Sadly, New Zealand unions are delivering the same rhetoric as nationalist political parties worldwide
Declining economic conditions provide the fodder for some pretty ugly sentiments. Hundreds of British workers went on a nationwide strike in February claiming that Britons were losing out to labourers from Italy and Portugal on a construction project. An Italian minister said Britain needed to realise it was part of Europe "where there is freedom of movement for workers".
Meanwhile, a troubling wave of anti-immigrant sentiment has surfaced in Italy itself. There have been nationalist, economic crisis-fuelled protests in Greece, France and China. Anti-migrant violence has increased markedly in Russia. Malaysia has banned the hiring of foreign workers in factories, stores and restaurants.
In our country, Winston Peters' departure from Parliament left a welcome gap in the political landscape. No doubt, were New Zealand First still around in any meaningful way, it would be calling for more protectionist measures.
It was sad, then, to see New Zealand unions—including the largest—step in to the breach.
EPMU and Labour Party president Andrew Little is among the unionists who have either urged the Government to tighten borders or told companies to fire migrant workers before New Zealanders.
Manufacturing and Construction Workers Union general secretary Graeme Clarke has "been in contact with the Government about companies continuing to employ migrant workers".
To their discredit, both National and Labour engaged in the same Peters-style talk about putting "Kiwis" first—although National has since reassured migrants that there is no change to actual policy, and visas won't be cancelled.
For his part, Little claims that "Kiwi workers are obviously capable of making a long-term commitment to the business, but those on work visas are limited to a couple of years." This is just plain wrong in many instances.
On its website, the EPMU proudly declares: "Unions in New Zealand are very diverse—reflecting the many cultures and ethnicities that can be found in workplaces up and down the country." Pride in diversity is obviously a luxury the EPMU feels it can abandon during difficult economic times.
Immigrants are among the most vulnerable workers in any workforce. There is no reasonable justification for firing workers with legal work permits solely based on the fact they're ‘not from around here'.
Countries with more open trade and immigration policies are, over time, more successful than those with closed borders and minds.
In a documentary available on the EPMU website about how the union is responding to the recession, Little declares: "We're all in this. This is going to affect all of us in pretty much the same way so we have to look after each other. That's what the union does best. We reach out, we show that hand of friendship. We give support. We give tautoko. We give aroha."
For migrants, that hand of friendship, support, tautoko and aroha is now coming from other unions—read a great socialist unionist perspective on the larger unions' actions here.
Today, the New Zealand Herald reports that "More migrant workers, afraid of losing their jobs to Kiwis and not being able to renew work permits, are turning to unions for help."
It's sad that New Zealand's biggest union was responsible for stoking the fear.