In a very encouraging development amidst the recent nationalist statements made by some union leaders, over 100 migrant workers, unionists and migrant advocates met in Auckland in April to discuss the way forward.
Dennis Maga spoke on behalf of Migrante Aotearoa, a trade union-supported project that actively defends migrant workers. He discussed two widely-reported cases where employers had made dozens of workers redundant, but retained migrants on work permits. Migrante is concerned that the right wing backlash unleashed in the wake of such cases could further marginalise migrants, and in future, migrant workers may be prioritised for redundancy.
Laila Harre, of the National Distribution Union told the meeting: “It is not the job of the trade union movement to become immigration police. We have a responsibility to defend all workers. Otherwise, we become complicit in the exploitation of workers in the boom and bust cycle of capitalism.”
Mike Treen of Unite union argued that: “Capital has unlimited freedom of movement, but labour does not, and that’s not right.”
After the speakers from the platform were taken finished, a lively discussion followed. Jared Phillips, of the Workers Party, pointed out some of the contradictions in the the NDU’s stance. On the one hand, Harre’s statements in support of migrants were very welcome, but on the other hand, the union has supported campaigns such as “Buy NZ made”, which imply that Kiwi workers have more in common with their own bosses than with other workers overseas. We cannot be too surprised when such commonplace economic nationalism spills over into political nationalism.
Most of the panel took issue with the Workers Party’s opposition to all immigration controls. Mike Treen of Unite counterposed fighting for freedom of movement for workers across the Pacific to “open borders”. The suggestion was advanced that the latter position was too advanced for workers in the current conditions. Conversely, the Workers Party argued that this radical demand was necessary to drive forward the interests of both migrant and NZ workers. In the face of globalisation it is necessary for the working class to develop an outlook that is based on internationalism. The union movement should concentrate its energies on resisting redundancies root and branch, rather than encouraging workers to fight amongst themselves over who gets the few remaining crumbs.
But despite the political limitations evident in the speeches from the trade union leaders, the meeting was an overwhelmingly positive initiative for the movement. The spectre of organised migrant labour is one that has the potential to revitalise the whole working class.