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Paying Attention To Cultural Diversity Essential In Building A Strong Working Class Movement

Written by: Ned K. on 24 October 2020


Recently I learned about a struggle of migrant workers in a food processing factory that had some good lessons worth sharing.

About thirty workers in this factory were employed by a contractor to clean machinery each day after production had finished. They had regular work as long as their boss kept the contract with the food processing owner. About twenty of the workers were from the same Asian country. Some had been working the same job since they came to Australia ten years ago. They helped more recent migrant workers from the same home country get jobs with the contractor too. 

All of the workers were part-time with a few working seven hours a day and the majority six hours a day. A minority of the migrant workers were in their union, others not. Those in their union had regular contact with their Organizer off-site as there was little time to meet on site in the half hour meal break time in the noisy factory.

Apart from the occasional issue about pays and leave entitlements, those in their union said that the jobs were ok and their boss not too bad.

Then all of a sudden, the factory owner decided to invite a couple of other contractors to put in quotes for the job. The factory owner called this "testing the market". Not surprisingly, one of these hopeful contractors put in a price that claimed the job could be done by each worker working five and a half hours instead of six or seven hours a shift.

The factory owner thought this was pretty good and gave the existing contractor their marching orders. The factory owner arranged for the new contractor to meet all thirty workers. The factory manager attended the meeting too. He was surprised that some of the migrant workers spoke up and said it was impossible to do the job in five and a half hour shifts. 

The next day, the factory owner reversed his decision to give the work to the new contractor with the cheaper price and told the existing contractor that their contract was extended but on different terms. The contractors' workers would have to do the job in six and a half hours per worker per shift and there would be no seven more seven-hour shifts.

Some of the union members who were on seven-hour shifts contacted their Organizer to ask what could be done. The Organizer said that if the factory owner had altered the terms of the commercial contract with their boss, then the best strategy was for all twenty migrant workers to accept the six and a half hour shifts, but tell their boss they doubted whether all the work could be done without the maintenance of some seven-hour shifts. 

The minority union members all agreed this was the way to go. Keep employed and fight the workload issue over time to get back the seven-hour jobs.

A couple of days later though the union members contacted their Organizer and said all of the twenty migrant workers had signed a letter of resignation to their boss. The Organizer was surprised and asked why. The union members said that the leaders of their community who worked in the factory with them had held a meeting and decided that unless their boss and the factory owner gave seven hours to every worker they would resign on mass. The community leaders thought the factory owner would cave in and give the contractor the go ahead to give every worker seven-hour shifts.

It didn't work!  The factory owner maintained the renewed contract which paid for six and a half hour shifts and the existing contractor had to hire another twenty inexperienced workers!

The Organizer asked the union members why they didn't accept the six and a half hour shifts and keep their jobs? They said that in their community all the workers, whether union or not, follow their community leaders.

This was their democracy. 

The Organizer learned from this experience that within the workers’ movement, it is essential to have detailed analysis of the diversity of workers in any workplace, including who are the natural leaders, especially within migrant communities within those workplaces.   


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