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Issue #1431      14 October 2009

Delegates Speak: workers’ rights

More than 35 delegates made a contribution during Congress, covering a wide range of issues. Some spoke about their party branch and the struggles they are involved in, others addressed issues in the draft Political Resolution or took up broader political and ideological questions. Many devoted time to improving party work and building the Party. High amongst the issues discussed was the struggle of workers for their rights.

ABCC

Dean Holland, a delegate from the Brisbane Branch of the CPA works in the construction industry, and spoke forcefully about the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). Dean’s message was clear: “Abolish the ABCC now!”

“The ABCC, from the time of its entry into the building industry has tried to cripple and tear away from workers long-earned rights, wages and conditions… This unmitigated police force of the construction industry that accuses union members and officials of coercion and illegal entry and denies them the right to address such matters as safety issues, wages and conditions must be stopped now. Building and construction workers have always stood in the shadows of uncertainty, at risk of injury and fatal accidents.”

The construction employers will not let up in their attacks or support for the ABCC. It will take total unity on a national scale to defeat the legislation, Dean said. The struggle under the Your Rights @ Work banner that saw the defeat of the Howard government demonstrates what is possible.

Dean made some comparisons with the anti-terrorism laws which give suspected terrorists more rights than those of a building worker under the ABCC’s powers of coercive interrogation.

He recalled the 1980s, the erosion of trade union rights and conditions commenced under the Hawke Labor government. This was picked up by union-bashing, barrister Peter Costello, a minister in the John Howard government and is continues today under the leadership of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

In the 1990s, Trouble Shooters and other labour hire firms made inroads into the industry, with workers being bought and sold on the national labour market. “Today we have the national agreement preserving the state award. This keeps a labour hire company from being tied to an enterprise bargaining agreement.

“Labour hire; human beings for sale or hire. Welcome to the 21st century of indentured labour, hence labour hire!” Dean concluded my making a comparison with the trade in human labour and companies paying to pollute under an emissions trading scheme.

Union Solidarity

Dean Turner, an unemployed worker from the Melbourne Branch of the CPA, also took up the question of trade union struggle. He spoke about the experiences and lessons gained from involvement in the organisation known as Union Solidarity.

Union Solidarity was an activist organisation which grew up from the grass roots level to counteract the Howard government’s anti-union WorkChoices and ABCC legislation. “The new laws prevented unions from supporting their members in the usual ways, so the community assembly was born. Union Solidarity would be told of disputes breaking out … and would then approach the workers in the dispute with offers of solidarity and assistance. They proved quite effective in assisting the conventional unions with their activites…”

Dean Turner spoke about the activities of his local branch and questioned why, once the Howard government had been defeated and Labor came to office, the Union Solidarity groups were wound up. Those unions that had given financial backing, he said, withdrew their support.

“There were some very positive outcomes,” Dean said. “The first is that when workers at one site were supported by Union Solidarity, they would then become aware of struggles at other sites, and would often offer their support… Many participants drew inspiration from this. Another positive outcome was that some real progress has been made towards unity between the various left groupings.”

Stolen wages

Another delegate, a legal worker in the field, addressed the exploitation of Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians since colonisation have been subject to discriminatory and restrictive policies.

“Under Aboriginal protectionist acts, various state and federal authorities restricted and controlled the movements, marriages, children, communities, employment and money of Indigenous peoples,” she told Congress.

In the remote Northern Territory areas, they were removed forcibly by police and government officials from their lands and put to work on cattle stations, the predominant employer of Indigenous people living in remote areas of the Northern Territory.

“Often, whole families were made to work on the stations in various roles, including as stockworkers, fencers, gardeners, irrigators, road and infrastructure builders, domestic servants and sex workers. Everyone from children to the elderly had a role in the upkeep of cattle stations. On occasions, this removal policy also went hand in hand with the policy of child removal responsible for the ‘Stolen Generations’.”

Some Indigenous workers were not paid at all, others had their income held in government accounts – under the Aboriginal Protection Acts.

“The placement of Indigenous workers’ income in government accounts or as credit on station stores meant they rarely saw any money at all. This contrasted with their non-Indigenous counterparts on the cattle stations who were often paid above-award wages, as well as provided with their keep.

“The policy of withholding wages kept Indigenous people subservient and at the mercy of governments and employers who controlled what they ate and how they were clothed and ensured they were bound to the government and employer.”

The Howard government’s Northern Territory Intervention effectively reinvoked policies that existed under the Protection Acts and which had led to many of the existing problems in Indigenous communities. “A key feature of the Intervention is the blanket quarantining of Indigenous welfare income in prescribed Indigenous communities. This policy echoes those of past governments responsible for the ‘stolen wages’ of Aboriginal people.

“The essence of the income control legislation is that it automatically assigns 50 percent of Indigenous peoples’ welfare money to a government account that can be reimbursed in certain (licensed) stores for items approved by the government. Centrelink staff determine the ‘priority needs’ of welfare recipients, their family and dependants, and regulate spending accordingly.

“At the same time, the federal government continues to dismiss arguments for repaying Indigenous stolen wages. It’s vital that as communists we see Indigenous rights as not separate to but intimately related to workers’ rights.”

Deaths in custody

Richard Titelius, a union delegate in the Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association and member of the Perth Branch of the CPA is actively involved in supporting Aboriginal people in their struggles for compensation for abuse suffered as members of the Stolen Generations (as a member of the Bringing them Home Committee) and Black Deaths in Custody.

He reminded delegates of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island, of a Noongar man from Katanning who died from injuries suffered while being taken into custody in Perth and the most recent death in custody which occurred to a respected Aboriginal Elder while being transported in oppressive heat in a prison van.

“The community activism of which I was a part of with the Party and other community groups succeeded in applying pressure to have a coronial inquest and then having the government earnestly implement the recommendations of the Coroner,” he said.

Indian students

The violent attacks on students from India hit the media worldwide. There are more than 30,000 Indian students in Australia, a considerable source of cheap and vulnerable labour and an important source of “export income” in the form of course fees.

Dahni, one of several Indian students at Congress, pointed out that about nine months ago the Australian government started making restrictions on who could come here to study. The government is focusing on richer students for India and Asia who, he said, the government expects will become part of the capitalist class and not join the left in Australia.

The government’s strategy is “acting against working class students from Third World countries, if you are poor you shouldn’t come here.”

Media publicity of the attacks is affecting student intake. Approximately 50 percent are reconsidering coming here and now students are becoming involved in left politics, Dhani said.

There is a great deal the Party can do in the Indian community to expose the situation and to give support to the community.

Migrant communities

Several delegates talked about work in the migrant communities. “Most come to Australia because of economic and political reasons, because of war,” said Penny Costa, a school teacher and member of the Cypriot Branch. “They are marginalised, down trodden, given the worst jobs, and are low paid. It is important to build bridges with migrant organisations.”

The Greek Orthodox Community has been around for 110 years and left and progressive forces have worked hard in it to promote progressive Greek culture and the rights of migrants, Penny said.

Unemployed

Allan Hamilton, a pensioner from Cootamundra (south-west of Sydney), took up the question the unemployed in regional Australia where the recession has hit hard. He assists unemployed workers in their battles for their rights. “Some unemployed can go 10 weeks with no income because of the actions of some bureaucrat,” he said. “We need to assist these workers.”

Allan pointed to the need for a national unemployed union to cover victims of the crisis across Australia.

Andrew Hayward from the Perth Branch also stressed the importance of organising the unemployed. He pointed to the many newly unemployed who are facing the reality of capitalism for the first time. “They will be wanting change.”

There will be further coverage of Congress discussion in next week’s Guardian.

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