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‘Touch one, touch all’ means disabled workers and migrant workers too

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by Judy Kuo

Disability justice and racial justice are union business. Unions recognise this, thanks to disabled unionists, unionists of colour, and their comrades, who have fought tirelessly to shape the movement to be the beacon of social progress it needs to be.

Our ableist industrial system means that workers with intellectual disability face a segregated job market, where their only options for work are with Australian Disability Enterprises that can legally pay as little as $2.71 an hour, under arbitrary assessments that have little to do with the worker’s abilities.

The racist Federal Government leaves international students and temporary visa workers for dead during a pandemic, with no social support through JobSeeker or JobKeeper. During this time, five delivery drivers die on our roads, all people of colour. Their families in Australia and overseas have no recourse for justice because the workers were classified as ‘independent contractors’.

What they share in common is precariousness. It’s insecure work, it’s the fear of deportation, it’s the risk that you’ll be killed at work, it’s having a stranger decide whether or not you will still have access to mobility aids, medication, a home. It’s also having the support services you rely upon privatised and casualised to the nth degree.

This precariousness isn’t inherent to the individual that experiences it, it’s imposed on us by unfair industrial laws, by money-hungry corporations, and by poisonous cultural attitudes that pit us against one another. This precariousness is the logical conclusion of a system that thinks disabled workers and migrant workers are disposable.

To make human dignity a scarce commodity, capitalism requires an underclass. This plays out as the objectification and exploitation of migrant workers, disabled workers, low-income workers. When we are forced to fight for the last piece of the pie, we end up fighting each other. This is why it can be tempting to blame the cost of the NDIS for a lack of social support elsewhere. To blame disabled workers on three dollars an hour for wage stagnation. To blame migrant workers for the lack of secure, well-paid jobs. To blame working holiday makers for picking fruit at slave wages, and for no longer picking fruit at slave wages.

But when workers come together in union we realise the battles we are fighting are shared. We become stronger for it.

What it all boils down to is the fact that every person wants to participate and do meaningful work in their communities, have autonomy over their own circumstances, and support their loved ones. These are fundamentally issues of wages, inclusion and social support.

So who better to fight for secure visa conditions and equal workplace entitlements for migrant workers than the union movement? Who better to fight for fair pay for a fair day’s work for disabled workers than the union movement?

Whether it’s an international student scraping by as a delivery rider, or a disabled job seeker being shut out of work, our precariousness is a product of a system that protects those who profit from our work.

This is what makes disability justice and racial justice union business. It’s not simply a moral imperative. It’s that the same systems that produce racism and ableism also produce economic inequality, insecure work, and poverty.

…the same systems that produce racism and ableism also produce economic inequality, insecure work, and poverty.

It can be hard to see beyond our own struggle when we’ve lost our jobs, or have to dig into our super, or are forced to spend our savings to get by, or we haven’t had a pay rise in years despite corporations raking in profits.

But the more people who can rely on a secure, well-paid job, the more our economy grows. The more power that workers have in their workplaces, no matter their disability or cultural background or visa status, the more our world reflects our values.

As unionists, we have to use our voices as workers to lift up the voices of those who’ve been shut out; to make space for workers who we may have failed in the past; and to recognise that our struggles in the workplace have an impact that reaches far beyond wages and conditions, but the fairness of our society as a whole.

This isn’t just our duty as good unionists, but also our unique power. It’s ‘touch one, touch all’ for a reason.

judy

Judy Kuo is a Chinese-Australian unionist, artist and activist living and working on Wurundjeri land. She’s passionate about disability justice, refugee rights, and anti-racism.

Disability justice and racial justice are union business. Unions recognise this, thanks to disabled unionists, unionists of colour, and their comrades, who have fought tirelessly to shape the movement to be the beacon of social progress it needs to be.

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