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May 29, 2017 | by  | in Interview |
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Interview with Gayaal Iddamalgoda

Gayaal Iddamalgoda is a Legal Organiser for First Union and the candidate for the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign in Wellington Central. The campaign envisions “a socially just Aotearoa/New Zealand” and pushes for increased rights for migrants and refugees. We spoke to Gayaal about the aims of his candidacy, migrant worker exploitation, and immigration policy.

 

You’re representing the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign (MARRC) Aotearoa New Zealand in the Wellington Central electorate; essentially, what is the campaign and what are its aims?

The campaign grew out of my political interest in working with refugees. We started to see there were lots of politically active and politicised refugees coming to settle in Wellington from Syria and we (me and a few others) were really interested in and engaged with the Syrian refugee crisis — one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of human history. So the immediate impetus for forming a group around refugee and migrant rights came out of those events.

As a trade unionist I have done a lot of work for migrant workers who are not able to join a union for various reasons. They may not be able to come in contact with union organisers, they might not be in a unionised workplace; often times they’re deliberately isolated from these kinds of facilities and services and the ability to organise with other workers. On an individual basis I’ve been referred from various sort of groups, from Caritas [The Catholic Agency for Justice, Peace and Development] and the Council of Trade Unions (CTU), individual cases of migrant worker exploitation. We began to see this huge need to address migrant and refugee rights issues.

We have all these refugees who might be seeking asylum in New Zealand, or who are currently seeking asylum in New Zealand; and we have, throughout the country, in pretty much every industry you can imagine, exploited workers who are tied to their employers by very oppressive visa arrangements, and who have an immigration system that’s not very friendly or understanding to their needs. On top of that, we see this trend in mainstream politics of blaming migrants as quite an easy way to, I guess, gain political ground.

So we wanted to draw people, working class people, into thinking about migrants and refugees, and thinking about the things that are said about them, when they’re made out to be a threat to New Zealand jobs and society, and ask, are these correct? We want people to understand that migrants and refugees are overwhelmingly working class and, as workers, everyone in New Zealand has an interest in ensuring that these people are not a marginalised section of the working class.

There’s this whole thing about migrants and refugees driving down wages. People have to understand that migrants and refugees don’t decide how cheaply they get paid, this is decided by employers, and there’s a whole system of immigration law, racist assumptions, visas, and employment law that doesn’t accommodate for these people and allows them to be cheaply used. As working class New Zealanders we have to say, “it doesn’t matter where you come from, if you come here to do work, you get the same rights, and benefits, and protections as any worker.” Then there is no incentive to use migrants as cheap labour, if they’re protected.

There’s a real cynical trend in mainstream politics of blaming the most marginal and vulnerable section of the working class for many of society’s problems. So that’s the political need we see. As this is an election year, we want, as much as we can, to draw working class New Zealanders in to thinking about these issues.

 

So it’s about creating solidarity between New Zealand workers and migrants and refugees who have come over here.

Absolutely, yes.

 

Was part of that shaped by your work with First Union?

Yes, a huge part of it was shaped by my work. You begin to see how isolated migrants can be in the work force. I think that isolation, and the inability to organise with other workers, and join with other workers, and protect themselves, is a massive disadvantage. There are no unions that systematically organise migrant and refugee workers — that’s a huge issue. Often times you have workers who are living with their employer, pretty much living in the same building as their employer. Often times, especially in the agricultural sector, buying everything they need off their employer with their income. I was able to have that insight through my work with First Union. I said before, I have taken on individual cases that are referred to me, and I’ve done that for a few years now.

 

Cases of exploitation?

Yes, specifically migrant worker exploitation. First Union has a migrant worker network called UNEMIG. I get referrals from UNEMIG, and the CTU has sent me one or two workers as well. There are various groups in society that are working with migrants and refugees, and if there is an employment issue or an exploitation issue they will send it to me. There is an informal network of people who are interested in migrant rights.

 

I’m not sure if you’re allowed to discuss specific cases, but what kinds of exploitation goes on?

Without giving names away, I recently dealt with an individual who was employed in the IT industry, so quite a white-collar job. He was living in the same apartment as his employer, didn’t speak English very well, and had not been paid since October — it was in 2016 that I met him, and he hadn’t been paid since October 2015. He was owed something like $17,000 in wages.

The problem was that immigration has a very cut and thrust sort of policy to its dealings with migrants at times, and doesn’t really factor in to the equation the possibility that they’re getting exploited. This person wasn’t getting paid. He had to go to work for his employer because that’s what his visa required him to do. But he didn’t have any money so he was working in a restaurant illegally — now, what else can he do? That’s one example.

There are quite a few examples in the dairy and agricultural industry. I’ve dealt with a few personally. Families living on farms, and constantly on the brink of being dismissed. If you’re dismissed in New Zealand and you’re a kiwi worker you can raise a personal grievance or you can go to the Employment Relations Authority, but it’s a bit more difficult if you’re migrant worker, because what are you going to do about your visa? You could be kicked out of the country.

What this has taught me is that you can find migrant worker exploitation in almost any industry. In the hospitality industry, you get people in the city working in bakeries and shops — anywhere, you’ll find it all over the place.

 

Given this first-hand experience, how would you see yourself in relation to the other candidates in the Wellington Central electorate — James Shaw, Nicola Willis, Grant Robertson — who are, perhaps, of the political class? It seems, on these issues, you come from a more genuine position.

What I would like is for them to think about it as well. And for them to explicitly articulate their views on migrant and refugee issues, because I think they owe it to their constituents to be open.

I’ve been mulling over Andrew Little’s recent comments to cut migration by “tens of thousands,” as he says. New Zealand is a small country, what does he mean? Why is he saying that? Personally I think it’s abhorrent. It plays into that whole scapegoating of migrants and refugees for all sorts of social problems, like the housing crisis. The constituents, the voters, the working people in New Zealand, have a right to know why he is saying this, what he means, and for him to be transparent.

Otherwise, migrant bashing becomes a cudgel you can use to oppress, marginalise, and scapegoat a group for actual problems that are caused by the wealthy, by people who are always rich despite what the economy is doing. That’s what I want to do, especially in relation to the other left wing parties. I’m not a party, I guess, I’m just an individual, but that’s what I hope to achieve.

 

We’ve had a number of interviews with the likes of Grant Robertson and James Shaw, and we asked them about immigration. James Shaw said that the Green Party’s immigration policy is “a humanitarian-oriented immigration policy,” and suggested that National’s immigration policy was flawed because “the settings are clearly wrong. They are heavily oriented at low-skill, cheap labour, rather than more high-end skilled labour that a lot of our industries really need. You can move the settings around a lot, but also need to deal with the peaks and troughs […] we’ve seen a huge increase in people, especially in Auckland, over a short period of time. […]. What we were saying is, in the years where it’s low, you relax the settings, encourage more people to come in, and then try and manage the demand down at other peak times. That allows for infrastructure and housing planning that can cope with a reasonably steady level of demand.” He suggests New Zealand needs a more responsive immigration system, where you allow for more migrants to come in when net immigration is low, and slow down migration when net immigration is high. What are your thoughts on such a policy?

I think it’s interesting as we’re talking about working people. I’ve always found it very interesting how, when it comes to capital and people’s money, nobody cares where that comes from. Rich people can take wealth in and out of the country as they please, e.g. Peter Thiel, who didn’t even step foot in New Zealand. I think that’s the problem. Rich people have all this freedom, but working class people don’t have freedom of movement. I think that’s something we should all be able to have. It’s a fundamental human right.

There’s a lot in [Shaw’s] statement, but there some other elements I would criticise. There’s this whole idea that we don’t have the infrastructure to deal with migrants and refugees. But the problem is not migrants and refugees, it’s that there is state housing being demolished, and state housing is sitting empty. There is housing, but I read somewhere that 1% of New Zealanders are now technically homeless. It’s not that we don’t have the resources, it’s simply that we never seem to have the resources for the poor and needy. That affects all of us whether we’re Pākehā, Māori, migrant, or refugee — and that’s the actual problem.

I believe very much in people’s right to seek work, asylum, refuge, wherever they can. I think the real problem, when you look at the Pacific Islander workers who are under the Recognised Seasonal Employer schemes for example, is that there’s this emphasis to deal with “high-skilled workers” more, but these workers, who are supposedly “low-skilled”, are the backbone of our agricultural economy. We owe them more than just to treat them like sacks of potatoes. They come here, they get exploited, and then we pack them back. We scapegoat them for taking jobs off New Zealanders. It seems the whole premise is perverse from the root.

 

You mentioned that freedom of movement is hard for the working class as opposed to the wealthy. Do you see these immigration policies as more class discriminatory than based on race?

I do. I think racism plays a part in it. It makes ordinary New Zealanders think they have a stake in these policies. They think “we’ll all be eating baklava, or chinese food,” or some ridiculous claim. It makes ordinary working class New Zealanders think they’re being protected by these policies — so racism plays an ideological role. But I do think it’s class-based, because if you’re rich enough you can come and go from New Zealand as you please. It doesn’t matter where you’re from; if you’re Arab or Polynesian, whatever.

 

To follow on from that, Grant Robertson told Salient in an interview that: “Labour has committed to doubling the refugees we take every year. While we want to reduce the flow of migrants who are coming here under student visa and work visa categories, refugee policy is separate.” And then he mentioned “the moral and humanitarian duty” to accept refugees, and that a lot of refugees will be coming over in the next 20–30 years due to climate change. How do you see the difference constructed by these parties, like Labour, where they can act with humanitarian interests by increasing the refugee quota but who also cut migration?

I think it is a distinction laboured on by these parties. The way I look at it, taking primarily a class perspective, is that the people who suffer the most from climate change, war, poverty in the developing world are working class people. The people who are most likely to be climate refugees or war refugees are working class. Not entirely, and not always, but overwhelmingly they bear the burden of the shittiness of the capitalist system.

The distinction between migrant and refugee — you can’t say they’re exactly the same. I understand that refugees have more pressing needs that need to be dealt with. However to say that they’re two entirely discrete issues is not exactly right.  

 

To return to something you brought up earlier, about wanting the Wellington Central candidates to discuss migrant and refugee issues, and wanting more transparency regarding Andrew Little’s comments on immigration. On March 7, in an article on the MARRC website, you are quoted as saying “we have contacted Labour and the Greens and asked for their support, but have not received any reply.” Has there been a response since then?

No, we haven’t had any response from them.

 

To change tack slightly. There’s a quote from the French philosopher, Alain Badiou, that may inform your politics — I don’t want to make assumptions of course. But he suggests “there exist four great ensembles in our population from which, if we limit ourselves to the last two decades, we can expect that they may escape the gloomy discipline of the current state of affairs.” Of the last ensemble — he identifies four: schooled youth, popular youth, ordinary waged workers, migrants and refugees — he suggests: “Let us finally name the newly arrived proletarians from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, situated as always since the nineteenth century at the strategic centre of genuine politics, with or without legal papers, knowing how to organise, protest, occupy, in the long war of resistance for their rights.” I wondered if you saw your work with migrants and refugees as a location of a ‘real’ politics?

I do believe that the people who are, historically, likely to be the most advanced when it comes to positive social change tend to be the most marginalised and depressed of the working class. Yes, I think migrants, refugees, and also women — if you look at women and gender minorities, if you look at the history of pretty much any revolution, it is often the women workers who go on strike first.

I think there’s this thing about the groups who are the most marginalised and having the least to lose being the most open to positive and progressive change. That might sound a little altruistic and hopeful, and there’s an element to that I agree with, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and organise movements. Also, very importantly, these groups can’t achieve anything by themselves — they need solidarity from all working people. Part of that is about working class people in New Zealand seeing that they have more in common, in terms of their interests, with migrants and refugees than they initially supposed.

There’s this big lie that makes the so-called average New Zealander think that they have more in common with the rich and powerful, just because they might be of the same group — they might be of the same ethnicity, or they might be male. To think, for example, if you’re a Pākehā worker, that you have the most in common with the richest Pākehā in New Zealand than working class Māori who live next door to you is a huge lie. I want to extend that to all groups of the working class.

 

To bring it back to policy, recent changes to immigration laws saw two remuneration thresholds introduced for Skilled Migrant Category residence applications, one at the median income of $48,859 for skilled jobs, and another 1.5 times that at $73,299 for well-paid jobs considered low-skilled. Changes will also see “low-skilled migrants” being limited to three years living in New Zealand, with a stand-down period before approval of a new visa. What do you think of these changes, and how do these impact the way migrants are perceived in the community and workplace?

Again, it’s the idea that so-called “low skilled” migrants should get used to being more vulnerable and are less valuable to us. I think it’s a really despicable attitude to take given the extremely valuable work these people do, which is a net benefit to the economy.

My understanding is that a lot more people are going to be coming into New Zealand and are going to be more vulnerable. There’s this idea that you come here, we’ll work you, and we’ll get what we want, and then we’ll kick you out. I think it’s abusive — an abusive relationship.

 

The final question we always ask is what is your favourite colour?

Red.

 

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