Last night, a 4Corners’ report briefly explored the reprehensible, racist treatment of migrant workers in the picking and packing steps of the food industry in Australia.
There are many intricate connections between the food and detention industries. Some of them are however quite direct.
On the one hand, workers who complain or speak out are confronted with having their visas cancelled, sent to a detention centre and deported. Think about that: if you complain about your work, your boss, you are faced with being interned with no charges laid or trial, and will likely have your visa cancelled and be forced to leave.
On the other hand, there is a close personal and political proximity between the food and detention industries in Australia.
Woolworths’ repeated sale of merchandise such as the “If You Don’t Like It Leave” tshirts begins to look less like an order made in error, or even to do with freedom of speech in a narrow sense, than a clear directive to its migrants workers to either put up with hyper-exploitation and racism or else. The same goes for Aldi’s tshirt range, eventually withdrawn under pressure:
Also, Diane Smith-Gander is both the Chairman [sic] of Transfield Services—which runs the detention camps on both Nauru and Manus Island—and on the Board of Directors of Wesfarmers. Wesfarmers owns Coles. Smith-Gander arrived at Transfield Services after a career at Wesfarmers.
The racism of the visa system and in the food industry makes hyper-exploitation possible. Detention camps guarantee it. The advertising and merchandising ‘slips’ are not irrelevant, they point to a deeper, structural racism.
Finally, we strongly urge those organisations involved in anti-slavery or anti-trafficking campaings (such as the UTS Law Faculty’s Anti-Slavery group, FairWork and the relevant unions) to not engage in actions that, while purporting to show concern for migrant workers, in practice contribute to the likelihood that those who do come forward will be placed in a detention centre or deported.
We furthermore encourage them to develop a transparent and unequivocal position on this so as to give confidence to people who may wish to come forward that they will not suffer as a consequence of doing so.
We would not like to see anti-trafficking campaigns become purveyors of an implicit xenophobia because their focus is on illegal forms of trafficking and ignores its legal varieties (such as the deal between the Australian and Cambodian governments), or because that emphasis is an implicit requirement of government funding.
Nor do we wish to return to the days when anti-slavery campaigns could not distinguish between slavery and slaves, and resulted in the forcible removal of people—the racist campaign from which the Australian Union of Workers emerged, and which eventually resulted in the passing of the White Australia policy. The screengrab below is from the eRace Archives: