Indian seamen and Australian unions fighting for labour rights: "The Real Facts of the Lascars' Case" of 1939

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Journal Article
Labour History, 2017, (113), pp. 209 - 239
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© 2017 Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. In 1939, the outbreak of war prompted strikes by Indian seafarers across the empire. This article traces events in Australia as Indian seafarers asserted their labour rights and in doing so contested their exploitative working conditions as "lascars" or the seagoing equivalent of shore-based indentured "coolie" labour. While the Australian government responded in ways that reinforced the "coolie" status of Indian seafarers, the Australian labour movement, most notably the maritime unions, threw their support behind the strikers. The Seamen's Union of Australia and Waterside Workers' Federation provided material aid, funded the strikers' legal costs and, significantly, challenged official and media representations of the Indian seafarers as "coolies" with explanations of their exploitative conditions as "workers." This action was significant because western seafarers' lack of support has been seen as contributing to Indian seafarers' difficulties in challenging their working conditions and status as "lascars." Showing how Indian and Australian workers together resisted labour categories and fought for political rights complicates prevailing views of the relationship between Australian unions and Asian workers and demonstrates a consistency with the earlier internationalism of Australian maritime unions identified by previous historians.
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