a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Period: White Australia »


Commentary on: Post-war reconstruction »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

Building an industrial nation...

From 1945 - Large scale immigration begins, aimed at making Australia a manufacturing nation

Australia's post-war manufacturing development depended on the millions of immigrants who provided both labour power for the factories, and the demand for the goods made in those factories - cars, washing machines, fridges, etc. At the Ford Motor Works plant at Geelong, outside Melbourne, (shown here) over 54% of the 4500- strong work force was born overseas in 1956, when the immigration program was in full swing.

The decision of the wartime Labor Commonwealth government to attempt to turn Australia into a manufacturing nation laid the basis for the vast post-war immigration program that was put in place in 1946. The program was to be continued by governments of both political colours until the mid 1970s (Labor to 1949, Liberal/Country coalition 1949-1972, Labor 1972-1975), after which immigration levels fluctuated to reflect changing political priorities and economic problems.

In 1947 about forty percent of the population was in the work force, of which women made up one fifth. About one person in eight in the work force had been born overseas - 70% in the UK. By 1981 the participation rate had risen to over fifty percent. Women made up at least one third of the work force, and overseas born were over one quarter - only 40% from the UK. One major change had been the movement into the work force of married women, many of them immigrants.

Immigration on a major scale began to transform Australian society, forming the backbone of an industrial, social and cultural development which was to take Australia into its new role half a century later as an industrial and commercial nation linked closely to Asia and the Asia/Pacific region. Australian values had been formed by the experience of Federation, the implementation of a White Australia immigration control policy, and a dependence on rural industries and foreign capital to structure economic development. With the Second World War at an end, and the power blocs of the world realigned, Australian leaders saw in immigration a means of building domestic demand and stimulating the development and sustained growth of industry - immigrants as workers and as consumers, and as potential defenders of the nation.

One of the most important outcomes of this process was the creation of what economists talk of as a dual labour market. The beginning of this process is evident in the letter from Immigration Minister Calwell to trade union official Ernie Thornton. The unions were worried that new immigrants would reduce wages and take jobs - a common fear about immigrants - and the government wanted to ensure that this fear was not realised.

Over the next fifty years the labour market did begin to reflect the concentration of workers from certain non-English speaking countries, and workers with limited educational backgrounds, in the unskilled and poorer paying jobs. These jobs were also likely to be more dangerous, and more poorly unionised. English speaking workers dominated the trade unions in the early days, and filled the better paid and more secure jobs along with skilled northern Europeans. They were regarded as the "labour aristocracy", with southern European and other workers from non-English speaking countries being more like a reserve army of labour, brought into employment when workers were needed, laid off first when the economy was shedding workers. Women are particularly vulnerable to this process, as for many years they were excluded from certain manufacturing jobs. The struggle in the steel city of Wollongong in NSW during the 1980s by migrant women - the Jobs for Women campaign - was about forcing the local steelworks to employ women.

By the early 1980s the pattern was clear - workers from Australia, Asia (before the major immigration of the later 1980s) North America, Britain, Ireland and New Zealand were much more likely to be in professional or technical occupations, while workers from Italy, Greece, Lebanon or Yugoslavia were much more likely to be in trades, production and labouring occupations. Manufacturing industry began to depend on the constant supply of new immigrants to take the more dangerous, dirty, monotonous and exhausting jobs that the better educated Australian born workers were reluctant to enter.

In some cases their experiences of Australian manufacturing environments were so oppressive that migrant workers took militant industrial action - sometimes against both their employers and the unions which they felt did not effectively represent their interests. The most well-known of scores of such incidents was the Ford Motor factory strike at Broadmeadows, outside Melbourne in 1971. The union movement learned a lot from this event, as did the employers and the emerging leadership of the ethnic working class movement. Many of the leaders of the striking migrant workers later became active in the ethnic rights movement.

Further reference:
Borrie, W D (ed) A white Australia: Australia's population problem, Sydney, Australasian Publishing Co, 1947.

Collins, Jock Migrant Hands in a Distant Land: Australia's post-war immigration, Sydney, Pluto Press, 1988.

Georgiou, Petro "Migrants, Unionism and Society", ANZ Journal of Sociology, 9 (1), 1973, pp 32-51.

Jordens, Ann-Mari Alien to Citizen: Settling Migrants in Australia, 1945-75, Sydney, Allen & Unwin/National Archives of Australia, 1997.

Lack, John and Templeton, Jacqueline Bold experiment: a documentary history of Australian immigration since 1945, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Lever-Tracy, Constance and Quinlan, Michael A Divided Working Class: ethnic segmentation and industrial conflict in Australia, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.

Zangalis, George "Immigration and the Labour Movement", Australian Left Review, 5 - October/November 1967, pp 46-52.