Labour questions involved Chinese people in colonial politics as the struggle for workers rights was partly fought around Chinese labour issues, with racist elements prominent. Even supporters of Chinese people often did so on the basis of racist stereotypes of hardworking and submissive ‘Orientals’. Hostility began early when contract worker from Amoy, intended to replace convicts as cheap labour, were opposed as a threat to ‘free’ labour. While the credit-ticket system of travel of the gold seekers and later arrivals helped ensure the continued frugality and hard work of farm-born peasants, and the Immigration Restriction Act’s enforcement of a form of ‘bonded’ labour well into the 20th century, provided ‘proof’ that Chinese workers were not the same as others.
Colonial workers early rejected the possibility of workers uniting regardless of race, instead opting for racially based policies of exclusion. However, seamen and waterfront unions broke with these exclusionist policies, working with the Chinese Seamen’s Union during WWII for equality of wages regardless of race. The gradual dismantling of the White Australia Policy meant that full equality of wages regardless of race was not finally achieved until the 1960s.
A clear feature of Chinese labour was the narrowing of occupations, which after shepherding and gold mining, had quickly expanded until by the end of the 19th century, scrub cutting, tobacco farming, fishing, storekeeping, cabinet-making, market-gardening, hawkers, and cooking were all common occupations. After 1901, however, the range of occupations contracted, with market gardening predominating.
It was commonly reported that Chinese workers worked for very little and so undercut efforts to maintain or raise wages. However, as food & board was usual, overall costs are difficult to assess and figures given by Chinese merchants suggest the difference with non-Chinese workers was not great. In addition, many workers owed debts, often directly to their employer, for their passage to Australia.
For those who came under the White Australia Policy, a link between eligibility to remain and employment existed. Those on Certificates of Exemption required official permission to change jobs, could only work in jobs defined as ‘Chinese’, and were liable to deportation if they lost their job. World War II changed this as Chinese seamen became reluctant to return to ports under threat by Japanese and a manpower shortage meant the Chinese Seaman’s Union could demand equality of pay and the right to work in any position.
The aging and retirement of Chinese market gardeners was offset by an increase in Chinese cafes, which employed as cooks and waiters some of the many refugees leaving China via Hong Kong after 1949. Immigration restrictions meant such employment could be exploitative; conditions only alleviated when citizenship rights and changes in union attitudes allowed workers to leave their ‘Chinese’ only positions and to join unions. The increasing numbers of migrants of Chinese background from South-East Asia in the 1960s and 70s, and again from China in the 1980s, faced no such restrictions and they were able to take up a wide range of positions.