5.6 Immigrant Workers and Trade Unions in Australia

Workers in general, but immigrant workers in particular need the solidarity and protection offered by trade unions.

For decades, however, there was a define bias of trade unions in Australia against migrant workers particularly form certain parts of the world, and especially from Southern Europe, including Malta. Now that migration from these sources has dwindled to a trickle, antagonism is more specifically directed towards SE Asians who form the bulk of NESB migrants to Australia today.

To be sure, there have been a number of services provided by unions, including multilingual information, interpreters, newsletters and special courses. Unions have been particularly active in fighting for the right of workers to have English language courses provided during paid work time.

There are however several grievances with the union movement, and these have been highlighted in a report by Ms Santina Bertone and Dr Gerard Griffin. There is under-representation among full time officials within the trade union movement - approximately 10% of full-time union officials were NES background while rank and file members made up 24%.

The attitudes of union officials to their NESB members also comes under scrutiny in this report. Assimilationist views are still prevalent among several officials, however, the majority of officials were basically sympathetic to NESB members' problems and their relatively disadvantaged position, and several had adopted explicitly multicultural policies.

One view exploded by this report is that migrants tend not to hold as militant and extreme views as those of the native-born or English speaking brethren. A number of officials claimed that their NESB members were the strongest and most militant unionists - 24 per cent of NESB workers were union members compared to 9 per cent of ESB workers. They were also more likely to become involved in their union. In general, there were few significant differences between the views held by NESB migrants compared with ESB migrants.

Significant barriers to participation by migrants in their union include:

  • Negative attitudes of some migrants to trade unions,
  • Inadequate provision of multilingual information by the union,
  • English language difficulties experienced by migrants,
  • Lack of self-confidence in their ability to participate in union affairs.
  • Fear of intimidation or job loss,
  • Lack of understanding of industrial issues,
  • Racial or ethnic discrimination,
  • Lack of encouragement to participate in union affairs,
  • Dominance of Anglo-Saxons in major leadership positions.

Female NESB members have suffered the double disadvantage of being migrant and being women. The situation has improved somewhat in the last two decades with increase in the number of full-time women unionists (from 0 to 3 %). However, the report confirms that there is lack of services provided and obvious exclusion from positions of power.

The report concludes that there is a need for trade unions to recognise the specific problems and barriers facing their NESB members. While significant improvements have taken place, there is still need for ensuring that services provided by some unions become the norm throughout the trade union movement, that NESB members are encouraged to participate in all trade union structures, and that barriers which have traditionally combined to disadvantage women workers are removed.


Bertone, Santina and Griffin Gerard, 1992: Immigrant Workers and Trade Unions. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra

[From: The Sunday Times, Dec 20,1992, p4]

Source: Maurice N.Cauchi - The Maltese Migrant Experience, Malta 1999

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