Launch of Aust Research Council Report on Diasporas in Australia

15 August 2012

 “Diaspora communities, our workforce and our workplace system”



15 August 2012




Here in Australia, in Canberra, in Parliament House --- in this great meeting place of ideas and history, despite rancour on some issues we’ve all expressed words that both sides of the political aisle might happily utter.

We are a liberal democracy, young with much to learn, but also with much to teach. 

We have a largely tolerant, and certainly stable, polity.                                              

We are the only country on this planet that is a continent.

We are wealthy of soil, good of humour, free of spirit and lucky of nature. 

But no one owes us a living.

We are a plutocratic society, with tensions and tussles to be sure.  But we generally embrace multiculturalism with enthusiasm.

 We welcome and acknowledge our great fortune that so many sons and daughters of foreign souls choose Australia to be their home.

 And it is because we are built upon the diversity of nations, that we are great.

 Commenting on his own diaspora, the considerable British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie said this:

 “Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”

 My father was a migrant. I understand a little.

 Perhaps being part of that disapora means leaving towns which you never again see, play mates, the family, the songs – that’s what it means to bring a migrant story to the Australian story.

 Certainly I think there is a great story not just of endurance, but of prevailing, when it comes to how so many within the Italian, Vietnamese, Tongan and Macedonian communities are able to look back on their collective Australian experience at work.

As the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, upon having a look into the specific topic of migrant communities and how they have shaped Australia’s workplaces, and the workplace relations system we have, it becomes swiftly clear that the existing body of work tends to chiefly focus either on the barriers migrants (particularly some migrant groups) face in accessing the labour market, or the broader economic contributions made by migrants in Australia. 

 But there can be no doubt that your communities have made substantial contributions not just to work, but how we work, our relationships at work, and the fair go system we now work within.

 Let’s look at our Italian friends for example.

 Some authors in the field have argued that at first glance the political and workplace relations impact by Italian settlers and other migrants would appear to be small.

 Yes, it was post war Italian migrants, along with Croatian, Maltese and Greek concreters, trades assistants, scaffolders, riggers, plant operators and asphalters who built Australia’s roads and factories.

 These new Australians were joiners... football clubs, workers clubs, schools, choirs and trade unions.

 Union membership for overseas-born workers has been higher than for the Australian-born throughout the post war era.

 Yet initially there was a suspicion that immigrants were seen as a threat to wages and conditions, which made many migrants feel unwelcome in the labour movement early on.

 Nonetheless the leaders of the Australian post war union movement who had never seen full employment led from the front welcoming the great diaspora.

 These migrant workers also often lacked knowledge about their industrial rights.  But there have been many unwritten examples of migrant workers substantially impacting on workplace conditions.

 Our history written in small parts by Italian worker struggles was a one day hunger strike in Melbourne demanding ‘work or repatriation’ by workers brought out to Australia on two year contracts only to find they were unemployed.

 The following year Italian workers sued the Commonwealth Government for breach of work contracts.

 Other migrant workers, particularly Greeks and Italians, have been involved in various significant struggles over pay and work conditions over the years, such as the improvements at GMH in Victoria in the 1960s. The progress secured pay increases and improved work conditions for Holden workers.

 In the 1970s union leaders began to really take notice of migrant workers and Italian union organisers like Nando Lelli and my old union became well known figures in the steel workers’ homes of the Illawara.

 More recently, Tongan workers too have been valuable contributors to the success of Australia’s modern, flexible workforce. 

 Today the Pacific Seasonal Workers scheme has become a masthead of this durability. Having organised fruit pickers along the Murray in Robinvale I’ve seen firsthand the strong love of family, hard work and fun.

 As the research report we are welcoming today notes, consistent with Tonga’s small population, the Tongan diaspora in Australia is small, comprising around 18,000 people.   

The paper emphasises there is a deep sense of ‘being Tongan’ within the Diaspora and, surely strengthened by our geographic proximity, there are strong feelings of closeness with the homeland. 

 I believe it is not only touching, but enlightening, for the wider Australian community, to reflect upon the Tongan people’s strong custom of care-giving and philanthropy within their community -- the remittances to family members are a mainstay of their domestic economy and their Australian working life. 

 As the report notes - this includes extended family members and to a lesser extent, siblings and community members.  About half of all survey respondents say that they send money regularly throughout the year.

 Given how much we all derive from our jobs - our workplaces - there is much to applaud in the Tongan tradition of work, family and community.

 Our job is where we significantly define relationships with each other, our families and with our country and the whole world around us.

 It’s not only where we earn our income, but how we shape our lifestyles, and build savings for our retirement.

 We derive much of our self-identity and confidence from work.

 It is where we build our economy, political stability, community and society – and therefore what the future will be like for our children.

 I believe the Tongan community working in Australia, and each of the other diaspora communities explored in this research – they get these connections and grow from them.

 The commercial capacity of diasporas is undoubted.

I find it interesting, for example, that there are such high rates of property ownership back in Macedonia by Macedonian Australians – with almost half of respondents in the research report confirming they own land and/or houses back in the old country.

 Yet the Macedonian diaspora in Australia has one of the highest rates of taking on Australian citizenship – highlighting, I believe, the welcome and warm sense of genuinely being an Aussie while also being very proud of where you come from.

 Some of the initial interpretations we can take from another part of the survey is also worth remark.  For the Macedonian diaspora, the major reason for coming to Australia was ‘to seek a better quality of life’ (some 37%). 

 Yet only 12.5% of survey respondents identified ‘escaping from conflict’ (such as the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s) as the primary driver for their migration.

 As the research concludes:

 “...the ‘pull’ to Australia had a greater influence than the ‘push’ from Macedonia in explaining migration.

 I think this clearly shows that the Macedonian diaspora looked to the opportunity of a working life in Australia with great enthusiasm rather than heavy hearted reluctance.

 Let me acknowledge the contribution of Vietnamese Australians.

 The Vietnamese community have also been unique and enthusiastic contributors to our economy, prosperity and community.  And to strengthening and protecting rights in the workplace.

 ‘Outworkers’ are of course people who work from home in the textiles industry, sewing clothing, and who are generally paid on a per piece basis, rather than an hourly rate.

 The majority of outworkers in Australia are Vietnamese and Chinese women.

 Organisations such as Asian Women at Work have been active in lobbying for more effective protection of outworkers’ rights in the industrial relations system.

 Along with the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union, organisations like Asian Women at Work should be very proud of their achievement earlier this year is seeing important protections for outworkers legislated through the Parliament by this Labor Government.

 I might add that the historic record of the textile and garment industry reveals many incidents of resistance and struggle against abuse and exploitation. 

 As has been aptly noted by academic followers of the TCF cause, like Andrew Ross that “it is because these industries have seen some of the worst labour excesses, they have also been associated with historic victories for labour, and hold a prominent symbolic spot on the landscape of labour iconography”.

 It is a painful reality that migrants for whom English is their second language have often had to bear a disproportionate part of the burden of structural change in the Australian economy over the years and have been (and still are) often exploited or less protected wage labourers as a result.

 Only last week I participated in some very good discussions back in Melbourne with African community leaders about their difficulties and opportunities in today’s labour market and workplaces.

 Despite the all the difficulties, the diaspora communities that enliven and enrich Australia continue to prevail, and not just endure, in workplaces across the country.

 In Hall Street, Moonee Ponds, where my Melbourne office is located, within a 1 minute walk there is a great Vietnamese baker, quality Greek coffee and taramasalata, Chinese and Vietnamese laundries, mouth watering Thai, Lao, Indian and Japanese cooking, Lebanese nuts and small goods and a quality Italian butcher. 

 I might add there is also a KFC right next door and a K-Mart literally beneath my office floor.

 This is the ‘middle Australia’ suburb of Dame Edna Everage.  It’s modern Australia, and these are modern, diverse workplaces in a modern diverse multicultural community.

 I firmly believe we are all better for it. 

 And I welcome this Australian Research Council study as a worthy contribution to what is a great and large people story in this great and large land.

 Thank you and congratulations.