Sacking too much to bear

Pipiwai is a small Maori community in the heart of Northland, about 40km west of Whangarei. It has a small cluster of houses and buildings with the marae on one side of the road and the school on the other. We were visitors over Easter.

The marae has an impressively large, albeit shabby, wharenui named “Tau Henare” after a Nga Puhi ancestor.

There is always some awkwardness when Pakeha visit marae – what are the local protocols? Do you wait to be welcomed or go in? When do you take your shoes off? Should you wear a hat, or not? It’s Pakeha out of our comfort zone.

We took advice and slipped in at the end of a group being welcomed, took our shoes off and entered the gloomy interior of the wharenui after the bright sunshine outside. The family were gathered around the open coffin with photos of the deceased ranged behind. (Incidental photos of the living are covered with stickers as only pictures of those already dead are appropriate at a tangi.)

Forty-six-year-old Steve Tipene lay in the coffin. His wife, 21-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter were close by, as were his younger three brothers and three sisters.

Tears were shed and final farewells whispered as the coffin was closed and carried through to the church for the service.

Steve had been a loud, friendly, jovial person, someone you heard before you saw. His booming, husky voice showed he was somewhere nearby even if you couldn’t see him.

He had been an employee at Independent Liquor (NZ) Ltd in Papakura for eight years. He had worked in the brewery but in the last month of his employment he made two mistakes which resulted in batches of fruit juice and beer being discarded.

Steve thought the last incident was minor and said it would be a waste of time to have a union representative at the disciplinary meeting which followed on March 27. Mistakes like this are not uncommon and Steve expected a warning. The company saw otherwise and he was sacked.

He contacted the union and the decision was made to file a claim for wrongful dismissal with the Employment Relations Authority (ERA). This was the seventh disciplinary hearing involving members of Unite Union employed at the site since three days of strike action in October last year had secured the first collective employment agreement in the company’s 20-year history. These other cases are awaiting hearings at the ERA.

For the workers it has been an exceedingly tough struggle. Most of the production and warehouse staff are Maori and Pacific Island workers who are employed on pay and conditions much poorer than at the other Auckland breweries, Lion and DB.

The basic pay is at least 10 per cent less with poorer shift and overtime allowances. This means these workers take home to their families around $200 a week less than workers at the other breweries despite doing the same jobs.

At the other breweries, the EPMU (Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union) has a well-established union presence which has resulted in much better pay and job security. That struggle has only just begun at Independent.

The company is hugely profitable through selling vast volumes of ready-to-drink alcohol brands, like Woodstock and Pulse, to teenagers and young adults. Despite this, and despite the company’s sale to new owners for around $1.3 billion this year, the union members have been offered a meagre 2% pay increase. With inflation running at around 3% the company expects these workers to continue to go backwards.

The company says the rate of pay is good “for this area”. It’s little wonder that poverty becomes self-perpetuating in these communities.

For Steve the loss of his job was a savage blow. His wife, Dorothy, said he had never lost a job in his life and took his dismissal very hard.

There were family issues as well, bills to be paid and a hearing before the Employment Relations Authority was at best months away. Eight days after his dismissal Steve took his own life in the lonely night-time hours.

The family is devastated. His eldest, Cory, was proud of his father. “He was unique. He was a great father and I’ll miss him heaps,” he said to me at the graveside. The family are keen to pursue his case for wrongful dismissal but this must wait till his estate administrator is appointed.

In the meantime, his workmates remember the man who fought for a collective agreement and thereby helped make it a little easier for the workers who follow him at the company. It’s ironic that the photos of Steve on the picket line have him carrying a placard which says “Stop bullying and harassment at Independent”.

Steve was buried in a small urupa on the side of the hill overlooking the picturesque valley which surrounds Pipiwai.

Haere ra e hoa. Haere, haere, haere.

* John Minto, who writes a weekly column for The Press, is an organiser for the Unite Union.

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The big lie still being trotted out

When German troops went into battle against New Zealanders in France in World War 1 each German soldier had engraved on the buckle of his belt words to the effect “God is with us”.

On the other side of the trenches parsons and chaplains of various Christian denominations held prayer services for troops and prayed to God with them before battles.

Which side was God really on? Neither. Which side could justify going to war? Neither.

This was very different to the Second World War when the rise of fascism across Europe (Spain, Germany and Italy) meant a combined war effort to stop the Nazis was needed. The Italian leader Benito Mussolini summed it up well when he said that fascism was the combination of state power and corporate power.

It was a serious threat to humanity and we could justify going to war.

But the First World War was none of this. It was an imperialist war, a clash of empires. After a century or so of carving up the world among themselves like a giant monopoly game the European powers were greedy, envious and suspicious of each other. Germany wanted parts of North Africa which were also wanted by the French. Austria took over Bosnia. Britain was expanding its empire rapidly and resented Germany’s growing naval strength. Italy wanted Tripoli. And on it went.

When it came to war the imperial powers of Britain, France and Russia in the Triple Entente were ranged against the Triple Alliance of Italy, Austria and Germany. Multiple secret pacts were signed between the governments of these countries in the preceding years, all with the aim of protecting and extending each country’s share of the world pie.

Today, nearly 100 years on, we are still told our soldiers were fighting and dying to defend freedom. There is no nice way to say it. It’s a big lie. These soldiers died not for freedom or independence but for the empty rhetoric of empire builders. Needless to say it wasn’t the power-hungry politicians or their wealthy backers who fought the war. It was left to working-class soldiers on both sides to fight and die in their hundreds of thousands. Two of my great- uncles, one from Napier and one from a farm near Waharoa, are buried in Belgium and Northern France respectively.

And yet on Wednesday this week thousands of school children and young New Zealanders will attend Anzac Day services to be told the big lie again. Their forebears in the First World War died for the freedom they enjoy today. This is repugnant. It disrespects those who died and insults young New Zealanders. Our kids deserve better than this tripe.

There is another important lesson for our children. New Zealand governments have always been keen war participants. The very first parliament elected (only wealthy, white, male landowners could vote) in 1854 lamented that it could not send troops to fight for the British empire in the Crimea.

But as soon as they could, we were into it. In the First World War our government conscripted soldiers to fight, unlike Australia, and we sent more soldiers to battle per head of population than any other country.

In the entire history of human warfare no country has proportionately sent a greater number of troops a greater distance to fight a war than this little country of ours did in 1914. This should be a source of shame.

Coupled with this, of all the countries who fought, we were the harshest in our treatment of conscientious objectors.

The standard steps to get a population to support war were used by politicians and their backers. Dehumanise the enemy, claim that freedom and independence are at stake, make fervent calls to patriotism and deride those who oppose the war.

On the one hand we like to think we are peace-loving people but too often we have been more than eager warmongers. Like a wayward teenager, we’ve been easily led.

On average every 10 years since World War 1 we have sent combat troops to war, the latest sent by Helen Clark to help the Americans in Afghanistan.

Most of these wars, and wars in general, are fought for control of resources and markets.

This is the reason up to one million Iraqi civilians have been killed over the past four years. This is the reason Caesar invaded Britain, Japan invaded Russia, Hitler invaded Poland, China invaded Tibet and colonial troops invaded the Waikato and Taranaki.

Another war for control of resources is being planned right now. It’s the US plan to attack Iran.

I received an email in the last few days from a small group planning to attend the dawn service here in Auckland on Anzac Day. They plan a silent vigil with a banner which says “Honour the dead – no more wars”.

That’s a better message for our children on Anzac Day.

Policy change needed to end growing inequality of wealth

There’s nothing wrong with being rich, said the editorial in my local paper.

The comment was in reference to Statistics New Zealand’s latest survey of wealth distribution. The richest 10 per cent of New Zealanders now own more than half the country’s total wealth, having increased their “share” from 48 per cent to 52%.

The richer half of New Zealanders own 95% of our country’s wealth (up from 93% in the previous survey) and so the poorer half now own just 5%.

Most of us feel uneasy when we read statistics like this. New Zealand once prided itself on its egalitarianism. Early European settlers insisted that “Jack was as good as his master”.

Since the free-market economic policies introduced by Labour in 1984 inequality has grown rapidly and seamlessly with successive Labour and National governments. It will continue to grow while the same economic polices which rob the poor to give to the rich continue to be followed.

When Labour prime minister David Lange was confronted with this growing inequality as a result of “Rogernomics” in the 1980s his response was “economic inequality is the engine which drives the economy”. He was wrong, of course. It is people who drive economies.

So do the rich work harder than the poor? Setting aside the fact that many of the wealthy don’t work at all, the answer is still no.

Many business owners work hard but no harder than a security guard who works five 12-hour shifts each week on the minimum wage or a waitress on her feet nine hours a day.

Another myth is that most of the wealthy are self-made. No-one becomes a millionaire by their own work. They get there by employing people to work for them and by paying them less than the value of the work these employees do. The extra value accrues to the “self-made” wealth of the individual. The more people employed, the greater the wealth.

The role of employers is not a social role to benefit the community but an economic role to benefit shareholders.

As soon as difficulties emerge the workers are laid off, have their hours reduced or are tossed aside for a contractor to pick up on lower terms and conditions.

Employees are just another resource to be used. (Most companies have renamed their personnel managers as human resource managers.)

In their hearts, many people hold to an unspoken belief that the poor are poor because of some moral weakness on their part. This has been a common belief of the wealthy though the ages. It preserves the “natural order of things” and excuses their responsibility for the plight of others. It was the same justification used by slave owners.

It’s true that some of the wealthy take risks with their money but their living standards won’t change if they lose. Most risk is carried by small businesspeople as they establish businesses but for larger companies the risk is borne by those they employ or contract.

But surely we need wealthy entrepreneurs to show the way, increase our country’s wealth and standards of living? Absolutely not. If we pause for a moment and look around, everything we see in our houses, streets and cities was made by workers. None of it was made by shareholders, entrepreneurs or the non-working wealthy.

We do need good ideas, imagination and hard work. We have this in spades in New Zealand. The restriction we have is that the wealth is so tightly controlled by so few.

We also want to see technological advancement. The problem again is that the money going into research and innovation is only going into areas where profits can be made.

We live on a planet where resources are poured into lifestyle improvements for the tiny portion of the world’s population who can afford them.

Another myth is the level playing field. It has never existed. The socio-economic situation a person is born into is the strongest determinant of where they will end up in the wealth stakes. Yes, there are exceptions. John Banks and John Keys like to dine out on how they lifted themselves up by their bootstraps. If they could do it, so can anyone. Not true. Our capitalist economy allows only a small number of winners, with half our population now reduced to just 5% of the country’s wealth.

On a global scale the trend is the same. Over the past year the number of billionaires has increased from 793 to 946 with estimates of their wealth increasing by 35% in just a single year. At the same time income levels for the lower 55 per cent of the world’s population declined or stagnated.

Obscenity on this scale is hard to comprehend. When unease turns to anger we will get policy change, but not before.

Let’s end reign of pokies

Some issues deserve the full glare of the public spotlight but rarely get the attention they deserve because they don’t immediately register as “mainstream” concerns.

Gambling through pokie machines is one of them.

It has been described as a tax on those who can’t do arithmetic and the figures bear this out.

A gambling addict told me how a counsellor had suggested that as part of getting over his addiction he should research pokie machines to see how much he was being ripped off. The figures were illuminating.

Using typical betting behaviour he calculated an average run of luck would lose a person $30 to $40 an hour. If they had bad luck it might go as high as $100 an hour. But even with a run of good luck a person would typically lose at least $10 every hour. Even when you’re winning you lose.

When pokie machines were introduced into communities the effects of problem gambling were downplayed. We were told it was such a marginal issue there was no need for concern. Little organised opposition was mounted simply because pokies were largely an unknown quantity.

But the problems are enormous. No less than 88 per cent of people referred to problem gambling organisations have their addiction to pokie machines. Most of these people (more than 90%) have their addiction to non-casino pokies – the pokies in the local neighbourhood pubs and clubs. By comparison only 0.6% of problem gamblers have an addiction to Lotto, scratchies or Keno combined.

And so with the advent of pokies problem gambling has soared. An estimated 50,000 New Zealanders now suffer from severe problem gambling.

A few weeks back I sat in on a seminar on the links between crime and gambling.

A former police officer talked about a review he helped conduct of fraud prosecutions on Auckland’s North Shore. The review showed that 80% of all fraud cases in the previous year involved gambling, although this was rarely reported when the cases came to court.

But high-profile frauds are not at the core of the problem. Instead it is through pokie machines in communities that more than $1 billion is lost each year in gambling.

Participants at the seminar talked about a combination of desperation and hope which spawns problem gamblers in low-income communities. This is the context in which bad decisions are made and significant amounts of desperately needed family income is lost.

The machine owners feed on these communities. Forty-seven per cent of pokie venues are in the poorest one-third of our communities. This is also where 56% of Maori and 72% of Pacific peoples live.

Put another way, in our high income communities there is one pokie machine for every 465 people but in our lowest income communities there is one machine for every 75 people. Let’s not kid ourselves who these machines are designed to suck money from.

One of the most remarkable cons perpetrated on us by the pokie lobby is that the proceeds from gambling fund community groups. But we have to lose $3 for every $1 given in community grants. What kind of sick mathematics is this?

To add insult to injury one of the participants at the seminar talked about a trust owning pokie machines in a South Auckland hotel which sent the proceeds to a pony club in a wealthy Auckland suburb. Stories like this are commonplace. Nothing illegal here, just another way in which income transfers in a reverse of Robin Hood. These are the Sheriff of Nottingham’s pokie machines.

Perhaps the saddest story of all from this seminar was of a small Maori community in an isolated rural area where twice a week the locals get into cars to drive 150km to the nearest pokie machines to feed their addictions.

Under our Labour-led Government pokie machine numbers increased from 14,000 in 1999 to 23,500 last year despite not a single neighbourhood request for more machines. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Such is the strength of the pokie lobby that despite the people of Hamilton being overwhelmingly opposed to a casino licence being issued in their city it was deemed through a government body to be in the “national interest” that they have one. Yeah, right!

Communities have now had a good chance to see the destructive effects of pokies and should now have a democratic say in whether they want these cynically placed, blood-sucking machines in their neighbourhoods.

Local body elections are due later this year. Were the Government to require all local authorities to hold referendums on pokies alongside the local-body elections then we could see winners all round. Improved community incomes and a dramatic reduction in problem gambling would be two of the immediate outcomes.

Let’s end the parasitic reign of pokies.

Poverty produces ‘the bash’

A friend of mine was out shopping and gave his toddler son a slap on the backside for some misdemeanour. A middle-aged woman nearby was indignant and told him to pick on someone his own size.

That was 20 years ago and even then using violence against kids aroused strong feelings, as it does today.

Most of us see raising children and associated discipline as a personal issue – not for the community or Government to interfere with. That’s fair enough up to a point.

In earlier times it was a community issue. There is an old African saying that it takes a village to raise a child. This is true for close communities where children are exposed to a wide variety of adult inputs. But it has little meaning in the shift to isolated families separated into individual houses and disconnected from extended family.

Instead, we base our parenting skills on what happened to us and what we see other parents do around us. But it’s easy to overlook three things.

Firstly, that most times when kids are hit it’s on the spur of the moment when a parent is angry. And if it’s not done in the heat of the moment then it becomes the ritualised violence of straps and canes that dominated the schooldays of my generation.

The second is that kids from low-income families are much more likely to suffer violence than kids elsewhere. Having taught for 10 years at schools in low-income communities I can attest to this. Getting “the bash” is a regular feature of many kid’s lives.

This should surprise no-one. This is where our most stressed parents are. This is where families live day to day on earnings from low quality, low-paid jobs. This is where the gaps between family income and family needs are large. This is the coalface of family struggle.

Thirdly, we don’t own our children like we own a fridge, a house or a dog. As parents we have authority over them and responsibility to look after them. But they are separate, vulnerable individuals and if we abuse either role the community must act.

On the issue of violence against children we are surely united on one thing. We need to move from near the top of the list of countries whose children are in danger from parental violence.

The danger is psychological and physical from the kind of thrashings which parents have used Section 59 of the Crimes Act to justify.

This provision has been used to successfully defend parents who have beaten their children with canes and leather belts.

It’s bizarre to think we will be prosecuted if we beat a dog with a riding crop but we have a defence if we do it to a child.

This defence must go as Sue Bradford’s bill proposes.

What about spelling out in the law the kinds of smacking and injury to children that are acceptable? Surely discussion along these lines is just a little bit sickening. We don’t do it for animals so why do it for children? And what’s more we would miss the opportunity to send a powerful message to the community that violence against children is as unacceptable as it is against adults.

A clear message, unencumbered by fine print, is what we need to begin a sea-change in attitudes towards children.

None of this will stop tired, stressed parents at the end of a hard day from hitting their kids. Neither will it criminalise them for doing so.

What it will do is remove Section 59 as a defence for parents prosecuted for thrashing and beating their kids. Isn’t this what we want?

We have the fiercest debates in New Zealand over social policy issues. Perhaps it’s because we feel that so much of the rest of our lives is outside our control.

And so, at the same time as we argue passionately over whether parents should hit their kids, it is disturbing that we express so little commitment to relieve the poverty which grinds down parents and families and is at the root of the frustration and stress which contributes so heavily to abuse of children.

The most important longer- term solution to child abuse will be to tackle economic change head-on.

Elements of those who call themselves Christian would do well to remember that Jesus Christ is reported as having taken violent action only once, not against children but against money lenders.

Now there’s a clear example of Christianity in action. We need more of it.