The Guardian • Issue #1999

Samoan workers pressured to quit union, told unions are for “white people”

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #1999

It emerged last month that Samoan workers have been pressured by a senior official of their government not to join trade unions in Australia. Aufa’i Fulisiailagitele Saleuesile, Samoa’s labor attache to Australia said that unions were institutions for “white people” who do not have Samoan workers’ best interests at heart.

He told workers on the Pacific seasonal workers program:

“The white people, who are in these unions, there are some unions that their performance are not good on the job, there are some unions who just came to ruin, come to look for destruction, seeking the bad […]. Leave the union you joined […] leave immediately. If the union asked why you are leaving, tell them the government of Samoa said to leave.”

The United Workers Union (UWU), who represent workers in seasonal agricultural work, including many Samoan workers, strongly dispute the claim that they are not acting in workers’ best interests. One Samoan worker, a member of UWU, stated:

“The union is for everyone, not just for white people […]. I would suggest to the government to look for a solution before we lose this opportunity for our people.”

Other Samoan workers have reported being threatened with deportation and told not to join unions in Australia.

UWU National Secretary Tim Kennedy says that the union is “appalled” by the coercion of Samoan workers and that the union will do whatever it takes to enforce their workers’ rights. Under the Fair Work Act, it is illegal to coerce workers not to join a union. The right to organise is also protected at international law by an ILO Convention on the freedom of association, which Samoa has ratified. 

This campaign of intimidation is an attempt to prevent workers from raising concerns about low wages and poor conditions in the industry, something UWU has been fighting for a long time (see Guardian #1987: “A Win For Farmworkers As FWC Rules On Minimum Wage”). The motivations of the government become more suspect due to the setting in which these threats were made: a meeting arranged by a labour-hire firm.

Identity politics are used by reactionary forces to obscure from workers where their class interests truly lie by pitting workers against other workers based on their race, gender, religion, or nationality.

The truth is, poor Samoan agricultural workers have more in common with other Australian agricultural workers than their government or the labour-hire companies want them to believe. All workers in Australia deserve to be paid a living wage in safe working conditions. This is not just an issue for “white people”.

When workers recognise their class interests, they are equipped with the tools to organise and fight back against the interests of capital. Hence, governments and big businesses will fight unionisation tooth and nail. We have seen this in the United States with the attempts of Amazon to unionise. Trade unions are vital to building this class consciousness. The freedom to associate should be protected at all costs.

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