Coalition Anti-Worker Crusade Goes International


Two weeks ago, the Coalition government announced that it would no longer provide funding to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) — a United Nations agency which promotes labour rights, encourages employment opportunities and develops international labour standards.

Though the decision to cut funding to the organisation has met little scrutiny — bar that from the ACTU — it could have ramifications workers' rights in our region as well as the Australian government’s ability to exert soft power and implement regional solutions to migration issues.

In April 2010 Australia signed a five-year Partnership Agreement with the ILO to provide $15 million to support employment and decent work in the Asia-Pacific region. One of the projects to come out of this agreement is the GMS TRIANGLE project. This project focuses on the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and parts of China. It aims to limit the exploitation of migrants in this area by developing legal and safe recruitment practices and improved labour protections.

Low skilled migrants in this region, many of whom work in the fishing industry, often face dishonesty in regards to wages and the kind of work to be undertaken, as well as unpaid wages, physical confinement and stolen passports or identity.

Another bout of expenditure cuts, and the axing of funds for projects like GMS TRIANGLE, are not be particularly surprising given the federal government’s frenzied attempts to reduce the budget deficit. But what is surprising is the consequential loss of an opportunity to develop regional solutions to irregular and unregulated migration patterns in the Asia-Pacific region, and to exercise a form of soft power in this critical region — building a benevolent presence and influence overseas without the use of military force.

Over the last few years, as various political leaders have grappled with Australia’s migration policies and stance on asylum seekers, we have often heard that a "regional solution" is needed. This means that Australia needs the cooperation and assistance of its regional neighbours, such as Indonesia and other countries through which migrants pass en route to Australia, to address migration and asylum seeker policies.

The axing of funds to the ILO seems inconsistent with the government’s intention to develop a "regional solution" because this is exactly what the ILO, and in particular its GMS TRIANGLE project, is focusing on.

Improving the conditions of low-skilled workers in labour-intensive jobs in the very countries that host many of the migrants and asylum seekers before they eventually come to Australia therefore represents not only an effort to increase equity, but also to keep workers in the region.  By developing stronger labour protections and reducing exploitation, low-skilled labour migrants are more likely to remain in the Greater Mekong-Sub Region and to have greater mobility between their place of work and their native country.

When the Partnership Agreement with the ILO was signed four years ago, the CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Peter Anderson, welcomed the move and said:

“The Partnership Agreement represents substantial regional leadership by the ILO and the Australian Government. It also signals that the well-being of labour markets and economies of our near neighbours is important to Australia and the global community.”

As the CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Anderson represents the interests of businesses and industry. His support for the Partnership Agreement between Australia and the ILO highlights an often forgotten fact — that the International Labour Organisation represents not only workers, but also governments and employers.

Perhaps the Coalition government is automatically wary of any organisation with the word ‘labour’ in it. Whatever the case, stripping funding from the ILO hurts not only migrants and potential asylum seekers, but also the businesses which employ them.

The rationale for halting Australia’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region at a time when the government calls for a refocus on “Jakarta not Geneva” seems counterintuitive or contradictory. Perhaps though, we overestimate the amount of thinking and planning that goes on behind the scenes before these decisions are announced: it’s unlikely that Scott Morrison or Julie Bishop make decisions in a flash of inspiration after an afternoon on the porch reading political philosophy.

This being the case then, there is good reason to think that decisions which seem arbitrary or contradict the government’s proclaimed aims are really just the result of practical attempts to quickly respond to problems as they arise, using whatever mechanisms happen to be available at the time. The problem with this type of governing is that decisions are made rapidly, responding to a fast changing environment, without looking at long-term impacts and neglecting Australia’s broader interests in the region.

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