Local needs should direct economies

I rarely go to the movies but I had the chance to see a stunning one last week. It was called Mardi Gras and was in the Human Rights Film Festival. Most readers won’t get the chance to see it because it won’t be available on general release. It won’t attract the crowds like Mission Impossible III or The Da Vinci Code but these others are as shallow as birdbaths by comparison.

The film shows the working conditions of Chinese workers in a bead factory. You can probably imagine the situation. The workers are young women who leave their rural poverty to live in bunk rooms in a large factory compound. They work up to 16 hours per day at 10c per hour making necklaces of colourful plastic beads. They lose pay if they don’t reach their daily quota, if they talk on the job or go to the toilet during work time. Safety standards are non existent and these young workers routinely work dangerous machinery and handle carcinogenic products with no safeguards.

Meanwhile in New Orleans revellers at the annual Mardi Gras buy big quantities of these plastic beads and then in the hedonistic atmosphere of the big parades they give women beads if they flash their breasts for the crowd. The people in New Orleans have no idea how the beads are made and where they come from and the young Chinese women have no idea how the beads are used.

The film finishes with the Chinese workers being shocked and embarrassed at photos of New Orleans revellers using the beads while the revellers themselves are shocked when they see the factory conditions on a laptop.

It’s a hugely entertaining, thought provoking film, which brings a real life context to the Green Party’s Buy New Zealand Made campaign which was in the news last week.

 

Buy New Zealand Made has an overpowering logic in so many ways. It seems to be a “no-brainer”. When we buy a New Zealand made product we help keep kiwis in relatively well paid jobs and reduce transportation costs. In this way Buy New Zealand Made also has a lower environmental impact than bringing biscuits from Australia or shoes from Italy.

Probably the greatest benefit for New Zealand is that it helps us maintain a much higher level of self-reliance in our economy. This was an important concept as I grew up when New Zealand was trying to diversify its economy away from total reliance on agricultural exports by building up our manufacturing sector.

This idea is unfashionable now and never mentioned by politicians despite the fact that every developed country has improved its standards of living by imposing tariffs on imports and protecting their industries as they develop. Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson knew better apparently and over 20 years now we have disembowelled our manufacturing sector with cheap imports – represented in one sense by the beads in the film.

And we wonder why we have a low-wage economy compared to Australia.

Labour and National are lukewarm on Buy New Zealand Made and ACT is hostile. Their answer these days is always tax cuts – no matter what the question.

On the left many are also ambivalent about the campaign. The argument goes that an employer is an employer wherever they are – in New Zealand or China. They control community resources and use employees, on as low wages as possible, as a mechanism to turn those resources into profits for the business owners. This is true in principle. It’s an economic relationship which is unjust and unsustainable in either country. However, as we work towards an alternative economy we still need our factories and our skilled workers

So Buy New Zealand Made is also a long term investment for our children and grandchildren.

It will never apply to rice or cotton which don’t grow in New Zealand but there is no reason it shouldn’t apply to biscuits and shoes and almost everything else.

It will be a campaign which is easier for middle class New Zealanders on higher incomes than for people on low incomes. It’s paradoxical that those who have lost well paid jobs making shoes here will now only be able to afford cheap imported shoes.

So what about the workers making beads in the factory in China? Will they suffer in a campaigns such as Buy New Zealand Made?  Possibly in the short term. These young women are a real delight, despite their difficult situation, but shouldn’t the Chinese economy be oriented towards producing goods that will raise living standards in China?

Like many employers who believe what they want to believe, the millionaire bead factory owner, called Roger, says the “girls” are all happy. But the “girls” have held one strike. May they organise many more…

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