Chance for New Zealand to take a democratic stand

It’s a fair bet that few New Zealanders will ever have heard of Western Sahara or the Saharawi people who inhabit this territory. We have no obvious connection to the area and the most we could say is that from its name we’d expect to find it on the west coast of North Africa.

We’d be right about the geography, but less so about the connection to New Zealand. In fact, about 80 per cent of the phosphate that fertilises New Zealand farms comes from this far-flung part of the world. When supplies of this mineral from the Pacific Island of Nauru were exhausted, that island was abandoned and forgotten by the companies and countries which exploited it. New Zealand had to look further afield and Western Sahara is now our main supplier of phosphate.

Bulk carriers regularly visit ports such as Tauranga, Napier and Port Chalmers with loads carried from Western Sahara, but with the shipments labelled as coming from neighbouring Morocco.

But there is a problem. The Saharawi people are under military occupation by Morocco and strongly opposed to the exploitation of their resources. By allowing these imports our Government is guilty of receiving stolen goods.

Direct appeals have been made to New Zealand to stop these imports, but they have fallen on deaf ears. The latest appeal has come from Malainan Lakhal, a Saharawi journalist who has been in New Zealand over the past week to seek support for the independence of Western Sahara.

The story of the Saharawi people is a typical story of African colonisation. The region was invaded and claimed by Spain in 1884, and when African countries began to gain independence, beginning with neighbouring West African country of Ghana in 1959, the people of Western Sahara organised for their freedom. However, the territory today is still a colony – in fact, the last remaining colony on the continent.

Western Sahara was put on the United Nations decolonisation register in 1963. In 1975 Spain left but instead of an independence referendum Morocco and Mauritania invaded. In the war which followed, Mauritania withdrew but Morocco remained and took control. The independence movement was brutally suppressed. Refugees fled the country and many are now living in camps in south-west Algeria.

Inside Western Sahara today, 120,000 Moroccan troops maintain the illegal occupation. Such is the value of Western Sahara’s mineral resources that the military occupiers have built a wall, an unbelievable 2700km long, to keep control and prevent “insurgents” entering the country. The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s wall and the Berlin wall may be consigned to history but like the apartheid wall being built by Israel, this Moroccan-built wall has created an enormous open-air prison with all the brutal oppression needed to maintain it.

Morocco does this on behalf of the large companies which exploit minerals such as phosphate that rightly belong to the local people, whose independence movement is a full member of the African Union, is recognised by more than 80 countries and has observer status at the United Nations.

What the local people want is a referendum on independence, but attempts to organise this by the UN have been thwarted by Morocco, with support from Western governments and large corporations which are enjoying the income from the plunder of Saharawi minerals.

So where does New Zealand stand? In Parliament last year, Green Party MP Metiria Turei questioned our Trade Minister Phil Goff. He made a fine statement saying, “New Zealand has grave concerns about the political situation in Western Sahara and has strongly supported UN processes and the peace plan designed to resolve the dispute between the government of Morocco and the Saharawi people”.

He also acknowledged the legal advice the UN has received, that exploitation of Western Saharan minerals without the support of the local people, is contrary to the principles of international law and that the interests of the inhabitants of non-self-governing territories must be paramount.

But then he went on to say the Government would allow the imports because he did not believe they were specifically prohibited under international law.

So, while the Government agrees it is illegal to mine and export the phosphate, it claims it is not illegal to import it into New Zealand.

It’s like the guy in the pub who buys a cheap TV knowing it’s been stolen. A cynical, expedient policy.

The struggle in Western Sahara has no profile in New Zealand but it should because we are part of the problem. It’s an issue where a small country such as New Zealand could make a welcome stand on behalf of human rights and democracy.

Youth pay rates must go

A few weeks back I received a call from a distressed employee at one of the big fast-food chains. She had arrived at work to find she had been taken off the rosters for two weeks. She worked full time – up to 40 hours each week – although in this McJob-type employment the hours of work can fluctuate wildly from one week to the next.

She had bills to pay – where were her hours? The manager told her she should take a two-week holiday and then her shifts would resume. She was upset and angry.

The problem she faced was the school holidays. The company preferred to replace her with school students on youth rates.

So slack are New Zealand industrial relations laws in protecting employees that this is quite legal. Appalling, but legal.

At one level this is an issue about the need for security of hours to protect employees from exploitation so they can regularly work 40 hours a week to provide for their family. But it is also an issue about employers cynically using young workers to displace older workers, reduce their wage bill and increase profits.

Employers like youth rates. The argument they use is that because they are paying less they will be more likely to give a young worker a chance at employment who might otherwise not get a chance. This will be true in a small number of situations but with an economy based on competition, the built-in incentive is to pay the lowest wages possible and the problem faced by the young woman above is not uncommon.

The minimum adult wage (18 and over) is $11.25 per hour but the youth rate is pegged at 80% of the adult rate, so employers get away with paying just $9 per hour for 16 and 17-year-olds and even less (anything they like) for those under 16.

Green Party MP Sue Bradford has a private member’s bill before Parliament which would remove discrimination against young workers and ensure they are paid the adult wage. The bill has just been reported back to Parliament from a select committee, but Labour and New Zealand First have used their majority on the committee to put forward a hotch-potch compromise which has more fishhooks than a long-line fishing boat.

The select committee is suggesting that the first 200 hours worked by a young worker after he or she turns 16 will be paid at a “new entrant” rate, unless they are in a supervisory role, and thereafter they would be paid the adult minimum wage.

Ministers say this would mean only the first five weeks of work would be on youth rates but this ignores the reality of youth work. Union workforce statistics show 50% of the 16 and 17-year-olds on youth rates work 10 hours or less each week.

These are mainly school students, and on the Government’s proposal they would need to work for 20 weeks or five months before receiving the adult wage. Even if they worked full time through each school holiday it would take them close to a year before they could move on to the adult wage.

The Government says it doesn’t want to abolish youth rates altogether because it fears it may encourage young New Zealanders to leave school for the higher rates of pay. This sounds a plausible argument until you consider the current situation. Using youth rates to discourage students from leaving school is spitting into the wind. It is the supply of jobs, or lack of them, that is the most powerful deciding factor for students already thinking of leaving school.

In fact, the Government’s proposal could have the opposite effect. As a teacher, I was frequently telling students to keep down the hours they worked or it would interfere with their full-time school study.

The 200-hour target is likely to be an incentive to work longer hours to reach the adult rate, with negative effects on their study. On the other hand, if youth rates are abandoned it may encourage some to work fewer hours for better pay and concentrate more on their studies.

As with so many hotch- potch proposals it is trying to be all things to all people and misses the principle. The original bill sought to end discrimination on the basis of age between workers who do the same job and have the same amount of experience.

The Government’s proposal does not achieve this. Instead, it could be the basis for any future government to extend wage discrimination by age beyond what it is at present and to do so without referring it to Parliament.

Working New Zealanders need far greater employment protections. Ending youth rates is one part of the picture.

Special needs children suffer as Government boosts surplus

Six-year-old Renee will not be going to school today when children return to the classroom after their two-week holiday, writes JOHN MINTO.

Despite the best efforts of her mother and despite her right to enrol in a state school under Section 8 of the 1989 Education Act, her mother has withdrawn her from her local primary school because Renee’s chance of success at school has been stymied by Government policy.

Renee has Down Syndrome and the resources are just not there for her to become a successful learner in a mainstream school classroom.

She is in the 1 per cent of children funded through ORRS (Ongoing and Reviewable Resourcing Scheme). This means she is able to access the highest level of funding for children with special education needs, through the Ministry of Education.

The funding has enabled a teacher aide to be employed to help her in her mainstream classroom for part of each day and generally this has been successful.

Her school reports she gets on well in the class and is making progress in developing friendships. However, without the close support of her teacher aide her interactions with other children can be, in the polite language of teachers, “inappropriate”. In other words she can be a pain in the bum for a teacher with 30-odd other children in the classroom.

The teacher, school, Renee and her mum all feel stressed, not to mention the other kids in the class.

Renee’s mother was called to a meeting at the school last term to discuss how Renee could be better supported in the classroom. Mum felt this might be a turning point but the meeting turned to custard.

The school felt it was unable to divert extra funds from its operations grant for Renee and neither could the Ministry provide extra funding. And so three suggestions were made. Firstly, could mum top up Renee’s funding herself each week to increase the teacher aide hours? Secondly, could she come into the school herself and sit with her daughter in the classroom when the teacher aide wasn’t there? Thirdly, could she take Renee home sometimes and do work with her by correspondence?

Is it any wonder that under pressures like this the relationship between family and school began to break down? Renee’s mother is not in a position to take on any of the three options but why should she in any case? Is this what our education system has come to?

Yes, is the simple answer. It is now common for schools to ask parents of children with special needs to top up teacher aide funding and many now pay $100-$200 a week or more to do so. Other parents are asked to take their special needs children home at lunchtimes because the school can’t fund the support the child needs.

Despite all this the Sunday Star Times newspaper obtained papers earlier in the year showing government officials hope to save more than $23 million in special needs funding between 2006 and 2010.

The papers indicated the money would be saved by “underspending” on children with ORRS funding. Children like Renee.

The National Party quite rightly described it as “picking on the most vulnerable children in society to slash funding”.

The trend began years ago. Figures revealed in November 2006 showed Government funding for special education services decreased by 3.49% from 2001 to 2006.

The simple truth is the Government would rather sneakily increase its budget surplus than provide the money for all children to become effective learners.

The Government will say that cases like Renee are rare, that for most kids the system works well and the Government is putting a pile of money into the sector in any case. But this is just political spin.

There are thousands of similar stories around the country but because parents of children with special needs are in a minority in every school their struggles are often overlooked.

Meanwhile, the Government blunders on with funding that is not only inadequate but also misdirected. For example, a good portion of the money for special needs goes to schools without any such children. These are the schools, for example, that discourage enrolment of kids with special needs because they don’t fit the “market image” the school wants to project to parents. But these schools will still get the same Special Education Grant funding as the school down the road that welcomes these kids but has to stretch a small amount of funding over a large number of students.

Meanwhile, Renee’s mum is looking for another school and has already been warned off one or two by the ministry because they don’t welcome kids with special needs.

The struggle will continue so long as ministers of Education feel they can evade the issue. Perhaps if Renee spent a day in the minister’s office under his supervision he might be more responsive.

Auckland’s second-rate display of hammering the poor

Local body goings-on in Auckland are not likely to excite South Islanders.

Not only because city politics are always the poor cousin to the so-called real politics of Parliament, but the fact that it’s Auckland must seem like a second-rate drama twice removed.

However, the latest local machinations in the north must provide at least some winter entertainment as well as illuminate important issues about affordable community services and the relative power of different lobbies.

The scrap began when the Auckland City Council voted for a water-rate rise of 9.1 per cent, which follows hard on the heels of a 9.6% increase last year. Driving the extra charges has been deputy mayor Bruce Hucker, who went further and explained to an incredulous public that his vision is for similar increases of around 9% each year over the next 10 years, which will more than double the cost of water to Auckland families.

Not to worry, says Bruce, the increases are small and amount to just the cost of half a large packet of chips or a two-litre bottle of Coke each week. (He was showered with potato chips by angry citizens when he attended a meeting a couple of weeks back).

These moves followed the council telling Aucklanders earlier in the year that water price increases were forecast to be an average of 4.3% a year for the next 10 years. Within three months the council announced the 9.6% increase for next year.

With the public fallout, all sides began ducking for cover and things degenerated into pure farce.

Hucker’s Left-leaning council ticket, City Vision, have disowned him. They’ve dumped him as City Vision leader and called on him to resign as deputy mayor.

The hapless Hucker is fighting to keep the job and is backed by Right-wing councillors who want to keep the Left’s embarrassment alive and hope they can get John Banks back as mayor in the October election.

Meanwhile, to avoid political flak, these Right-wingers, who voted with Hucker for the increase in water charges, have tried to move an amendment to halve the increase they approved earlier.

In fact, each side in council has stymied the other’s attempts to reduce the 9.6% increase. It’s been a truly pathetic spectacle.

The extra water charges are part of the determined effort we have seen over the past 15 years or so to introduce Rogernomics into local-body politics, through both the privatisation of community assets and through introducing flat charges or user-pays charges for council services.

The Auckland port remains in public ownership – but only after a huge fight in the 1990s – and we have a small share left in Auckland Airport after John Banks sold half our remaining holding in his previous term as mayor. Council-owned Metrowater would be privatised, or run via a private management contract, except for growing public understanding of the culture of greed which dominates private sector takeover of public services.

On changes to council income there is less community understanding but equally repugnant outcomes.

Rate rises here have been kept artificially low while user pays and flat charges have increased dramatically (water charges being the latest for Aucklanders).

This means that local body services are now based less on the ability of households to pay and more on shifting the burden from the better off onto the less well off. Anyone comparing the cost of rates in 1990 with the total cost of rates and council services in 2007 would find small increases for those in high income suburbs compared to huge increases for low-income families.

This trend applies also to business rates. Their share of the rate burden is steadily decreasing. Once again the poor are paying for the lifestyles enjoyed by the wealthy.

The council says that after the 9.1% price increase this year, the average household water bill in Auckland would be just 1.5% of household income and well below the 3% international affordability indicator for water. However, for a large family with a breadwinner on low wages the figure will be more than 5% of household income. Metrowater has consistently refused to release these figures but hides behind the meaningless average figure.

They say it’s commercially sensitive, but really it’s just an embarrassing inconvenience they want to avoid.

The latest bout of Auckland local-body manoeuvrings is like watching a slow-motion replay of the 1980s with Bruce Hucker as Roger Douglas and Dick Hubbard as David Lange.

Hucker hammers the poor while Hubbard utters the soothing words. He said recently that “the council must ensure that the most vulnerable, such as large families, are protected”. He could start with a little simple honesty.