“The stereotype of migrant workers is that of meek and compliant workers, exploited by their bosses as inexpensive labour. It was one that fuelled resentment against Chinese workers in Australia in the late 19th century. The history of the Chinese working in Australia was one of discrimination, from riots in Lambing Flats and exclusionary legislation passed by colonial governments, culminating in the White Australia Policy. Yet history shows that contrary to the cultivated image of compliance and exploitation the story of Chinese workers in Australia is far more complex.
We more often hear about the exploitation of migrant workers in Australia. Precarity and other restrictions, such as reliance on a sponsoring employer, have weakened the bargaining power of migrant workers. But they are not all meek and compliant workers, unaware of wages and conditions. This is a flawed idea that continues to shape our discourse. Migrant workers have agency and they exercise it. From farm workers taking strike action to the long-running battle with Cochlear over bargaining, even today, Chinese workers continue the fight.”