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.