By Anna Majavu · 3 Sep 2012
Recent political developments have thrown the treatment of Black refugees and migrant workers into the spotlight, as governments all over the world clamp down further on opportunities for people of colour to live and work outside the lands of their birth.
The Australian labour government recently moved to revive the “offshore processing centre” in the South Pacific island of Nauru that it shut down in 2007. There, it plans to dump boatloads of migrants that it captures at sea. The offshore detention centre will allow the Australian government to avoid the global condemnation they received in the past when they turned sinking ships full of refugees away before they entered Australian territory. Being able to “intercept” the boats headed their way, and then drop off their passengers in prison-type facilities, will also mean that the Australian government is no longer morally responsible for the loss of lives of people whose boats are often shipwrecked in the treacherous seas around Christmas Island en-route to Australia. Yet it is highly unlikely that these measures will prevent people of colour from Afghanistan, Turkey and across Asia from attempting to migrate to Australia.
The conservative government of New Zealand is also - remote as the country is - currently proposing a new law to lock up “boat-arriving asylum seekers”. Needless to say, both Australia and New Zealand have for decades welcomed white migrants from all over the world.
In South Africa, an equivalent government programme aimed at keeping Black migrants out is the ‘Zimbabwe Dispensation Project’, started by the department of Home Affairs two years ago. Putting an end to the automatic three-month visa for Zimbabweans that had been introduced by the Zuma administration in its first days in office, the “ZDP” demanded that all Zimbabweans apply for study or work visas before December 2010. A chaotic year followed, with government having failed to grasp that not all Zimbabweans had passports and could not apply for visas without them, and where it took so long for the Zimbabwean government to set up a few temporary consulates set up to process passport applications that many applicants missed the deadline. The process is still not complete, two years later.
When Home Affairs minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma announced the birth of the ZDP, she said after she achieved her aim of “regularizing” millions of Zimbabweans in the space of three months, she would then apply the same procedures to Congolese, Malawi and other African migrants.
It is little wonder that the ANC government has been described as “Afrophobic” by movements such as the September National Imbizo. But like the Australian Labour party, Dlamini-Zuma has by now found that keeping Black people out is not as easy as she thought.
It is commonplace for institutionalised racism to be practiced against Black people or people of colour in general – whether they are refugees or migrants – whereas whites who migrate for economic reasons are always welcomed as people for whom travel is a natural pursuit, who are legitimately seeking to further their careers.
It is not only the “boat-loads” who face repression and racism, but every person of colour who migrates from the country of his or her birth. New forms of organizing are emerging which aim specifically to keep migrant workers in the organized labour loop while recognizing the specific forms of xenophobia and institutionalised racism they encounter all over the world.
In New Zealand, the casual and fast food workers union, Unite, has been organizing teach-ins which double up as pickets and occupations following its discovery of abuses of workers of colour from India and the Philippines. These workers came to New Zealand on student work permits as Burger King “trainee” managers. Owned by the US-based Blackstone Group, the Burger King Corporation has been making trainee managers work 60 hours per week, work double shifts at different restaurants, without ever promoting them or paying them overtime.
It has also tried to interdict the union from speaking out against this. Unite’s campaign organizer Mike Treen described at a conference on migrant rights how the “trainee managers” were offered residence – but only if they succeeded in the trainee programme. But after performing all the functions of managers for months on end, most were not granted the official title, leaving them in a precarious legal position.
The union, which also employs a migrant rights officer, recently won a case where a trainee manager recruited by Burger King from the Philippines was given a visa allowing him only to work in one geographical area. “Burger King moved him out of his area, his visa was cancelled and the only thing Burger King was concerned about was that he pay them back the money he had borrowed in order to get to New Zealand” said Treen.
The refugee rights group People against Suppression, Oppression and Poverty (Passop) recently also highlighted the specific dangers facing migrant workers when it called on Zimbabweans living in the small Western Cape town of De Doorns to refuse to work on the Kirkboschkloof farm.
Passop made the call following a decision by the South African farm workers to strike against the farm bosses, South African Fruit Exporters, which allegedly tried to force them to sign contracts agreeing to a wage cut. After hearing of the planned strike, the farm bosses approached labour brokers to hire scab labour sourced from the De Doorns Zimbabwean community. Passop, which has maintained a presence in De Doorns since the xenophobic attacks there in 2009, then called on Zimbabwean workers in the area “to refuse to work on that farm - to avoid tensions between local South Africans who are striking”.
“Passop supports the workers and will be present in solidarity as well as to try and ensure that this action does not lead to xenophobic tensions,” said the organization in a statement.
The Cosatu-affiliated unions have traditionally steered clear of organizing casual workers, many of whom are migrants, because these workers are often on short contracts, earning very little, are highly mobile and because it is difficult to get their employers to set up stop-order union fee salary deductions. Yet unionizing fast-food and casual workers is an important step in the battle against institutionalised racism against migrant workers, and one that should be embraced by South African unions, sooner rather than later.