Labour History

Reframing Chinese Labour Rights: Chinese Unionists, Pro-Labour Societies and the Nationalist Movement in Melbourne, 1900–10

Labour History (2017), 113, (1), 133–155.


In the early twentieth century, Chinese cabinetmakers’ militancy in Melbourne not only secured a fair wage from Chinese employers but also influenced emerging pro-labour societies. The Chinese Cabinetmakers’ Union was founded in response to their exclusion from minimum wages law when Chinese cabinetmakers were reimagined as “coolies” to emphasise the threat of cheaper Chinese labour. As Australian discriminatory policies increasingly curtailed Chinese workers’ rights, the Chinese community was divided in response. The development of Chinese unions and pro-labour societies in Melbourne contrasted with Sydney where the Chinese merchant elite also mobilised against discrimination. The two groups had different perspectives on labour rights, which were being reshaped as part of an emerging Chinese nationalist movement. Chinese unionists in Melbourne participated in the Chinese nationalists’ movement through newspapers, public meetings, speeches, donations and outdoor excursions. The alliance of Chinese unionists and the pro-labour societies reflected the fact that the Chinese working class in Melbourne demanded worker rights in a complex mix of the “politics of place,” embedded in a revolutionary nationalist movement and community organisation.

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*The author would like to thankLabour History’stwo anonymous referees. Google Scholar

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Author details

Kuo, Mei-fen