Interview Transcript: Gayaal Iddamalgoda, For a Just Lockdown

Originally broadcast on May 1st, 2020. Audio here.

Ani White: For our furious political thought segment this month we’re interviewing migrant worker advocate Gayaal Iddamalgoda who’s based in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Welcome to the show Gayaal.

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: Kia ora, thank you.

Ani White: Thanks for coming on.

For context, what was the state of migrant and refugee rights in New Zealand before COVID-19?

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: Well, some of the major issues facing migrant and refugee background workers related to the exploitation of migrant workers. So, New Zealand benefits tremendously from the cheap labour provided by migrant workers especially in its primary sector, and now after the COVID crisis in the appropriately-called essential services. You’re talking about courier drivers, supermarket workers, cleaners, disproportionately represented by low-paid migrant workers and these workers are often restricted by very oppressive or very draconian visa restrictions and many of the workers who are brought in from the Pacific to work in the primary sector are brought here under the R.S.E. scheme or Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme, which is very, very restrictive of their ability to connect with other working-class organisations, to unionise and basically locks them into being a source of cheap labour. So, exploitation of migrant workers is a long-standing problem in New Zealand. 

Another issue relates to New Zealand’s imperialist ambitions in the Middle East because in light of March 15th there’s been a lot of attention paid to Islamaphobia. It is a problem in New Zealand. Of course, refugees are well represented in the Muslim community and I think there’s that connection between the Islamaphobia which has spewed out in recent times as expressed by that tragedy on March 15th 2019 and the imperialism that the New Zealand state indulges in and the ideology of needing to fight Muslims or the ideology that justifies the invasion and dispossession of these people in Muslim countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. That has been something that people who have been advocating for migrant and refugee right have been aware of but something which has only recently come to the fore in the New Zealand political discourse.

Ani White: How has the New Zealand state responded to the virus?

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: Well one of the positive things that have come out from the crisis is the state has been put in a political position where it has to implicitly recognise the essentiality of vast sections of the working class. So people who have previously been described as low-wage, unskilled, even menial workers, people who are engaged in cleaning, in courier services, in casualised labour of all sorts, in supermarkets stacking shelves and moving goods, these workers are now categorised and recognised as essential workers and special provisions have been made for them to continue working during this crisis. I think that is a good thing that has come out of the crisis. I wouldn’t say that’s an initiative of the state, that’s something the state simply has to recognise as a reality.

But one of the problematic issues that have come out of it is, of course, the closure of the borders and we cannot, as a class, view this as a positive thing in the long term. It doesn’t merely touch on the fact that we shouldn’t be in close proximity to each other, it’s not merely a physical distancing issue, because prior to the closure of the borders there were sections of the working class who have been severely restricted in the ability to exercise their freedom of movement. We’re talking about refugees and poor migrants in particular. So the closure of the borders is likely to have an even greater impact on them, so I think it’s important to reflect on the fact that while these steps are being taken to physically distance people from each other during the crisis, the issues that cause migration have not taken hiatus; we still have war, we still have dispossession, we still have inequality on a global scale impacting on the working class. People who have been affected by that before are still affected by that and are more likely to be affected by that in a more acute way than before. So I think we really need to look at remembering that these issues are ongoing, and remembering that a call for working-class people to be able to exercise their freedom of movement – just like capitalists insist on having freedom of movement for their capital and for themselves – that’s still a very important thing to remember and we cannot look at these restrictions as a good thing in the long-run.

Ani White: Yeah, I think that what you said about these issues as ongoing is very true, and I had to deliberately look up what was happening in Syria due to COVID because I was so focused on New Zealand and Australia, and not keeping track of what was happening in Syria and the fact that obviously the war in ongoing, you still have people in refugee camps, people in refugee camps are particularly at-risk, there’s also now this issue that the medicalisation is going to be used to even more justify the restrictions on refugees by various states and the repression of refugees. So there are advocates saying, last I read it hadn’t quite reached Idlib, but once it reaches which is obviously under siege, people there are going to be particularly vulnerable to it, and there’s also advocates in Syria are also saying that the state was under-reporting numbers. So I think that’s very true that these issues are ongoing, and don’t go away just because of the virus. I’d also say that, yes, quarantining makes sense but that quarantining doesn’t have to mean border restrictions.

How should we respond to border controls in the age of coronavirus?

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: A couple of things. First of all, border controls, borders, exist to protect states and if there’s one thing that has become abundantly clear from this crisis, it is the redundancy of capitalist states because we are now facing global problems. We are facing global problems like climate change, we are facing global refugee crises, caused not only by imperialist wars but also by climate change and environmental degradation, and we’re facing fundamental issues about the distribution of essential things, and states are impeding the ability to do this. When you talk about border controls you really have to talk about why is it important to protect these states, when we should all be looking as a human society trying to resolve the problems that face us globally. It’s very important to understand that it is the working class who suffer most from the impediments caused by states, in terms of war and border controls and internment, but it’s also the working class that has the most to gain from dismantling them and also the working class that has the instincts to be able to overcome those impediments, because the working class people produce all the wealth but also are able to coordinate wealth resources across the globe and it is only the interests of wealthy capitalists, in various states, that stands in the way of free-flow of goods and resources to the places where they’re needed. I’m reminded of Donald Trump’s offer – bribe, I guess – to German scientists, of I think a billion dollars or something, to develop a vaccine that would only be given to the United States. The working class scientists that were at the coalface of doing this research flatly renounced that and said, ‘no, this is not a time for us to be hoarding resources. this is a time for human beings, for humanity to be sharing its resources, its wealth and its knowledge.’ So I think that’s the positive thing, it is the working class that presents that opportunity and that view. It’s the states, it’s capitalist states and capitalist borders that stand in the way of that.

Another issue is, in relation to border controls, one thing that sticks out to me is the fact that there are thousands of people, refugees in particular and poor migrants, who are restricted in camps, because many capitalist states have chosen to characterise the movement of working-class people due to fleeing persecution or poverty as something that is criminal. This is, again, it’s posing a huge aggravation to the current crisis because you have these people who are locked up in internment camps, whether it be in Lesbos or Nauru or Australia, Christmas Island or wherever it is, who are in close proximity to each other, who aren’t able to physically distance and it’s a breeding ground for the spread of this virus. So I think a great problem isn’t so much the need to restrict the movement of these people, it’s actually about regularising the movement of these people. The fact that they are restricted and kept in unsanitary, punishing conditions, unfairly, it’s not just a moral issue now, it’s also a symbol of how ineffectual and wasteful and misplaced the policy of criminalising refugees and migrants has been.

Ani White: What do you think of the use of the police and military to enforce the lockdown, including the expansion of powers to enter homes in New Zealand? And what’s the alternative to cops enforcing the lockdown?

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: One thing that we have to understand is that before the COVID-19 crisis, there has been an almost universally acknowledged issue with institutionalised racism in the judiciary and in the legal system, which includes the police, the police decision to arrest people who are generally Maori or Pasifika, the fact that in New Zealand prisons it is hugely disproportionate, the number of Maori or Pasifika people who are incarcerated. Maori or Pasifika people, Maori people, in particular, are more likely to be prosecuted as first time offended than non-Maori people. So this is an institutional problem of racism, so I think we should all be very worried about the fact that the institutions that generally harm migrant communities and indigenous communities in New Zealand are now being given special powers. I think that’s not a good thing and those problems, those issues haven’t gone away, so I think it’s something we should all be concerned about. If the normal state of affairs or the normal institutional character of the police and the military are taken into account, we can expect people of colour to be disproportionately impacted by state violence. There’s a huge issue with the state having a monopoly on coercion and violence at the best of times, but especially at this time of crisis because the state, and the police, and the military don’t serve the interests of working-class people. They certainly don’t serve the interests of Maori, Pasifika, and migrants at the best of times, so there’s a question of legitimacy there. I don’t think that they are legitimately placed to exercise these powers and they shouldn’t have these coercive powers, especially in a time of crisis.

As an alternative, what we should be interested in should be strengthening grassroots working-class communities. When I think of Māori community, in particular, strengthening those ties of tikanga (communal practices, ‘the Māori way of doing things’). It would be better if people were able to take direction from their elders, from the marae (sacred meeting place) structures than to have the rules to do with physical distancing be imposed, by institutions that they rightly, and instinctively don’t trust. I think that’s what we should be looking at, stronger grassroots working-class communities, the solution for us where we hold each other accountable and we support each other. Not where we give our well-being over to institutions that are designed at the best of times to harm us, and to control us, and to oppress us.

Ani White: Yeah, I think that fostering social solidarity so that people understand why they should stay home is quite important. 

We talked about the organisation of medical workers as an alternative. Can you talk about that?

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: Yes, I think healthcare workers are at the coalface of dealing with the reality of the situation, and I think that’s important to realise at a time when there’s a lot of right-wing disinformation and misinformation about what’s going on. These workers are very essential, but also they’re best placed to understand what’s happening, so I think in terms of combating the disinformation the organisation of healthcare workers is quite an important factor. These workers, along with all sorts of essential workers, have now gained a tremendous position of industrial power. That’s something we need to remember and reflect on. That is a good thing because at the best of times these workers have been marginalised, and treated as marginal workers, and now they are rightly at the centre of the struggle against COVID-19, and I think that demands respect and support from the broader working class.

Ani White: On the flip side of the repressive response we also have right-wingers advocating business as usual, with the emphasis on business. For example, David Seymour, the leader of New Zealand’s neoliberal ACT party, said, quote: “the finance minister must commit to returning us to pre-COVID-19 economic policies and not using the crisis as an opportunity to make permanent ideological changes. Right now we’re sleep-walking towards permanent bigger government.” So, is the cure worse than the virus as sections of the right claim?

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: The response of the right is really irrational and really inconsistent, while they are demanding the poor and the working class make sacrifices.. What stands out to me is some of the commentary in the United States, that older people should sacrifice themselves for the economy. They’re not sacrificing, the wealthy, capitalists, the ruling class are not sacrificing their own older people, they’re asking us to sacrifice our old and our vulnerable so that they can remain wealthy. At a time like this, in a situation that capitalism is basically and fundamentally unable to react in a way that is humane and rational, you can really see the weakness in these right-wing demands. In New Zealand we have many right-wing media groups closing, and you see the same people who are complaining about ‘ideological changes in favour of the left’ bemoaning the lack of state intervention to keep these institutions open. So, what you have is the right-wing libertarians are demanding socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor, and I think that really needs to be called out. The Bauer Media Group in New Zealand is going under and again we have many right-wing voices demanding the government bail-out this right-wing group while at the best of times any move or any demand for beneficiaries to be treated with greater dignity, or to have the things that they need to subsist, or any demand for Māori people have their treaty rights upheld, or for migrants to have emergency benefits, all of this kind of thing is denounced as greedy. So the hypocrisy, and the irrationality, and the inconsistency of the right is something that is really interesting to observe.

Ani White: As you’ve mentioned, imprisoned people are particularly at risk of spread, including imprisoned refugees and migrants – how should we address this?

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: I think we can really call into question some of the assumptions that have been imposed upon us about what is essential to society, and what is essential to life. Because we’ve been told, or it’s been programmed into us, that people who are seeking asylum or seeking refugee status or migrating because they’re poor or working-class and imprisoned, that they deserve to be in prison, that they’re criminal and that that’s important for our society for the safety of our society. But I think that’s being turned on its head, it’s not important. These people shouldn’t be in prison, they shouldn’t be locked away and in fact, that treatment of them is not only inhumane, it’s illogical, it’s something that fosters the spread of the virus. So this is a great time for us to actually look at not only whether prisons and internment camps are inhumane, which they are, but also whether that is something we need, or we need to be expending resources on, at a time when we really should be considering what is essential to all of our survival. We need to ensure that people aren’t oppressed into an imprisoned underclass, that these people, that their lives are regularised, that they aren’t isolated, and they aren’t put in a position where they’re likely to be carriers of the virus towards each other, but also for the communities that they’re imprisoned in.

Ani White: We’ve also seen hate crimes against Asian people fuelled by a perception of this as a ‘Chinese virus’, how do we counter this?

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: The important thing to know is that whenever politicians, or Donald Trump in particular, when he’s referred to it as ‘the Chinese virus’, this is a thinly veiled attempt the deflect the discourse around what really needs to be done, and what is really aggravating the crisis. The crisis is being aggravated by the fact that working-class people, millions and millions of working-class people in the so-called ‘developed world’, are denied access to effective healthcare. If they had that access, then we wouldn’t be in this problem, but politicians and the ruling-class don’t want to talk about that, they don’t want to talk about access to healthcare. I’m reminded of a story I saw on the internet some time ago where a doctor, her partner had posted her reaction to people applauding as she was going into her shift at the hospital and she said, ‘look, we don’t need people to applaud, we need people to understand and vote in favour of more effective and accessible healthcare for working-class people’. So I think that’s important to understand – the hateful language, calling it ‘the China virus’ serves a very insidious purpose, it’s not just something that’s said frivolously, it’s actually serving a very insidious purpose to deflect debate. The way we need to respond to it is, quite frankly, to take the perspective of class solidarity, because the people who are at the coalface, the essential workers, the people who are working in food distribution, in supermarkets, in healthcare, these workers are often-times migrant and refugee background, but also they are working alongside workers from all backgrounds, and their interests are aligned more now than ever. Their interests’ to be safe, their interests to be paid well, their interests not to be exploited. Aligned among themselves regardless of where they come from whether they’re migrants, refugees, or not. I think the reason why hate crimes are becoming a problem or an issue, or even encouraged by the highest echelons of political society, is because they do play a very effective role in deflecting from the reality of the situation, from people understanding the reality because that poses a great threat to capitalist existence.

Ani White: Yeah, we saw recently in Texas there was an attack on a family of three, where this guy was basically stabbing people, because it was an Asian family, and there was a store employee that stopped that from happening. I think when you talk about essential workers that’s an example of that – solidarity – and we also just need to directly stop attacks, so there’s the education and fostering of solidarity, and then there’s the direct action to stop them, and it was good that store employee just stepped in to directly stop it. We need to do that for supposedly lesser things as well, like we’ve seen – an Asian bus driver in Australia was harangued, and he’s been here 15 years and someone’s haranguing him about bringing the virus. It shouldn’t escalate to stabbings before people are stepping in to stop it.

Another thing is how can we have social solidarity without physical contact?

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: Well there are a couple of things that I’ve been involved in at the moment, and I think the internet plays an important role in us being able to do this. But people are using the tools that they have very effectively, so in New Zealand, and I imagine elsewhere, there are calls for rent strikes, and people are organising in order to be effective in that area. People who are being targeted by malicious greedy landlords are able to reach out to others, and to organise themselves in a campaign against this kind of behaviour. So the rent strike campaign in New Zealand is gaining quite a lot of traction, it’s naming and shaming quite a few ‘bad landlords’. Similarly, [people in workplaces] are doing the same. They are in a position to demand better conditions, better wages. One of the things we have to be quite careful about, one of the things we need to do is to support these workers in exercising their industrial rights. We can’t use the virus as an excuse to curtail the rights of these essential workers to strike, to organise, and to collectively bargain. Because while we’re practicing social distancing, the essential workers in our societies are not. They’re not practicing social distancing, and so where we’re placed we need to support them, we need to criticise any moves from the government, from right-wing lobbies, right-wing sections of even the trade union movement to concede any industrial rights on behalf of these workers. So I think there is a lot of stuff that we can be interested in and involved in. We can be involved in very effective internet campaigns, because even if we are socially distancing most of us still have to pay rent. We can organise around that, but also we can support and bear witness to the importance of essential workers, and make sure they have an unqualified right to exercise their industrial power and their industrial strength.

Ani White: And why is it important for local workers to have solidarity with migrants and refugees?

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: That’s a really important question. It’s important because local workers have to understand that in this interconnected world that we live in, working-class people who are of migrant and refugee backgrounds are closer to them than their employers, closer to them than the right-wing politicians, closer to them than the nationalist ideologues. These people share in their struggles, share in their concerns, and have the same interests in terms of distribution of resources and distribution of wealth. Working-class people now, if they look at the situation and, see what’s happening, and see who is at the coal face of dealing with the crisis, who is working alongside who, they can begin to see that migrant workers are the same community as them. Migrant and refugee background people are not their enemies but their allies. It’s important that we develop and we use this opportunity to develop class consciousness, because the obviousness of class difference is becoming more and more bare, it’s becoming more and more obvious, it’s becoming more and more open. That will improve the quality of life for all working-class people, if we can put aside racism, xenophobia, and actually develop relationships along the lines of class solidarity.

Ani White: Yeah I thought I’d give some examples of struggles like this that are ongoing. So, in the U.S. you’ve seen G.E. workers striking to repurpose their factories for producing ventilators, so the need to collectively determine how things are distributed. We’ve seen, for example with the distribution of masks, consumers being blamed for buying masks when – not to idealise these countries – but somewhere like South Korea responded by the government repurposing and ensuring that there were enough masks to go around. So instead of blaming consumers, that we collectively determine what is produced and distributed, and how it’s produced and distributed. In New Zealand, you’ve seen the hospitality union Unite, whin 80% of wages for McDonald’s workers out of work, which should be 100%, but in a lot of the world hospitality is being shut down and people are being put out of work with no sufficient replacement of income. You’ve seen workers go on strike for health and safety including healthcare workers.

In my union, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), a rank and file rebellion is challenging officials’ defeatist response to the COVID-19 crisis. Casuals have been sacked en-masse including 200 staff at my university, RMIT. Universities are also seeking to implement a pay freeze and to restructure enterprise bargaining agreements, however, the NTEU National Executive has been drawn into a managerial logic of helping balance the books and a defeatist view of the crisis. A common idea expressed both by the National Executive and those academics who support them, is that a sacrifice in pay is needed to protect job security. There is a liberal notion here of solidarity as self-sacrifice by privileged academics, rather than solidarity as a rising tide lifting all ships. The No Concessions campaign began with a motion censuring the National Executive, passed on April 12th at a University of Sydney members meeting by 117 votes to two. Supporting motions have been passed at members’ meetings across the country. Over 800 members, including myself, signed a statement calling for no concessions by the NTEU National Executive. After motions and statements being passed at various levels, core activists have been itching to translate this into action. Strikes are illegal outside of collective bargaining, with a risk of significant fines. However, refusal of unpaid work is under discussion as an industrial tactic. Alongside enforcing the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, this would double as a statement of solidarity with casuals who should be performing that work, a vastly preferable tactic to trading wage freezes for job security. This week, RMIT Casuals, my own section, passed a motion calling on staff to refuse unpaid work. Members are also calling for a national day of action. So we’re seeing strikes all over, and other kinds of struggles all over, to make this a just lockdown.

And you’re a legal organiser for FIRST Union in New Zealand, a union that represents many migrant workers. How has FIRST responded to COVID and the lockdown?

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: Yes, well additionally we do represent many migrant workers, and we also represent many of the sectors that have been deemed essential. So we represent finance sector workers, and also supermarket workers, and many drivers. So FIRST has been quite involved in advocating for these workers, ensuring that they have access to safety equipment, to PPE, but also ensuring that workers, people who cannot work because they’re immune-compromised or because they’re over-70, that they are paid for. That they have their income paid for as much as possible. Because I think this is really a time when we put aside all these pretensions that capitalism usually wears about supply and demand, consume power and all that kind of nonsense, and look at what do we all need to do in order to survive every day. So FIRST Union has done a lot of work around that.

In terms of migrant work – and I think it is quite interesting – it overlaps a lot because as I have said before, these essential workers, who have often-times been placed at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy – supermarket workers and things like that, they are often from migrant and refugee backgrounds as well – but FIRST Union has demanded that workers who are unable to work, or are unable to make an income, that they receive emergency benefits. In New Zealand, if you not a resident or a citizen it was practically impossible to access any kind of emergency benefits and now people are stuck in New Zealand. Not only can they not work but they can’t leave. Many international students are in this position, and many short-term migrant workers are in this position. So that’s been a strong demand coming from the union, that we need to revisit that, and actually this is part of a big pulse throughout the working-class movement, that we need to be prioritising human need. We need to change the assumptions and the underpinnings of this system, the economic system, and social system that we have.

Ani White: You’re also a spokesperson for the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign Aotearoa / New Zealand. Can you outline what work the group has done since its formation?

Gayaal Iddamalgoda: It was formed during the last General Election, in order to combat a rise in political scapegoating of migrants and refugees for all sorts of social and economic problems, that were actually being caused by the inequalities generated by capitalism. In New Zealand at that time and still, we have a housing crisis, an access to housing issue. Politicians on both the left and the right-wing of the political spectrum in New Zealand were falling into this tendency to blame migrants for housing shortages, and there was no basis for this, no statistical basis for this. In fact, New Zealand has an excess of housing stock available. The problem isn’t migrants coming in and buying up houses, the problem is people land-banking, the problem is the wealthy owning multiple properties, and renting it out in an exploitative way to the working-class. So, the Migrant and Refugee Rights campaign challenged mainstream political discourse around the election, around the housing issue, but also around all sorts of things that migrants were scapegoated for. Migrants at that time were being scapegoated for all sorts of things. It was also intended to highlight the importance of migrant workers to the working-class, and the slogan that we raised was What’s good for migrants is good for all working-class people because migrant workers are used as cheap labour, and as a way of driving down wages and conditions for non-migrant workers. But this is not because this is that’s what they choose, this is because it is a strategy of bosses to use migrant workers in this way. So the interests of migrant workers and non-migrant workers were actually aligned. We need to ensure that all workers are able to have decent income, decent conditions, and to unionise. So highlighting that commonality of interest was another aim of the campaign.

One of the great wins of the campaign was we certainly changed the political discourse around migrants and refugees at the time of the election, but subsequent to that and following the March 15th terrorist attacks against mosques in Christchurch, we were able to participate or assist in overturning this long-standing regulation that had been imposed by the National Government, some ten years before that restricted the ability of African and Middle Eastern refugees to come to New Zealand, and it basically banned them from coming to New Zealand under the refugee quota, unless they were able to show an existing family link. So this was a blatantly racist restriction and it targeted African and Middle Eastern refugees, and at the time of the campaign when it started the National Party was actually denying that the regulation even existed. Many candidates that I debated were able to say ‘no, we don’t know of such a restriction and it doesn’t make any sense’, even though it was on the books. But after the Christchurch massacre, one of the great waves of pro-migrant sentiment that came out of that led people to investigate the claims that were made that Middle Eastern and African refugees were being restricted in this way, and it was found to be true and those restrictions were overturned. That’s one of the great wins of the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign, that we were able to overturn this blatantly racist restriction on the ability of Middle Eastern and African refugees to seek asylum and to seek refuge in New Zealand.