Thousands march in Perth for skills and union rights

Deeply angered by moves by the resources and mining industry to replace union labour with super-exploited workers from overseas and the employers’ blatant disregard for necessary skills training among unemployed youth, thousands marched in Perth on July 4 to demand that the industry giants negotiate with their employees about who is to share in the massive profits they have generated and expect to earn.

Stoking the anger at the rally were the ramping up of attacks on maritime workers’ unions by Chevron, a major player in the resource industry, and the intentions of Gina Rinehart, reputedly the world’s richest woman, whose mining empire managed to cajole the federal Labor government into a legal arrangement, an enterprise migration agreement, allowing her to introduce migrant labour, a reported 1700 workers, into her new Roy Hill mine.

The rally highlighted that despite unemployment among youth — as high as 25% in the working class suburbs of Kwinana — and among Aboriginal people, the mining and resources industry has paid scant regard to training and skills despite the billions of dollars it has gouged out of the soil and ocean for corporate profits.

It was very clear to the estimated 7000 who attended the rally that the mining and resource industry intended to use any means not only to maximise its already bloated profits, but also to prevent organised labour demanding our rights — or the rights of those it seeks to employ from overseas.

MUA campaign

The Maritime Union of Australia has campaigned against Chevron for the past eight months over its attempts, through its contractors, to pit foreign labour against union labour. Chevron has urged its minion companies to replace MUA members, who have consistently fought for decent pay and conditions for Australian-based members, with super-exploited foreign labour.

Chevron has the collusion of federal government ministers and the courts. AllSeas, a Chevron contractor, won a decision in the Federal Court using the former Howard government’s excision laws against asylum seekers. The ruling allows the use of non-union labour from overseas on pipe-laying ships operating beyond the 12-mile limit.

Another contractor, Schenker, was granted a continuous vessel permit, allowing it to operate a barge in intrastate shipping between Henderson in Perth and Barrow Island. Both decisions permit these contractors to operate with poorly paid crew from overseas while MUA members were “put on the beach” despite being capable of operating on the pipe-laying vessels and barges. (The Filipino crew on the RollDock Sun, the barge of Schenker, had been paid only $30 a week until the MUA intervened.)

Attacks on the union movement have also come from senior federal Labor ministers, who now accuse the union movement, principally the MUA, of having too high expectations of the return for their labour. The federal government is now considering radical changes to its FairWork laws to close loopholes under its protected bargaining provisions, which are the only chance for unions to promote members’ interests — something the MUA has used very successfully in enterprise agreement negotiations.

So the stakes are high for the union movement in Australia, with the threat of replacement of unionists by non-union crews and now a legal entitlement to use whoever mining companies want to gouge their profits for them.

Employer lies

Of course the industry will use whatever lies it can to undermine concerns that led to the rally. Its corporate watchdog, the Australian Mines and Metals Association, has accused the unions, of all things, of racism and organising an “anti-migrant” campaign.

Nearly all of the union officials, both state and federal, answered powerfully at the rally, pointing out this was not a campaign against using foreign labour if job opportunities were given to trained unemployed first. This campaign was directed at the exploiters, not workers from foreign soil. The 7000 marched on Gina Rinehart’s offices, not on government offices to demand the expulsion of foreign workers.

Chris Cain, secretary of the WA MUA, eloquently addressed the rally about who the real racists are. “It is the BHPs, who allow a Filipino crew in Port Headland at the moment, to be trapped on a vessel for 15 months despite legal obligations to these seafarers. And who is going to their rescue? The MUA!” In response to this defiant message, and many others from union officials, there were thunderous applause and cheers.

The rally will be part of an ongoing campaign against the union-busting strategy of the oligarchs, who think they own both resources and workers, wherever they come from. There will be many other rallies, campaigns and actions in the coming months to defend the rights of young Australians to work, the rights of union labour to operate and the rights of foreign workers on Australian soil.

Direct Action — July 9, 2012