Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Unions urged to oppose migrant 'scapegoating'

Unionists Laila Harre, Dennis Maga and Syd Keepa. Photo: Violet Cho.

By Violet Cho: Pacific Media Centre

Unionists and migrant activists have urged the nation’s trade unions to take a strong stand against racism and xenophobia following redundancies of some local workers by two companies that retained skilled temporary migrant workers.

Dennis Maga, a union organiser from the newly formed Filipino group Migrante Aotearoa, called for a fair deal for migrant workers.

"The fact is that migrant workers are working in New Zealand. They should be treated equally," he said.

"We shouldn't allow racism and xenophobia to create division among the workers."

Other speakers at the public meeting at the Auckland Trades Hall tonight included Laila Harre, national secretary of the National Distribution Union; Syd Keepa of the Council of Trade Unions Runanga; John Minto from Unite Union; and Mike Treen from Global Peace and Justice Auckland.

Two recent cases sparked negative media coverage of migrant labour. Local staff were laid off at MCK Metals Pacific in New Plymouth and CWF Hamilton while migrant workers on temporary visas remained employed.

Immigration Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman has asked the department to investigate the revocation of skilled migrant permits.

Union speakers called for a stop to attacks on migrant workers, saying migrant and local workers were equal.

Maga said many migrants uprooted themselves and their families to come to New Zealand, selling their house and possessions. If they were sent back, they could be left with nothing.

Laila Harre said: “The recession and lay-offs always give oxygen to fear and blame and we’ve already seen some of it here.

“We need to give oxygen to hope”.

She argued that it is essential to push for a higher minimum wage and invest in jobs that benefit the community, both for New Zealand workers and migrant workers.

Laila added that trade unions needed to fight to protect all people’s rights to work, no matter where they were from and what their visa is.

“A trade union’s job is not to be immigration police… otherwise they’re just complicit in the exploitation of migrants in the boom bust cycle,” she said.

Some politicians such as Dr Coleman have argued for priority to be given to local jobs over those of temporary migrants.

This effectively scapegoated migrant workers and people of colour for economic problems and job loss, rather than the government, employers and the global economy, Harre said.

Syd Keepa reminded people that everyone was a migrant in New Zealand, including the tangata whenua.

“We all are immigrants here. First Māori and later came Dutch and French. Most were welcomed,” he said.

He also contrasted the current atmosphere with the economic downturn in the 1970s, when migrants were also scapegoated.

At that time, the police routinely harassed Pacific Islanders and carried out dawn raids.

“New Zealand has a bad history of treating migrants during hard times,” he said.

John Minto called for no jobs for profit.

“Nobody should not be laid while a company is making profit, regardless of whether they’re local or migrant,” he said.

In 2007-2008, 188,000 temporary migrant worker visas were issued by the New Zealand government.

Violet Cho is the PMC's Asian Journalism Fellow.

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