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Issue #1904      February 24, 2020

Migrant workers: a growing integration on a base of internationalism

One of the main characteristics of the contemporary Australian working class is its international origin.

In the Broadmeadows plant of Fords in Victoria, thirty-one per cent of all workers are Greeks, twenty-eight per cent Italian, and only twenty-two per cent are either British or Australian born.

Non-British migrants make up substantial and often majority percentages of the entire labour force in key industries such as vehicle, steel, building, transport, clothing, rubber, glass, liquor and food.

Whilst before the war ninety per cent of Australia’s migrant intake was of British nationality, since 1945 of the 2,150,000 people who have settled permanently in Australia, 1,200,000 have come from non-British European countries.

An average of 120,000 people have been arriving annually in Australia in the past twenty-one years.

For many of them Australia is a strange land, where perhaps a very little snow falls in August, animals carry their babies in pouches and 5,000 to 10,000 people work under the one roof for one boss.

The labour movement’s traditional question mark over immigration became a bigger one when dark-haired migrants began to arrive.

The worst has not happened. Living standards did not break down and Soccer has not taken over Australian Rules and Rugby.

Economic conditions have, of course, assisted decisively.

At the same time, the pouring of migrants into the fast-growing monopoly enterprises, such as GMH and BHP, soon confronted them with bitter class conflicts, involving very often their dignity as human beings.

Under those conditions migrants feel the need to strive for working class unity and action.

The GMH and Mount Isa strikes, which have added a golden page in the struggle book of the Australian labour movement, had as their main prop the determination and accumulated anger of the migrant workers to do battle against the greed and arrogance of two of the world’s largest monopolies.

Leadership

A feature of these struggles, particularly that in GMH was the ability of many migrants to give leadership to the workers in the language and manner in which it was understood and appreciated and a growing unity between overseas and locally born workers.

Far from being an obstacle, the use of the Greek and Italian languages, the flow of the militant traditions of Italy, Greece or Finland, proved to be a very powerful unifying and fighting factor.

Migrants do not cut their links with the countries of their birth on departure. Social and political thinking continues to be influenced not only by past experiences but also current developments in the “old country.”

In Europe such developments favour a progressive leftward trend, ranging from opposition to the American aggressive war in Vietnam to national integrity, independence, and democratic alliances.

Impatience

For another feature of these struggles was a definite degree of impatience and anarchism arising but of the non-working class origin of many migrants, the opportunist nature of immigration and the difficulty to understand the tactical line of the unions, their craft composition and the function of the arbitration system.

Building trade union consciousness is a major and elementary task as most southern-Europeans, the great bulk of the non-British migrants, become workers for the first time in their lives, a fact that takes a while to accept.

The policy of the ruling class is to make migrants occupy an inferior social and economic position. Migrants, as a rule, get the lowest paid jobs and the oldest inner suburban houses, formerly occupied by the poorest sections of the locally born working class.

Policies of economic and social discrimination have the effect of creating second-class citizens and workers. This benefits only the rich. The labour movement has a material and moral interest to fight against it.

The left-wing which is conscious of the need for internationalism is held in high esteem and respect amongst migrants.

Continued mass immigration, its concentration in particular suppressed areas, the need for migrants to face the new world together, and to retain their national characteristics and traditions, act as stimulus to the growth of national minority consciousness and organisation in industry and locality.

Recognition of the relevance to Australia’s progress of the migrants’ distinct ideas and traditions, and support for the right to develop in this direction is a positive expression of working-class unity and internationalism.

The migrants themselves realise their best interests are not being served in isolation from the rest’ of the working people.

This article appeared in Tribune, May 1967.

Next article – Students’ Report – HEROIC STORY OF “FREEDOM RIDE”

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