Free movement, not indentured labour

The Morrison government is considering a plan to force new migrants to settle in rural areas. 

Reluctant to implement outright immigration cuts given how important a factor immigration has been in helping sustain Australia’s economic growth, Morrison has wheeled this policy out so as to keep attention on congestion and infrastructure problems in major cities and the familiar scapegoating that goes with it. No doubt he also hopes it will help stop the Coalition bleeding votes to One Nation. 

Unfortunately, much of the discussion about the plan has focused on its questionable feasibility, with the former commissioner of Australian Border Force, Roman Quaedvlieg, arguing that it’s “not possible to police”. A similar refrain has been taken up by much of the liberal media and the ALP. 

Some opposition to the plan has rightly pointed out its racist framework, migrant support groups arguing that it could create oppressed “ghetto towns” in rural areas and contribute to the marginalisation of migrants.

However, there is an important underlying principle to the plan which is often glossed over. 

Why is it that migration should be subordinated to the needs of business? While many neoliberal defenders of immigration point to the wondrous world of free markets and the subsequent free movement of peoples, the reality is that immigration is structured around the needs of capitalism, not the needs of either the working class migrants coming into Australia or the needs of working class people already here. 

Morrison’s proposal is simply a more blatant example of this. Forcing migrant workers to live and labour in rural areas is about binding them to agricultural businesses that need more workers. These businesses are not poor oppressed farmers tilling their dusty fields in frayed straw hats, as they are often presented in nationalistic mythology. 

Rather, they are enormous and highly profitable agribusinesses. The National Farmers’ Federation, one of the key backers of the plan, represents the interests of major dairy, cattle, wool, poultry and grain producers, including companies such as Graincorp, which made $142 million profit last year.

And as the Farmers’ Federation website points out, “Australia’s farm exports earned the country $44.8 billion in 2016-17, up from $32.5 billion in 2010-11”.

Moreover, they have been exposed as centres of exploitation, racism and abuse. A Fair Work Ombudsman report into Harvest Trail, which employs migrants and backpackers in fruit and vegetable picking, found widespread exploitation, including “situations where a person is virtually bonded like a slave to a particular provider, on the basis they have been told they won't have their visa extension signed unless they see out the season with them”.

Why should we be forcing migrants into rural areas simply to make these businesses even wealthier?

The same principle underpins Australia’s immigration program in general, which is why it should come as no surprise that a few thousand refugees can be left to rot in prison camps on Nauru and Manus Island while au pairs walk through the airports and into the homes of the nation’s wealthy elite.

Similarly, the much lauded EU Schengen agreement, rather than being motivated by Europe’s love for peace and unity, is in reality a labour management system designed to facilitate the movement of exploitable people according to what will maximise corporate profit.

Almost all discussion of immigration is premised on the assumption that it should be organised according to the needs of capital. So the ALP-aligned Australia Institute argues for immigration on the basis that it helps economic expansion, while anti-immigrant advocates raise the negative consequences for the economy, particularly in periods of stagnation or recession. Even many on the left who oppose cuts to immigration and restrictive immigration policies accept this framework.  

For instance, in his otherwise very useful book Migrant Hands in Distant Lands, Jock Collins attempts to come up with a progressive immigration policy, but accepts the need to limit immigration as per the needs of business and the need for cuts in times of economic downturn.

Some refugee advocates likewise argue that asylum seekers should be brought to Australia in order to fill the labour shortage in agriculture, rather than because they have the right to be in the country. 

The starting point for the left should be that we oppose the control the capitalists have over the economy, and reject the proposition that human need must be subordinated to the interests of capital. The reason there is low wages growth, unemployment, high rents and terrible infrastructure is that the economy is structured to increase profits rather than meet the needs of the whole population.

We should oppose cuts to immigration and restrictive immigration schemes such as Morrison’s, not just because they are racist but also because they are not in the interests of the working class. 

And in the long run we need to demand a world that isn’t dominated by the needs of capital, one in which economic development is democratically controlled by the majority, and therefore one in which the free movement of peoples can become a reality rather than a cruel trap.