Thursday, March 17, 2016

Sensible policy: So of course it’s opposed

If a government policy is old and time-tested, and it’s also both sensible and fair, when would a sitting NZ prime minster condemn it? When the prime minster is John Key and the person talking about that sensible government policy is Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Little, head of the NZ Labour Party. Meanwhile, the policy remains sensible.

Andrew Little said that employers of semi-skilled workers should have to hire New Zealanders first, before bringing in cheap foreign workers. So, John Key engaged his snark mode: “Now [Labour] don't want people with Chinese-sounding names making chicken chop suey.” Which is ironic, because Andrew Little did NOT talk about ethnic chefs except to defend them.

The problem for John Key is that Andrew Little’s absolutely right.

Before I was allowed to move to New Zealand, my would-be employer had to satisfy Immigration New Zealand (INZ) that there was no resident or citizen of New Zealand available who could do the job I was hired to do. That meant liaising with several different government agencies. It was only after ALL those departments were satisfied that my work visa and permit were issued and I was able to move to New Zealand—for one year at a time. This was over 20 years ago now, and it demonstrates that there's nothing even remotely new about what Andrew Little said—and John Key obviously knows that.

Little's larger point is that allowing mainly unregulated migration by low-skilled workers was driving down wages in New Zealand. National Party policy has been to keep NZ a low-wage economy [See: “Confirmed: National welcomes low-wage economy” by Frank Macskasy; while left-leaning, his piece also has links to original sources backing this assertion]. Low wages increase companies’ profits, of course, and that benefits the elites that back the National Party.

But, what about ethnic restaurants, specifically? That industry was the focus of John Key’s snark—should it have been?

There are several incidents in which foreign workers were treated as virtual slaves by their employers, and the most notorious was in the hospitality industry. Back in 2013, the Sunday Star-Times reported on a chain of Indian restaurants in Auckland that had paid staff as little as $3 an hour, forcing them to work 11 hours a day, six days a week, and made them live in overcrowded dormitories.

Two years later, Fairfax reported the chain was fined $25,000 for exploiting a worker—one week after being fined $10,000 for exploiting workers.

In October, 2015, two of the restaurant chain’s officers were convicted in Auckland District Court of exploiting foreign workers after an investigation by Immigration New Zealand. INZ felt the convictions sent a “strong message” that such exploitation would not be tolerated, but the limp sentences, on top of the clearly irrelevant earlier fines, seems to suggest that is probably not actually the case.

All of this went on while John Key was prime minister, so he knew—or should have known—about the existence of the exploitation of foreign workers. If this one chain would so brazenly—and repeatedly—exploit workers, there’s no reason to think others aren’t doing the exact same thing. John Key’s snarky remarks about “people with Chinese-sounding names making chicken chop suey” suggests that he may not actually care about exploitation of foreign workers, or that he has no idea what the extent of the problem is.

While I expect John Key to ignore real problems facing ordinary New Zealanders, I was surprised at the Green Party jumping to the defence of John Key and the status quo. Co-leader James Shaw, who is much more conservative than his predecessor, suggested that since companies importing semi-skilled foreign workers are “performing”, they should be left alone. This seems like more evidence for how the Green Party is no longer left-leaning, since Shaw never commented on the downward wage pressure on semi-skilled New Zealand workers caused by the current policies. That makes it look like he and the Green Party think that forcing wages lower for semi-skilled workers is okay as long as the companies are “performing”. If so, it’s an awfully elitist position for a party that likes to say it stands for the needs or ordinary New Zealanders.

So, when you combine all this—the long-standing policy of giving New Zealanders first crack at jobs within their own country, the downward wage pressure caused by cheap foreign workers, and the opportunity this system creates for exploiting foreign-born workers, Andrew Little is exactly right to say this system needs to be changed.

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