Things and their makers: from ‘European labour only’ to ‘ethical consumerism’

By Lia Incognita
ethical consumer
15 minute read

This is a story of things: a wooden desk, a silk shirt, an enamel pin, a fluorescent lightbulb. Each one reveals something about the history of labour, race and migration in Australia. Vigorous ideas around equality and nationhood are contested through the most ordinary objects.

This is a story of workers, comrades and compatriots.

I’m writing this at my desk. It’s a lovely creation built of solid timber, with a rosewood stain and brass handles. The leather surface shows its age but the desk is probably only 70 or 80 years old. Vintage perhaps, but not quite antique – it’s younger than my grandparents.

A stamp on the underside declares it manufactured by “European Labour Only”, a feature common on Australian furniture from the late 1800s to the first half of the 20th century. This mark fascinates me as a tangible and explicit testament to racism in Australian labour history – and a precursor to contemporary consumer activism that encourages us to “buy local” and “shop ethical”.

Anti-Chinese discrimination in the late 1800s was often instituted under the guise of protecting the welfare of Chinese workers. Trade unions were crucial supporters of legislation like the 1896 Factories and Shops Act in Victoria, which defined a factory as the manufacturing workplace of “four or more persons other than a Chinese” or “one or more Chinese persons” – meaning that a single Chinese craftsperson was subject to building codes, inspections and regulations while their European counterpart would be exempt. The Act was the product of campaigns by white workers who alleged that Chinese factories exploited their workers, while simultaneously excluding Chinese workers from joining trade unions.

In Victoria, unions led the charge to divide workers by race. The idea of stamping furniture to mark Chinese or European labour was proposed at a meeting of the Furniture Trade Society in September 1884 and passed with enthusiasm. Society members immediately started lobbying for support from employers, and later government. They accused Chinese factories of using “sweated labour” that pushed down wages and working conditions, though the government’s inspectors and interpreter reported to the Victorian Factories Act Inquiry Board in 1895 that Chinese workers earned better wages than some Europeans and worked in satisfactory conditions. Nevertheless the campaign succeeded and the 1896 Act introduced compulsory stamping.

Meanwhile Chinese workers were compelled to establish their own unions, without support from European workers in the same trade. In 1885, 300 Chinese furniture workers had gone on strike against their Chinese bosses, seeking the same conditions white workers enjoyed. By 1888 they had won a basic wage, a 50-hour week, holidays and contracts for union members only. But they were turned away from Trades Hall when they asked for support during the strike. The white unions saw the mobilisation of Chinese workers as a threat, rather than an opportunity to join forces, and lobbied the government when the Wage Boards were formed for Chinese representatives to be excluded. Across the country, white labour groups vocally supported immigration restriction and discriminatory policies against Pacific Islander, Chinese and other non-white workers.

euro labour only with bg

Australia’s first Prime Minister Edmund Barton stated baldly, “the doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman”.

The racism that was embedded in Australian labour politics in this era wasn’t an anomaly within the otherwise progressive politics of trade unions. Rather, racial unity was seen as a condition of class equality. A radical labour movement newspaper in 1900, The Tocsin, published an article referring to non-white immigrants as a plague that “eats into and destroys the body politic”, and Australia’s first Prime Minister Edmund Barton stated baldly, “the doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman”. Because equality between races was practically unimaginable, the development of an egalitarian society appeared to demand the elimination of non-white people, whether through border control, social marginalisation or genocide.

Racism was the foundational logic of a settler colony that promoted itself as a new white utopia. White Australia offered its citizens unprecedented opportunity. The myth of terra nullius provided both boundless wealth and a blank space, a raw canvas for settlers’ political, social and economic ambitions. Together with immigration restriction, a federated continent could enable a degree of commonality between white men that was unimaginable in Europe. But as Alfred Deakin said in 1901, “the unity of Australia is nothing if that does not imply a united race”. His 1903 election campaign speech explained in more detail the contingency of social justice on racial purity:

A white Australia does not by any means mean only the preservation of the complexion of the people of this country. It means the multiplying of their homes, so that we may be able to occupy, use and defend every part of our continent; it means the maintenance of conditions of life fit for white men and white women; it means equal laws and opportunities for all; it means protection against the underpaid labour of other lands; it means social justice so far as we can establish it, including just trading and the payment of fair wages.

In the 1890s, white settlers born in Australia had for the first time become the majority of the non-Indigenous population. New forms of nationalism and patriotism emerged alongside the rise of a generation of Australian-born whites.

About 250 metres from my Footscray flat and my “European Labour Only” desk is a cafe called The Dancing Dog. Recently I noticed a faded sign on the side of the building that spelled out “ANA Australian Natives Association Friendly Society”. I wondered if it had been the office of an Aboriginal rights organisation. (Through the 1930s, the Australian Aborigines League had been based out of William Cooper’s nearby residences in Footscray and Seddon.)

It turned out that the Australian Natives Association was a patriotic organisation of white Australian-born men that was established in Melbourne in 1871, when the colonial government was still primarily made up of men born in Britain. The organisation campaigned for causes like Federation, immigration restriction, nature conservation. It held “corroborees” celebrating the anniversary of colonisation on January 26 as Australia Day. Alfred Deakin was a notable member. As a friendly society, the ANA also provided its members with hospital cover, sick pay and funeral benefits.

The ANA encapsulated the principles celebrated in progressive nationalist discourses of the Federation era: equality and fraternity between white men, and a cultural identity distinct from British heritage. This vision of what it means to be Australian still holds currency today, coalesced into the idea of “mateship”, which always seems to imply whiteness and maleness, though it might make the occasional exception.

After the campaign for Federation succeeded, the ANA turned its focus to immigration restriction. A medal produced by the ANA in the first decade after Federation shows a pale aluminium map of Australia overlaid with the slogan “WHITE AUSTRALIA”, surrounded by a brass circle with the text “AUSTRALIA FOR THE AUSTRALIANS”. The ANA was one of the last lobby groups that remained in support of the White Australia Policy right through to the 1970s. The reverse side of the medal shows the text “POPULATION – PRODUCTION – PROGRESS” in the brass circle, and on the map of Australia, “PROTECTION”.

Protectionism was a key platform of Australian nationalism in the early Federation Era, with Australia’s first and second prime ministers, Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin, both hailing from the Protectionist Party.

As Deakin put it:

We protect ourselves against undesirable coloured aliens, why not against the products of the undesirable alien labour?

The ANA was part of the campaign to impose import tariffs and promote Australian-made goods. A gilt and enamel pin supporting the campaign was produced in the 1930s by Melbourne company Stokes and Sons. The pin shows the words “My Country First” over a white map of the Australian mainland within a gold six-pointed star. Above and below, two black boomerangs are inscribed with the text, “Protect Its Industries” and “Buy Its Goods”.

The startling visual language brings together two key motifs of white Australian nationalism – settler nativism and xenophobia. The imagery erases and appropriates the position of Aboriginal people while urging protection against an implied foreign threat. Over a literal image of a white Australia, we realise that the words “My Country First” are not an Indigenous declaration of historical fact but an aspirational white nationalist injunction to patriotism.

Both the “White Australia” medal and “My Country First” pin reflect the anxiety at the heart of the White Australia dream, that the white settlers who dispossessed Indigenous people of their land would themselves be dispossessed by foreign peoples and products. Both serve to normalise and naturalise white settlement by projecting the figure of the interloper onto someone else. By associating itself with boomerangs and corroborees, the ANA represented Aboriginal culture as a peopleless tradition which white settlers were entitled to inherit.

The industries that the ANA campaigned to protect largely didn’t pay Aboriginal workers at all. In the Pilbara region of Western Australia, where a majority of the population in the 1930s and 1940s was Aboriginal, the pastoral industry relied on Aboriginal workers who were paid a fraction of white workers’ wages, or received only meagre rations. The Pilbara Strike saw about 800 Aboriginal workers leave the pastoral stations between 1 May 1946 and 1949 in what remains the longest documented industrial action in Australia’s history.

A whole system of laws pitched as protection allowed the effective enslavement of Aboriginal workers until the 1970s, with children as young as 12 forcibly sent to work on sheep and cattle stations for only a few shillings of “pocket money”. Laws set Aboriginal workers’ wages at below the award rate for non-Aboriginal workers, and even those wages were automatically handed over to state and federal governments, into a fund that was often used to top up budget shortfalls. These practices are now referred to as “Stolen Wages”. Aboriginal workers on pastoral stations didn’t win equal wages until 1968, while on missions in Queensland, Aboriginal workers were paid below the award rate until 1986.

Pilbara Strike with bg

* * *

Australian governments today continue to present discriminatory policies against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as being for their own good.

Some things have changed – others, not so much. The history of racism in Australia’s labour movement has its echoes in contemporary political discourse, which still justifies exclusion and discrimination under the gloss of welfare concerns.

Australian governments today continue to present discriminatory policies against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as being for their own good. In June 2007, the Federal Government under John Howard responded to the release of the Little Children Are Sacred report by imposing welfare quarantine on Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, suspending the Racial Discrimination Act, and compulsorily acquiring Aboriginal-owned land and townships without compensation. The Government’s NT National Emergency Response ignored the report’s central recommendation about the importance of community consultation and control in addressing sexual abuse of children.

This year, the WA Government under Colin Barnett has again linked the withdrawal of essential services from remote Aboriginal communities to allegations of child sexual abuse, though the policy was originally justified only in terms of economic rationalism. Subjected to involuntary income management with the Basics Card and disproportionately targeted by “Work for the Dole” schemes, Aboriginal people are effectively still working for rations and experiencing “Stolen Wages”. Just as Deakin insisted that social justice was contingent on racial purity, contemporary parliamentarians imply that economic equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander depends on assimilation into the colonised economy and culture.

It’s also prudent to remember that while the immigration racism of the past might seem more explicit, the White Australia Policy was never so named. It passed into legislation as the Immigration Restriction Act, the first major piece of legislation of the new Parliament of Australia after Federation in 1901. The Act didn’t explicitly restrict immigration based on race but relied upon the dictation test to exclude immigrants considered racially or politically unsuitable.

Designed to be impossible, the dictation test demanded that applicants listen to a short paragraph read aloud in any European language (and from 1905, any prescribed language) and write it down correctly. The initial proposal for a test in English was rejected due to fear that this would provide an advantage to African-American and Japanese immigrants and discourage white Europeans. Customs officers selected the language most likely to eliminate unwanted immigrants, from Spanish to Scottish Gaelic, so that there was no way to prepare for the test. Less than four per cent of the 1,359 people who were given the dictation test between 1902 and 1909 passed, and after 1909 no one passed. From 1932, the test could be given any number of times during a migrant’s first five years of residence in Australia, and anyone who failed could be deported.

Though the dictation test was abolished in 1958, contemporary immigration policy also presents some inscrutable hurdles. The Department for Immigration and Border Protection regularly changes the criteria and nominated occupations for skilled migration so that anyone hoping to immigrate to Australia would find it difficult to prepare by obtaining the necessary qualifications.

Articles about student visa “rorts” promote the idea that it is somehow immoral or deceptive for someone to choose a tertiary course or career based on their desire to immigrate, as though the only reason to study something should be out of pure intellectual pursuit – though by privatising universities and increasing fees, the Federal Government itself affirms the commodification of higher education and the understanding that it is an individual’s investment in their future prosperity.

As Sanmati Verma explains, it is disingenuous to ask how many international students arrive in Australia for “the right reasons” when the entire international education industry – Australia’s third largest “export”, after coal and iron ore – was developed and marketed to students on the explicit promise of permanent settlement in Australia.

made in China with bg

In today’s labour movement, white settler nativism has evolved into a tentatively multicultural nationalism, cautious to avoid explicit racism, while remaining protectionist in its aims.

Anti-immigration attitudes persist in the labour movement today. While contemporary trade unions have a multiracial membership, a wariness towards immigration is still evident in labour discourse, and protectionism is still a key platform. The Australian labour movement still relies on creating and maintaining a distinction between “foreign” and “local” workers, particularly in its campaigns against temporary skilled work visas (visa class 457) and Free Trade agreements.

In today’s labour movement, white settler nativism has evolved into a tentatively multicultural nationalism, cautious to avoid explicit racism, while remaining protectionist in its aims. When unions campaign to protect “Australian jobs”, they often make a conscious effort to represent racial diversity in their imagery. A CFMEU image with the slogan “more apprenticeships, fewer 457 visas” shows workers of varying genders and racial backgrounds. An AMWU banner carried by a multiracial group of workers reads “local workers for local jobs – stop the rort of 457 visas”.

Campaigns against foreign workers can even deliberately express enthusiasm for multicultural immigration. The CFMEU’s Submission to Senate Inquiry into the Welfare of International Students (August 2009) states strong support for “permanent migration” but not “temporary migration” – though as Ben Rosenzsweig and Liz Thompson write, “those defined as temporary by the CFMEU are not even necessarily temporary, though many more would be forced to be if the CFMEU has its way”.

Union opposition to increased skilled temporary migration intake almost always references the potential exploitation of migrant workers, just as the white furniture trade societies in the past disguised their opposition to Chinese workers as concern.

An ACTU media release from 18 March 2015 titled “Government must do more to stop fraud and rorting of 457 visas” begins by voicing concerns about foreign workers on temporary visas being exploited but later states, “457 visas are only one type of temporary work visas being abused – others include working holiday and student visas”. Abuse, in this instance, seems to refer to a violation of Australia’s border security, rather than the exploitation of workers, or the sentence would read “workers on 457 visas are only one group of migrants being exploited – others include migrants on working holiday and student visas”.

The approach is reminiscent of Australian political discourse in the Federation era that rightly criticised the exploitation and trafficking of Pacific Islander workers but, rather than legislating for equal rights, enacted the Pacific Islander Labourers Act 1901 which prohibited any Pacific Islanders from working in the sugar industry, provided for the mass deportation of over 7000 Pacific Islanders over the following decade, and forced over 1,000 who remained into illegal status.

It doesn’t have to be like this. A guide for union negotiators published by the Trades Union Congress (UK) and written by the Migrants’ Rights Network (UK) discusses how immigration enforcement creates friction, suspicion, fear and division in workplaces and instructs union officials to negotiate that document checks only take place with consent and advance warning. In contrast, the CFMEU in its 9 July 2010 Submission to Review of Employer Sanctions Legislation 2010 recommended that all employers should be obliged to check workers’ immigration work rights and “consent should not be required”.

It’s fascinating to read the fearmongering discussion about immigration and labour in The Bulletin from the late 1800s, and compare it to the impassioned email bulletins I receive from the ACTU now. The details differ but the overall message remains the same – foreign workers threaten Australian jobs, pay and working conditions.

An ACTU email from 22 July 2015 has the subject line “We can knock off the China Free Trade Agreement”, and describes how the “job killing deal” would allow Chinese employers to “bring in overseas workers without first advertising the jobs to local workers”. The strangely aggressive language reminded me of the words of Henry A Harwood, a cabinet maker and union leader who testified to the Victorian 1895 Factories Act Inquiry Board about the Chinese problem. Harwood spoke at length about the pressure that he believed Chinese factories had put on wages and working conditions, but his final statement revealed a deeper discomfort: “In fact sometimes I wish that our fellows were not so quiet, and that we could come to something like the riots that they get up in California, and fall on the Chinese and drive them into the bay.”

When I read in Jeff Sparrow’s Communism: A Love Story that Bob Ross, an Australian socialist leader through World War I, favoured the “traditional remedies” of the Australian left – “the election of the ALP, the formation of the One Big Union and the exclusion of the Chinese” – it is the faith in One Big Union that seems most anachronistic within that trifecta.

The dominant perception of “Chinese labour” hasn’t changed much in the last 130 years. What has changed in that time is China. When I browse the Invisible Australians photo archive and see the faces of Chinese men arriving in the first years after Federation, their half-shaven, half-plaited hairstyle reveals that they had been subjects of a Manchurian emperor, in the last years of the Qing Dynasty. Soon after China became a republic. In 1949, it became the world’s most populous Communist state. If Australian trade unions in the early 1900s believed that migrants coming from imperial China would not understand collective organising for the common good, surely such a belief can no longer be sustained.

Meaningful global solidarity between workers is a complex and demanding project, no doubt. But there is no excuse now for imagining that workers elsewhere aren’t potential allies. It only takes a minute online for me to find a map showing the 1,497 strikes and industrial actions that have taken place so far this year in China, according to China Labour Bulletin. It only takes a few hours, too, to hear of horrific disasters from the murderous edge of labour exploitation – 72 women killed in the Kentex factory fire in Manila this year and over 1,138 workers killed in the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. Reports from all over the globe are increasingly accessible.

And workers around the world have more reason than ever to organise together.

ethical consumer

* * *

I just hope that when we dream of economic justice, we let our dreams run beyond national borders.

Campaigns to protect jobs by urging consumers to “Buy Australian” persisted as my family arrived in Australia in the early 1990s. Ironically, given that some of these protectionist campaigns were explicitly racist and xenophobic, new migrants made up a large part of the manufacturing workforce in Australia at the time. Through my primary school years, both my parents worked in a series of factory jobs, manufacturing Stanley knives, business suits for Roger David, and car dashboards. But by the end of the millennium most of those factories had closed.

At one of the garment factories in which my mother had been an overlock machine operator, the bulk of the work moved offshore. Shipments of near-complete garments would arrive for finishing touches which entitled the products to the coveted green-and-gold “Australian made” tag.

I learned recently that this trick goes way back. An article from The Argus on 3 May 1910 mentions a case heard at the North Melbourne Court, where two wardrobes manufactured at Shu Hong’s factory and polished by Frank Smith were stamped “Frank Smith, Errol-street, North Melbourne. European labour only.” The prosecutor accused Smith of misleading the public but the Chairman dismissed the case as he was satisfied that the wardrobes were products of European labour “as far as the polishing of them by Smith was concerned”.

This story delighted me. Odd, literal and familiar, I was amused to think that workers have probably always colluded to thread their way through a loophole. It’s a cheeky finger to the “ethical” consumer who imagines that they can buy their way into the purity they desire.

That wasn’t possible then and it isn’t possible now. In “The Myth of the Ethical Shopper” on the Huffington Post, Michael Hobbes explains that consumer action is increasingly ineffective as supply chains have grown more opaque, with brands purchasing from global megasuppliers that source labour from a complex network of sub-contractors. Often retailers don’t even know where their products are manufactured, let alone under what conditions. For the most part, boycotting specific brands buys consumers a sense of moral superiority but doesn’t change conditions for workers.

The same is true for boycotting goods made in certain countries. Rather than improving work rights, often consumer campaigns just reinforce a stereotype of undesirable labour, rather than undesirable conditions. Regardless of whether something is made in Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Philippines or China itself, for as long as I can remember, “Made in China” has been used as a shorthand synonym for mass-produced, poorly made, sweatshop labour.

My favourite shirt tells a different story: a hand-me-down from my mother, it’s a product of Shanghai in the 1980s, just like me. Handmade in ivory silk with delicate open cutwork embroidery and Manchurian-style frog and ball clasps, it reveals the proud tradition of handicraft that exists everywhere, even as it struggles to survive being superseded by industrial production.

At London’s Tate Modern earlier this year, I watched a video piece that told the second part of the story. Artist Cao Fei spent six months with the employees of the Osram lightbulb factory in Foshan, and the 20 minute video “Whose Utopia” is an abstracted exploration of workers’ lives. As an infinite series of milky fluorescent tubes sparkle under deft fingers, the video reminds me that when people say “mass-produced”, it is a way of disappearing the people who make most of the objects in our lives.

When workers’ lives are endangered by the demands of global capitalism, it can’t only be the direct consumers who are complicit. We have a responsibility to fight for fair pay and conditions, not only for ourselves and those who make the things we use, but for all workers. Contemporary consumer campaigns urging us to “buy Australian” and “shop ethical” do no more to secure workers’ rights than earlier campaigns promoting “European labour” furniture and “White sugar”. They replace protection with exclusion, and assume that only our compatriots are our comrades.

In spite of its racist history the Australian labour movement, that has excluded and actively fought against people who look like me, is a movement I find exciting, even inspiring. I’m still a union member, and I probably always will be. It’s the way I was brought up, I guess. Though my mother converted to Catholicism when I was seven, I don’t remember ever saying grace before meals at home. I do remember being told that every grain of rice was a drop of a farmer’s sweat. I believe in the power of the collective, in the power of solidarity. I just hope that when we dream of economic justice, we let our dreams run beyond national borders.

What matters is workers. It doesn’t matter who, or where. More than ever, the only protection against exploitation is international solidarity between workers. We can’t afford the failure of imagination that sees foreign workers as competition. If that’s the competition, we’ve already lost.

We can’t afford to see any workers as foreign. We can’t rely on borders, and we shouldn’t entertain the fantasy that they will ever help to protect anyone’s rights. We need a labour movement that has no outside.

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  • James

    Brilliantly illuminating essay Lia Incognita, very much appreciate this education and concur wholeheartedly with your thesis throughout.

    I’ll certainly be using this text when I begin teaching Australian history in high schools next year.

    Many thanks

  • Michael

    A direct approach to the issue and well researched. A few questions (not any I have answers for necessarily):
    * Doesn’t unlimited labour flows play into the hands of global capitalists?
    * Regardless of how unions or others might present it – abuse of workers on 457 and other visas does go on doesn’t it?
    * Unions exist to protect a limited group (their members) by definition. While they may sympathise with all workers how can they not prefer some?
    * If we aren’t ready for unlimited movement of workers then does any preference for ‘local’ over ‘foreign’ workers always imply racism?
    * Can the ghost of the white Australia policy ever be exorcised?

    A final comment: You refer to the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act and its Dictation Test. Less well known is that this first Act also had a ‘no contracts’ clause that also saw ‘white’ workers restricted from entry to Australia.

  • Esther

    A fantastic essay Lia, thanks. What a great mix of history and contemporary analysis.

    As well as making it clear to me why “Chinese-made” has always been a euphemism for poor quality (while everyone happily snaps up phones made in China for big $$), it also helps me to understand some of the threads of racism in protectionism.

    Just yesterday I saw some racist “patriots” group responding to the Syrian refugee crisis with a call to “shut the borders and bring back Aussie manufacturing.” It seemed a strange mix of priorities but not so much anymore.

    The “we stole this place first, nobody else should be able to share it” philosophy runs deep here eh?

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