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The Italian Federation of Migrant Workers and their Families (FILEF) in Australia

from the 1970s to the present

Abstract

Luca Marin

Swinburne University of Technology

In those years, migrant organisations, as social actors in the migratory processes, have
become the focus of much research interest.
In the context of transnationalism, the emphasis has shifted from one of the migrant
integration in the destination region to one that takes into account the region of origin,
linkages and relationships between them. Links include political, sociological and economic
environments of home countries as well as well host countries.
FILEF, a worldwide voluntary organisation, run by migrants of Italian background
and engaged in the areas of welfare, education, and culture is an example of an organisation
such interest has focused on.
In Australia FILEF was the successor of a string of left-wing grassroots organisations,
such as the Italian Australian League (Melbourne) and the Italian Australian Club (Sydney).
FILEF set up branches in Melbourne and Sydney in 1972 and later on in Adelaide, Brisbane
and Perth. FILEF sought to raise political awareness amid migrant communities, in particular
amongst working class migrants, by providing an Italian-language political and cultural
platform to left-wing Italians in Australia and by forging close relationship with political
parties such as the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and trade union organisations. Education
was a significant activity of FILEF, but also welfare, Italian community development,
women’s emancipation, civil rights and ethnic affairs have been considered the most
important areas of engagement since the 1970s. Through the fortnightly newspaper ‘Nuovo
Paese’, community radio programs, migrant workers conferences, surveys, strikes, petitions,
FILEF tended to be a ‘voice’ of Italian immigrants in Australia. The political contact between
FILEF and the Labor party as well as the involvement in the unions gave for the first time the
opportunity to elect some members of FILEF (Giovanni Sgrò and Carlo Carli) as MP of
Victoria increasing political influence into state and federal governments.
According to Lever-Tracy and Quinlan, Immigrant worker clubs ‘acted as a catalyst
by which relatively poorly integrated immigrant workers could be converted into active union
members’ (Lever-Tracy & Quinlan 1988: 151). FILEF behaved in same ways.
The political and ideological support of Italian Communist Party (PCI) provided to
FILEF was one essential ingredient in its establishment in Rome in 1967. In 1991, when the
PCI was dissolved, FILEF lost this political support. This dramatic change forced FILEF to
reconsider its links with the new Italian political system.
The rise, success and decline of FILEF have not gone unnoticed by scholars. A recent
study about FILEF in Melbourne in the 1970s by Battiston (2012) and previous research by
Lopez (2000) and Carli (1982) have contributed, among others, to the Australian migrant
literature. However, FILEF branches in Sydney and Adelaide have received less
consideration.
From a political perspective the first Labor government after twenty-three years was
one of the main events of the 1970s. It can be considered a turning point for migrant
associations. The Italian immigrant community became also polarised between those who
claimed to be ‘left’ and progressive and those who claimed to be ‘right’ and conservative. In
this context it was undoubtedly important for FILEF to increase its influence among the
Italian community, breaking the monopoly of others Italian associations such as Co.As.It.
(Italian Assistance Committee). Co.As.It, in those years, was considered by part of migrant
Italian community as too conservative and unable to satisfy economic, cultural and political
demands of Italians in Australia. FILEF, unlike Co.As.It., tried to assume the role of a typical
Italian mass organisation by forcing with one of the most important political party in
Australia (Labor party). This became a starting point for political careers among FILEF
members.
This research covers some aspects not yet investigated in previous studies such as the
impact of the Australian and the Italian political and economic systems on FILEF activities;
the importance of the link between FILEF and political parties; and the characteristics of the
new Italian migrants (those that came from the 1970s onwards) with the Italian community in
Australia and in more general terms with the Australian society. Generally, these new
migrants were more formally educated and politically more sensitised than their predecessors.
Most of them came to Australia to broaden their personal experiences and their Italian
political engagement.
To provide answers to these questions, this research employed semi-structured
interviews as primary sources of data. The secondary data consists of documents such as
photos, letters, official correspondence, journal articles in the private collection of former and
current members of FILEF as well as in publicly held archives. A variety of methods were
employed in the investigation (Yin 2009).
One of the aims of my research was to establish a connection between events and the
meaning of these events. The method employed was semi-structured interviews. One
‘sociological’ factor analysed was the balance of work and personal life. Utilising interviews
as a data collection too enabled to distinguish between ‘public’ and ‘private’ lives of FILEF
members and supporters and how these influence each other. These interviews are used to
define the personal narratives contextualizing them in historical time and events.
In conclusion, this research intends to demonstrate how FILEF was a launching pad for the
professional and political careers of its supporters.

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