. (RWRP)

Wooden also shows that lower rates of unemployment are associated with higher qualifications. However, it was also concluded that qualifications gained overseas do not have the same employment-enhancing effects as similar level qualifications gained in Australia. (RWRP)

Whilst this may be due, in some instances, to differences in the quality of education, in other instances systemic discrimination may play a part. Foster, Marshall and Williams, in their study of discrimination against immigrant workers, claim that systemic discrimination in the process of overseas qualification recognition derives from professional closure to minimise labour market competition from immigrants. (RWRP)

We should bear in mind that many of these statistics date from a period before the full effects of government "industrial reform" could be felt. The situation facing migrant workers now is undoubtedly worse than these figures show.

The restructuring and funding cutbacks to English language programs such as Adult English as a Second Language (ESL), the introduction of user-pays and severe cuts to all areas of migrant welfare place even greater pressures on migrants, whether employed or unemployed.

In addition, the government's labour market programs and retraining schemes have done little to address the special needs of migrant workers. In fact these programs and schemes, together with the attitudes of government departments and agencies such as the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES), have become yet another source of insecurity and frustration.

Evidence emerged in consultations with unemployed individuals and with community workers that interpreters were often not used for non-English-speaking background job seekers and that their use by the CES for Newstart and other interviews seems to vary greatly between regions. (RWRP)

These findings are supported by Milne and Zelinka (1991) and by the Migrant Employment Taskforce (1991) in its report on meetings with DEET and DSS officials over serious concerns about language service provision. (RWRP)

Some of the community workers consulted spoke of the sense of powerlessness that many job seekers felt in negotiating Newstart agreements. They claimed that in some CES offices, Newstart interviews were held in groups, making the negotiation of "quality" agreements even more difficult because of the embarrassment created for the participants who are required to relate personal information in the presence of strangers. (RWRP)

Specific examples of CES attitudes that emerged during the consultations included the following:

  • A recent immigrant from Hong Kong living in western Sydney was not able to have his qualifications as a motor mechanic recognised. He had been working repairing fork lifts until he was retrenched in 1990. He was given no information on appropriate bridging courses or other methods of gaining recognition of his skills and was undertaking a welding course at the time of the project consultation.
  • A man of Italian-speaking background who refused to do an eight week kitchen hand course reported that he was referred by the CES to a counselling service as an "unco-operative" client. He was later discovered by that agency to be an accomplished chef.
  • A group of women qualified as accountants and secretaries from South Pacific countries were sent to be trained in basic word processing. These were skills they had already acquired in their previous work. Following training, they were given work experience placements as word processor operators.
  • An Arabic-speaking man in western Sydney was told that he must do a course within 12 months. The CES did not find him the fork lift driving course he requested (which was appropriate to his previous experience) and told him he must undertake a welding course or have his unemployment benefit discontinued.
  • A Lebanese retrenched steel worker was sent on five job training courses: store warehousing, fork lift driving, food and beverage service, introduction to word processing, and cleaning. After the fifth course his frustration was apparent: "I'm 50 years old. Find me a job, find my kids a job, but don't send me on any more courses!"
  • A participant in a Lao discussion group had undertaken an eight week kitchen hand course and was greatly dissatisfied with the quality of the training provided. No English language or literacy was provided and his work experience involved cleaning, dish washing and waiting on tables.
  • A Turkish woman living in Wollongong who had successfully completed an ESL course at TAFE, an ITEC course in introductory and advanced computing and an interpreter's course was gloomy about her prospects and frustrated by the repeated training experiences: "The more courses I do, the more depressed I get because I think that this is the course that will make a difference to me getting a job and when I don't, I get even more depressed. I've done all these courses and now I can't get a job.... If I have to wait until the recession is ended, I may have lost my skills by then!" (RWRP)

On top of all this, migrant working people are blamed by many for the current unemployment rates and they suffer from racism, prejudice, discrimination, even hatred by many in government and non-government institutions.

Moreover, in the key area of power, control and representation in political and social institutions by migrants, and particularly migrant workers, is still at a very low level. This is despite the fact that over 40 per cent of the population are of migrant origin.

Although evidence suggests that the majority of migrants in Australia are to be found in the most disadvantaged sector of the workforce as unskilled or semi-skilled manual workers (Collins, 1975 and 1978; Storer, 1976; Morrissey and Jakubowicz, 1980), overall unions have done little to assist them. In fact, studies have shown that migrant workers, particularly those from non-English-speaking backgrounds, have long been one of the most neglected groups within the Australian trade unions. (Nicolaou, 1986)

A study by Hearn revealed a "high degree of ignorance among Australian union officials concerning the basic facts about their migrant members ... (such as) ... numbers, sex and nationality". (Hearn, 1976 in Nicolaou)

As Ross Martin says: "The typical union official is white, male, over twenty-four years of age, and was born either in Australia or the British Isles." Martin, 1980 in Nicolaou)

Hancock and Kupsh found only a few non-Anglo Saxon immigrants holding positions as office bearers (Hancock and Kupsh, 1970 in Matheson, 1977) while Tsounis could list fewer than 20 Greeks holding union positions throughout Australia. (Tsounis, 1971 in Matheson, 1977)

Zangalis reported that of the 700 delegates to the ACTU Congress, only five were born in non-English-speaking countries. (Zangalis, 1970) He observed a similar pattern at the 1981 ACTU Congress. This is despite the fact that immigrants actually form a majority of the membership of some trade unions. (Nicolaou)

Of the 711 full time officials identified by a study of NSW unions in 1983 to 1984, there were only 17 who were overseas-born women. Of these ten were from English-speaking countries and seven from non-English-speaking countries. Of the latter seven, two were employed as telephonists and interpreters. (Nicolaou)

At a time when enterprise agreements and industrial "reform" are acknowledged to be hitting migrant women hardest, less than 2.5 per cent of union officials are actually migrant women and less than one per cent are migrant women from non-English-speaking countries.

It is evident that in addition to the problems faced by all workers, migrant workers also have to face all the problems that come with being a migrant. And in addition to all the problems confronting migrant workers, migrant women in the workforce also have to face the problems confronting all women in the workforce.

Our Party, as a party of the working class, must fulfill its responsibilities in defending and fighting for migrant workers' rights as they form the largest and most disadvantaged group in the blue collar sector of our working class.I believe the process of building the credibility of our Party, not only amongst migrant workers but all workers, is dependent to a large extent on how in practice, and not just in theory, we face this task.

We should be seen by migrant workers, as well as by all other workers, as the vanguard in the fight for the implementation of real and genuine multiculturalism, including equal opportunities for migrant workers at all levels.

Only by setting an example in terms of understanding, appreciation, sensitivity and sacrifice for migrant workers' special needs and demands will we be able to influence them and inspire their struggles as an integrated part of the total working class movement for democracy, progress and socialism.

Further discussions at all levels of our Party are required in order to develop greater understanding of multiculturalism, migrant workers' rights and their role in the struggle of the working class.

Furthermore, it is essential for Party organisations to strengthen their links with migrant organisations and individuals and to develop common programs of action in order to advance the course of a left and progressive political alternative.

Party organisations should take initiatives in producing multilingual publications (bulletins, leaflets, petitions and so forth) concerning specific migrant workers' demands. These include:

  • equal opportunities;
  • the provision of English classes on the job;
  • the establishment of work-based childcare centres;
  • effective safety measures at workplaces;
  • full recognition of overseas qualifications;
  • special care for elderly migrants;
  • the extension of community language teaching to all levels of public education;
  • the extension of free translating and interpreting services to all official and public institutions;
  • serious attention to and campaigns in defence of migrant workers' rights by trade unions;
  • better representation of migrant workers within unions.

Retrenched Workers' Right Project (RWRP). Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. January 1993.

Caroline Alcorso and Graham Harrison, Blue Collar and Beyond: The Experiences of Non-English Speaking Background Women in the Australian Labour Force. Commonwealth-State Council on Non-English Speaking Background Women's Issues. 1993.

Unemployed Migrant Youth (comments on the AIMA Report). Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW Occasional Papers. No 9. July 1985.

Loucas Nicolaou, A Working Paper on Class, Ethnicity and Gender: Implications for Immigrants' Position in Union Structures. February 1986. Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW.

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