Saturday, January 01, 2005

A return to "coolie" labour?

Australian capitalism is progressing all the way to the .... nineteenth century. An economic development board for the Sunraysia district (a dry, sparsely populated area of northern Victoria and parts of South Australia and NSW) has reached an agreement with a Chinese company to import up to 10,000 workers to pick fruit.

10,000 Chinese workers for the Sunraysia district! It's like importing an entire workforce, and, although it may not be polite to say so, it's not dissimilar to the colonial plantation economies of the nineteenth century which also relied on imported "coolie" (cheap Chinese or Indian) labour.

The plan has not been accepted yet by the Federal Government (and hopefully won't be), and has met the opposition of the Australian Workers Union (AWU). This union is actually attempting to do its job and defend the working conditions of its members.

The National Secretary of the AWU, Bill Shorten, said of the plan that,
The AWU is already sceptical that fruit growers are providing the legal minimum wages and conditions for fruit pickers. We are concerned that the mass importation of cheap Chinese labour will be used to drive down Australian pay rates, safety standards (and conditions).

So-called guest labourers from China will be vulnerable to exploitation by employers and middle-men ... It is hypocritical of citrus growers to increase their prices during shortages in the supply of labour. If market forces are good enough for employers' prices, then they should be good enough for workers' wages.

One conclusion to draw from all this is that conservatives can't be uncritical of the workings of capitalism. It's true that conservatives will prefer a market system to a communist style state controlled economy. However, the profit motive doesn't always lead people to act in the interests of their own communities. There have to be rules in place, within which the profit motive can operate, but which protect the higher values of the community. It's for this reason that I can't agree with those who try to define conservatism primarily as a defence of the free market.

No comments:

Post a Comment