13/06/2012 - 10:32

Many willing to go where the work is

13/06/2012 - 10:32


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WA has a long history of importing workers for major projects.

WA has a long history of importing workers for major projects.

THE presence of foreign workers in Western Australia isn’t anything new; in fact it’s one of the reasons I reached Fremantle as a four year old.

Then, WA had major labour shortages, so people like my father were recruited in occupied post-war Germany to help overcome it.

This came to mind when Julia Gillard was caught flat-footed over her government’s agreement that Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill project be permitted to hire 1,715 foreign construction workers.

High-profile union leader Paul Howes joined the charge with an outburst not only against Mrs Rinehart but also the woman he’d helped put into The Lodge, Ms Gillard.

This cannot be understood without recalling that her deputy, Wayne Swan, has refined Labor’s attacks against Australia’s big three home-grown miners – Mrs Rinehart, Andrew Forrest, and Clive Palmer – in an outbreak of unashamed self-declared class warfare.

This put Labor into a strange predicament, since Mr Swan and Ms Gillard struck a secret mining tax deal with largely foreign-owned and controlled mining giants – BHP Billiton, Rio and Xstrata – but, for reasons never explained, not the three home-grown miners.

That’s weird, to say the least, since the treasurer is implying ‘foreign good, Aussies bad’.

That said, older Western Australians will recall that, in the early 1950s, about 18,000 Eastern Europeans, including spouses and offspring, reached WA.

Suddenly state and convent schools had students with strange names sitting alongside Anglo-Celtic Aussie kids.

In the first weeks we ‘no spik-er-dee refo kids’ struggled with the English language. But after about a month that was no longer a problem.

However, what many Western Australians may not realise is that those like my father were recruited primarily because workers were desperately needed to shore-up labour needs in certain essential public sector areas.

One was maintenance of WA’s then-extensive rural railway network, which was in disrepair.

It was so bad that trains on some sections travelled at only a few miles per hour to (hopefully) ensure tracks didn’t split apart, leading to costly derailments.

There were simply not enough workers here to effectively maintain thousands of kilometres of track.

WA in the 1950s still had passenger train services between Perth and centres such as Geraldton, Bunbury, Albany, Kalgoorlie, and townships between.

Unlike today, car ownership wasn’t universal, and grain and stock had to reach ports.

So several thousand males – Poles, mainly, but also Ukrainians, Balts and Yugoslavs – were shipped in from refugee camps in occupied Germany and directed after disembarkation to Wheatbelt townships to live in tents with their families.

Soon after, I learned we weren’t the first non-Anglo-Celtic European settlers in the Wheatbelt.

From 1943, WA hosted several thousand Italian prisoners of war, who were located across the Wheatbelt on farms as opposed to government-owned tent camps.

Australian, Kiwi, British, or Polish allied forces in North Africa had captured most of them, after which they were initially in desert camps.

Some were eventually dispatched to British India, and when camps there became over-crowded, shipments were made to Marrinup camp near Dwellingup.

Germans and Austrians – generally captured combatants from Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps – were sometimes also included.

These POWs cut firewood at and around Marrinup to supply government hospitals and railway stations, whereas the Italian POWs were dispersed across the Wheatbelt as farm hands.

I next heard of foreign workers reaching WA in the mid 1960s, after Canberra cleared the way for the US Navy to erect a series of very high communication towers on Exmouth Peninsular, just north of Potshot, where US wartime submarines were based to strike Japanese shipping.

Now called the Naval Communication Station Harold E Holt, and under Australian control, it was initially an American facility, which meant the US Navy had 24-7 radio contact with its nuclear-powered and armed submarines plying the Indian Ocean.

Because this was a very low frequency network, signals could penetrate up to 20 metres below the waves, meaning submarines didn’t need to surface.

Those hired to erect and fabricate them were Mohawk Indians.

I was told Mohawks were used to do such dangerous work because they were considered to have exceptional aptitudes for working at great heights.

They could balance in windy conditions and were fearless when close to the clouds.

That’s why they’d been so important on construction site work in making of Manhattan the world’s premier high-rise precinct.

Also during the 1960s, although not foreign workers, Thursday Islanders dominated workforces laying the Pilbara’s privately owned railway networks that linked mine sites in Paraburdoo, Tom Price and Mt Newman to the coast for ore shipment to Japan.

What we thus find is that of these four groups, only the post-war Eastern Europeans arrived with families to settle permanently.

Others were single males, which I suspect is what will be repeated during Roy Hill’s construction phase.

The POWs were repatriated to post-Mussolini Italy and post-Nazi Germany and Austria under the terms of international military engagement. 

True, some didn’t return, since they escaped from WA holding camps to avoid going back to Europe.

By and large, however, they were unlike their successor Eastern Europeans who’d come to work and permanently settle.

The Mohawks, only a tiny group true, returned to the US, and the Thursday Islanders returned home or found work elsewhere on continental Australia.

Two other chapters in this brief story shouldn’t be overlooked.

WA’s Goldfields, unlike those in eastern Australia, never had Chinese miners, so no anti-Chinese riots occurred in WA.

Instead, there were many Italians, plus a sprinkling of southern Slavs on WA’s Goldfields, and the historical records shows occurrence of what some describe as ‘race riots’ but others describe as ‘civil disturbances’.

Such incidents occurred during 1905 to about 1909, and again in 1934, with these being against foreign workers generally arising due to excessive alcohol intake.

The state’s goldfields – Gwalia, Leonora, and Kalgoorlie for example – were foreign worker centres but with most apparently departing either for Europe or elsewhere across Australia.

Interestingly, one-time Goldfields engineer Herbert Hoover, later the 31st US president, hired predetermined numbers of non-Anglo-Celts who were regarded as being more productive than Anglo-Celts.

This led to performance rivalries, thereby boosting ore output.

And in the Kimberley, Japanese participated in the early pearling industry.

Time will tell how employing foreigners at Roy Hill pans out.

But to gain a fuller appreciation of Canberra’s latest program that initially so stunned Ms Gillard and several union leaders, it helps to recall earlier episodes generally involving non-unionised non-Australian labour.


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