Monday, 28 October 2013

labour day reflections

must be time for another labour day post.

i promised myself that i would do nothing productive this weekend, and apart from a bit of stuff catching up on emails this evening, i've pretty much stuck to that.  having had a pretty hectic year, i really needed the break.  time to relax, to day-dream, to just not worry about anything much at all.  it was lovely.

but i can't let the day go without acknowledging why we have it.  3 news did a nice little clip today, except that it was pretty depressing so few people knew the history behind labour day.  so here's some:

Labour Day commemorates the struggle for an eight-hour working day. New Zealand workers were among the first in the world to claim this right when, in 1840, the carpenter Samuel Parnell won an eight-hour day in Wellington. Labour Day was first celebrated in New Zealand on 28 October 1890, when several thousand trade union members and supporters attended parades in the main centres. Government employees were given the day off to attend the parades and many businesses closed for at least part of the day.

i'll leave you to read the rest by clicking through.  it's a day for commemorating rights in the workplace, except in recent times it's more appropriate to think about rights that have been lost. we no longer have an 8-hour working day, that went with the employment contracts act back in 1991. at that time we also lost award rates that ensured decent wages across various industries, we lost overtime pay.

the damage done to unions has meant that the rights to collective bargaining have been eroded. there is plenty of evidence that unionised workers have better pay and conditions than non-unionised workers, and that the efforts put in by unions benefit non-unionised workers as well.  for example:

Their findings on wage settlements for the last year are startling. For those agreements for which they could calculate an increase from June 2009 to June 2010 (some for example don’t specify a wage rate, or don’t have a preceding agreement to calculate an increase from) adult minimum wages in collectives went up by an "annualised" rate of 4.2 percent – the largest they have ever reported. It compares with an increase over the same period of 1.6 percent in the Labour Cost Index (LCI)and 2.1 percent in the average wage, both of which include non-unionised workers and unionised workers on individual agreements. Given that all collectives are union collectives, that’s a strong message about the success of both unions and collectives. Of course, collectives have other improved conditions too, and help to lock in improved conditions (if explicitly included) despite law changes.

current legislation before the house seeks to further erode those rights. if you want to get details about the proposed changes in the employment relations amendment bill, check out the factsheets on the sidebar of the CTU website.  or if you prefer to listen than to read, here's helen kelly explaining the proposed changes:

if you're in for some heavy reading, check out the human rights commission's submission - you can find a link here.  and if not, here's a summary from the bottom of a 3news piece:

The EPMU says the bill will allow employers to:
  • Refuse to negotiate a collective agreement with their employees
  • Pay new workers less than the rate in the collective agreement
  • Opt out of industry agreements in order to undercut their competitors on wages
  • Deny workers meal and rest breaks
  • Reduce the wages and conditions of vulnerable workers such as cleaners when taking over a new contract
  • Dock the pay of workers taking partial strike action
  • Impose more restrictions on the right to strike
  • Refuse to provide employees the information they need to challenge an unfair redundancy or dismissal.
so on a day when we should be celebrating hard-won rights, i think it's also appropriate to reflect on what we're about to lose and to think about vulnerable workers on low pay and the lack of ability to fight for a better deal.

migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, especially those whose residency status depends on their job.  in recent times, i've found out just how vulnerable young workers are.  if they are under 15, there are no terms and conditions, no minimum wage, really nothing at all to stop employers exploiting workers under 15.  and they certainly do.

so much of the damage and the erosion of work rights can be found in the prevailing attitude that a job is a privilege, rather than a human right.  yet this country signed up to the universal declaration of human rights, as have so many countries across the world, and it's right there in article 23:
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
the thing is that, as the first 3news clip i linked to above shows, so many people don't know the history of work or the history of unions and the struggle for workers rights.  it's not something that's taught at school, it's not something that is passed on through popular culture.  that there are people in the workforce today who don't know that there was once a different way to organise work, a way that ensured much less inequality, much less poverty and a better standard of living across the board, well it's just sad.

it's up to us to keep reminding people about work rights, and about the erosion that is currently proposed.  it's why i'm really looking forward to the taku manawa project i'm doing in conjunction with the young workers resource centre.  it's not much, but at least it will provide just a little bit of education for some young people in the city.

Thursday, 24 October 2013


i don't want to be doing another post about burqas.  it's not like i haven't written extensively about them.  and to put the focus on them again is to reinforce the notion that the only thing important about muslim women are burqas.

but this happened today, and i find that i can't ignore it:

Yuet Rappard, a farm worker, appeared in front of Justices of the Peace in the Dunedin District Court yesterday and was found guilty of offensive behaviour for telling a student to remove her burqa while she was shopping on May 17.

Rappard, representing herself, did not dispute that she told a University of Otago student to take her burqa off at Garden's New World, but told the court she was expressing her freedom of speech.

"I said 'shame on you, you should take it off. When in Rome you should do as the Romans do'."

Rappard, who moved to New Zealand from the Netherlands when she was a child, believed burqas should be banned and felt "intimidated" when she saw people wearing them.

when in rome. a tired old argument that i wrote about a couple of years ago. but let's pretend for now it's a valid one.  the burqa is legal in nz, and ms rappard is in nz, so ms rappard should adhere to local culture & accept the fact that we allow women to wear burqas here.  maybe she should accept that in this country, we have a bill of rights act that includes freedom of religion, and she should be prepared to live with that.

she might also want to learn about nz history, which involves colonisation and settlement, land theft and institutional injustices by the crown which we are still in the process of resolving.  those people who came here at that time did not "do as the romans" (well, actually if you look at the history of the actual romans in their heyday, they pretty much did), they did not adopt the local culture, live a tribal lifestyle, change the way they dressed so they were compatible with the local inhabitants.  in fact they did so much the opposite that maori couldn't be spoken at schools, and even today, many maori are shamed or denied employment for following the cultural practice of te moko.

so the burqa-wearing foreign student is following exactly in the footsteps of those who came before her by not changing or adapting her own religious beliefs to her environment.  in fact, she isn't quite living up to our history, because she isn't trying to force anyone else to wear a burqa, she hasn't any institutional power to prevent anyone else speaking a language or practising their own culture.  she's not in a position to set up land courts and a voting system designed to alienate a people from their land.  so that wearing of a burqa is a pretty poor attempt by her, and doesn't come anywhere close to what was going on here in times past.

let's not forget another fact: the burqa-wearing woman is a foreign student.  this means that she (or her family or her government) will be paying truckloads of money in order to purchase an education in this country.  it is highly likely that she is from one of those countries where nz education is heavily marketed, where there are important and high-level delegations sent to try to persuade said country to send its student here.  education is a big income earner, and this country, at an official level, has invited foreign students here so that this country can make money from them.

at the very least, if we're going to behave in that way, if we're going to invite them here and charge so much money for providing an education, the least we can do is make sure they are safe while they are here.  that's part of what we're selling when we sell our education.  it means we're accepting them as they are when we ask them to come here, because i'm quite sure no-one who is selling nz education overseas is saying "oh by the way, when you come here, you can't wear a burqa, because when in rome..."

then there's freedom of expression argument, and i've written a whole lot about that as well.  in fact, i've had a pretty robust discussion on facebook today on that particular freedom & what constitutes censorship.  and i'm oh so tired of the people who think freedom of expression is an absolute right that trumps absolutely any other right that anyone might have, in the way that ms rappard so clearly does.

we don't have total freedom of expression in this country because we have broadcasting standards, advertising codes, press council principles.  we have a very weak section of the human rights act around hate speech, and i believe it is still a crime in the crimes act to directly incite violence by way of speech.

but we also have other rights.  as i've already mentioned above, the freedom to practice one's religion (or to not have to practice one at all).  the right to freedom from discrimination.  and certainly the right to be free from harassment and intimidation as you go about your daily business.  i'd say the last one trumps freedom of expression, especially if you're expressing that freedom by getting into someone's face and shouting your opinion at them.  i realise ms rappard denies doing this, but there seems to be more than one witness who is of the view that this is what happened.

so yes, it's a good thing that ms rappard has been convicted and fined.  she hasn't learned anything from this experience though, and relies on the old "PC gone mad" to avoid any responsibility for her own actions or any empathy for the woman she harangued.  but at least the nz justice system has sent the message that this kind of behaviour is not ok, and that is something to be thankful for.

just to finish off, i'm going to recommend this piece that someone linked to on facebook today.  it's pretty long, but very well worth the read.  i can identify with so much of it, having migrated here as a child & feeling very much caught between two cultures and not really fitting in with either one of them.  i'm extremely lucky to not have the experience of war that this writer does, and she writes about all of it so very well.

Monday, 14 October 2013

poverty is political

it's been a while since i've written.  as you know, i've been a little busy with other things.  that didn't work out, so i thought it must be time to get back into blogging again.

one thing i wanted to write about was an event i went to last week.  it was a competition involving students from the school of management studies.  there were 4 groups, and each group presented a media/public relations campaign on behalf of the same client.  the client was poverty action waikato, and the campaigns centred around poverty.

i'd come across two of the groups as i was campaigning.  the "step up, speak now" was campaigning for the living wage, and tied their campaign to the local body elections.  hamilton city council failed to vote for a living wage for all it's employees earlier in the year, and this group based their strategy on a petition and a push for candidates to commit to a living wage.  they had an online strategy that was reasonably successful, and they plan to present their petition at the first meeting of the new council.  this group was really passionate, and they understand that decent wages are a critical part of poverty reduction.

the ten-17 group did a feasibility study around setting up a youth hub in hamilton.  they presented the idea to a meeting a couple of weeks ago, and also used an online campaign.  they want to focus on young people between the ages of 10 & 17 who are facing poverty, homeless or disadvantaged in other ways. it's a great initiative, & i really do hope they continue to work on it.  they did a lot of work in engaging with these young people & collecting their stories.  i felt like they really understood the issues.

a third group was called "not-so-super-annuation".  i hadn't come across them, though they did garner a good amount of media attention.  they were focused on poverty faced by the elderly.  they did a good job of presenting the problem, and they had taken some time to connect with people who were struggling in their retirement.

yet, they didn't seem to understand the underlying causes nor to present a viable solution.  their solution was to educate people, particularly in the 45 to 60 year old age bracket about the importance of saving & investing.  they said people shouldn't be relying on the government and that there was a need for a change in culture.

wow, did i have some major problems with that.  first of all, the retirement commissioner & various others have been doing exactly that.  there has been so much information put out, aimed at exactly that age bracket.  and while the group have actually received interest from the commissioner and others for the work they have done, the solution just doesn't address the problem.

the problem is that so many of the people facing poverty in their old age just weren't earning enough to save.  you can educate them as much as you like, but if they don't have enough income, then saving will not happen. there was no consideration of the issues around unemployment, especially for people who are laid off in their middle age. at that age, it's very difficult to find another job.  and it's also hard to retrain, especially when this government has decided that older students can't access the student loan scheme.  if you're unemployed & struggling, there is no way you can afford to re-train or re-educate yourself.

but more than that, their solution assumes that the answer to poverty reduction lies in individual action. it's the response of a neo-liberal generation, brought up in a culture arising from the policies of the 80s & 90s, that thinks personal responsibility is the solution to all problems.  a generation who hasn't thought about the fact that these problems arise from the way our society is structured and the only way to resolve them effectively is to change the underlying structure.

the thing that worried me most about this group was the fact that they hadn't approached grey power or age concern, because they thought those organisations are too political.  that sound you heard was me screaming!  poverty is political.  it is purely political.  there is enough wealth, enough resources for every person in this country to live a comfortable life.  the issue isn't that we don't have enough, it's that the resources aren't fairly distributed.  the way we choose to distribute those resources, as a society, is a political decision.  the economic structures our society uses are as a result of political decisions.  the way markets, financing, banks, wages, etc etc work in our society is a result of political decisions.  we could choose to do things differently, we could choose to structure our society in a way that neither our children nor our elderly would ever have to struggle for food, decent housing and decent heating.  but we don't, and that's a conscious choice, and a political one.

it doesn't surprise me that this group won the competition.  the reason for that is because they were being judged on the effectiveness of their PR campaign, not on the strength of their analysis or the effectiveness of their solutions.  and there was no doubt that the group had the best results in terms of the reach of the campaign, even if it didn't reach me.

but it was frustrating to watch and listen to.  while the other 2 groups had a much better grasp of effective solutions, a much better connection to the problems and the people facing them, it was clear they were never going to win.  and that's because of the rules of the competition, the structure if you will, that they were working under.  it just shows that how you create the structure and what you develop as your criteria will determine the outcome.  that's why we need to change the rules, the structures, so that the people who are currently struggling so much can live their lives with dignity.