Give workers a break from shoddy practices

A couple of weeks back a union member called me in some distress. She had begun work at 4.30 in the morning but was not given a break until 11.45. She was tired and angry.She works in the departure lounge at Auckland International Airport serving food and drinks. It’s hard enough being on your feet all day, trying to engage in a friendly fashion with customers without the added burden of continuous work for many hours.

In the middle of last week I had another call from the same worksite. Another member was in trouble for taking an unauthorised break.

First, she had become embarrassed because a new co-worker, on her first day at work, had not received a break for six hours. Failing to find a supervisor she told the new worker to just take her break. Later, when she similarly took her own break (after seven hours work), she was confronted by an angry supervisor who dressed her down in front of other staff for taking her break when she hadn’t been released to do so.

These are just the latest in a long history of problems for staff taking breaks at this site. The union has raised this issue with management so often it’s become a pointless exercise. I have said to them so many times that these practices are unacceptable and all workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It’s a message which falls on deaf ears. I’m sick of hearing myself saying it.

Last April the union pointed out to the company it was breaching its own contract by giving only 10 minutes of paid breaks during an eight-hour shift instead of 20 minutes. They reluctantly relented and from the following day began giving 20 minutes of paid breaks.

It didn’t last long, however. They have now changed the rosters so that most workers do just a seven-hour shift to avoid the company having to give the extra break.

If this company’s actions sound childishly pathetic to you then you are in good company. Would any reader put up with this nonsense at their workplace?

The company is short-staffed but rather than pay decent wages to attract more staff the workers exist on or close to the minimum wage with Dickensian-type work conditions. Needless to say, staff turnover is very high but there is a supply of new staff, partly courtesy of Work and Income New Zealand who refer women re-entering the workforce to this worksite. The workers are mainly women and mainly Maori, Pacific or from recently migrated ethnic minorities.

Many readers will have passed through the departure lounge and will have seen these workers and have probably even been served a drink or a snack by them. They are a wonderful bunch of people.

Maintaining a strong union presence at a site like this is very difficult where workers change on a regular basis and are on rostered shifts over seven days of the week and 20 hours a day. However, union membership is rising and hopefully these appalling practices can be put to an end.

Last week, it was refreshing to see an announcement from Labour Minister Trevor Mallard and fellow Cabinet minister Maryan Street saying the Government is proposing to amend the Employment Relations Act to guarantee minimum meal and refreshment breaks along with breastfeeding opportunities for working mothers.

The real question is, why has it taken so long for such basic conditions as these to enter the law.

Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O’Reilly says employers are in favour of adequate meal and rest breaks but he said he has not seen any evidence that requires a new law. He says that in thousands of workplaces across the country employers and employees make sensible arrangements without having written rules. This is true, but there are problems in workplaces up and down the country. And it’s not just a few rogue employers who are the problem. The evidence is there for anyone who cares to look.

For a start, I suggest Phil O’Reilly visit Auckland airport and talk to these workers. As with businesses generally, the rights of workers come a distant second to profit for shareholders.

And who are the employers at the airport who run the oppressive operation I’ve described earlier? The workers are employed jointly by Auckland International Airport Limited (AIAL) and Host Marriot Services Corporation (HMSC).

HMSC is an international company running similar ventures around the world and is well-known for providing poor working conditions and keeping unions out of their businesses.

AIAL on the other hand is still locally owned. Among the shareholders are a who’s who of New Zealand business people as well as the Auckland and Manukau city councils.

The shareholders won’t do it so a law change is needed to give workers like these a break.

Farming is a dead-end track for NZ economy

There’s been plenty of petty politics around the government’s announcement of a $500 million fund for research in primary production but precious little analysis of what it means.

We are told that with interest and matching contributions from the private sector the fund could produce up to $2 billion invested over 15 years.

The Prime Minister has called it a “quantum leap forward” for scientific research and innovation. She describes the New Zealand Fast Forward Fund as part of a drive to transform the economy into an innovative supplier of high-value goods and services.

National leader John Key has condemned it as a “gimmick” and threatened to scrap the fund if National leads the next government.

More considered criticism has come from those who point to the narrow focus of the fund. It is devoted almost exclusively to primary production which brings in around 57% of our national income. The government’s logic is that we are investing in our existing strengths but this only serves to emphasise the underlying structural weakness of our economy.

In earlier times we sought to develop a self-reliant economy. The idea then was we were too dependent on primary product exports to Britain and needed to expand into markets elsewhere and promote manufacturing so we made more here and reduced our dependency on imports. We were told we needed to diversify our economy away from reliance on primary produce. We had tariffs to protect fledgling industries from cheap imports, financial incentives to develop new manufacturing plants and planned national infrastructure to support this developing economy. This same model was used to build every highly developed economy in the world.

New Zealand abandoned all this common-sense with the advent of neo-liberal economics and globalisation. The new fashionable theory says the world is becoming one large free market and countries should develop their economies based on what they do better than anyone else. China for example has become the world’s largest manufacturer, closing down factories in other parts of the world. Here the Warehouse has led the charge to bring in cheap Chinese imports and force kiwis out of relatively well-paid manufacturing jobs.

In New Zealand, so the theory goes, we are good at farming so let’s stick to our knitting so to speak and put the emphasis there. As a result our economy is bipolar based on primary production at one end and servicing at the other.

Last week’s government announcement continues down this dangerous, one-way track. We are seriously at risk like trampers on an exposed ridge. There is nothing better on a fine day but as soon as the wind whips up and the weather closes in you have to find shelter quickly. We have no shelter. We’ve destroyed most of it these past 20 years.

Our farming and political leaders are in a heady space at the moment seduced by high dairy prices. All manner of farmland is being converted to intensive dairying at an alarming rate with just next year’s profit margin in mind. Politicians are little better being addicted to thinking ahead only as far as the next election. We have no risk assessment for any of this short-termism.

What will happen here when countries such as China shift their production to domestic consumers ahead of international trade? What will happen when high dairy prices slump in the face of cheap imports from countries where labour and land are much cheaper? What will happen when the price of fuel rises such that our efforts to export from these islands (which are further from international markets than any other country) are uneconomic? What will happen when global warming makes the cost of sending protein around the world unsustainable? Or makes much of the country unsuitable for current farming practices?

In all these scenarios we are stuffed. All our eggs are in the one basket. How can our economy not collapse?

It’s interesting to think that the very people who talk about sensible investors having a balanced portfolio of investments are pushing our economy onto a single investment strategy with at best an uncertain future. It’s all bound to end in tears.

It’s not as though we’re even helping feed a hungry world as various farming spokespeople like to suggest. The hungry can’t afford our food. We are feeding the obesity epidemic instead.

It’s true the government’s research funding is looking ahead 15 years but its 15 years into a long narrow tunnel. It is a perilous path. Farming is more likely to be our Achilles Heel than our saviour.

There is already a chilly breeze out here on the ridge.

Local capitalists prove they are no better than foreign capitalists

The debate over ownership of Auckland Airport has been an interesting diversion this past week although it’s easily trumped by the more significant discussion on the future of our rail network.

Early in the week the government signalled its opposition to a possible 40% takeover of the airport by the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board. It issued an order in council to emphasise cabinet ministers considering the proposed takeover must take into account whether the overseas investment “will, or is likely to, assist New Zealand to maintain New Zealand control of strategically important infrastructure on sensitive land”.

Business interests are fuming. They have labelled it “populist xenophobia”, “reckless” and even “socialist” (if only!) It’s nonsense of course. Every self-respecting country has much tighter rules on foreign ownership of strategic assets than New Zealand. Australia for example protects the likes of its banks and airports. New Zealand on the other hand sold our banks to Australia and every year more than two billion in bank profits crosses the ditch from kiwi wallets to enrich our Aussie cousins.

The more justified criticism is the government’s move coming so late in the piece. It’s been a year since takeover talk was first mooted but our Minister of Finance has been silent till five minutes to midnight.

National’s John Key has been squirming. Instinctively he supports private ownership of everything and has already announced policy to part-privatise what’s left of our major assets such as Solid Energy. But because public opposition to the airport sale is so widespread he says National supports the airport remaining in New Zealand hands.

Many commentators have suggested the public mood has changed to oppose privatisation of state assets but there has been no change. Every major privatisation undertaken by Labour and National in the past 24 years has had a solid majority opposed to it. Most people instinctively understand we would all be better off with 100% of the shares of essential infrastructure in public ownership. Selling assets means that instead of us all being shareholders, with the shares held in trust by the government, only a few wealthy corporates and a miniscule minority of “mum-and-dads” benefit.

Overlooked in the airport kerfuffle is the nonsense that suggests it matters whether the airport is owned by foreign capitalists or the home grown variety. Do we really expect local capitalists to be better stewards of our assets than foreigners? There is no evidence to say they are.

Think for a moment about the activities of our own Michael Fay and David Richwhite. These two kiwis were at the heart of many of the major privatisations of state assets over the past two decades. For example they were part of the group which bought New Zealand Rail and promptly ran this critical asset into the ground. They made pots of money in the meantime and then sold out just before the share price crashed. They left taxpayers to pick up the $270 million tab for upgrading the rail lines after 15 years of neglect. It’s hard to believe any foreign capitalists could have acted in a more self-serving manner. The disgraceful state our rail network should be seared on the national consciousness as a fundamental lesson in the danger of private greed over national service.

Every privatisation tells the same story. Whether it’s Air New Zealand, Telecom or our electricity network local private owners are no better than foreign owners. In every example it’s the all too familiar pattern of privatising the profits and socialising the losses.

Our politicians should have learnt by now. Full public ownership is the only way to protect our strategic assets and there is a glimmer of hope that this truth is penetrating even the thickest of parliamentary skulls. We were treated in the past couple of days to news the government has been negotiating to purchase back our railways and ferries from the Australian company Toll Holdings. It’s a welcome sign even if it’s five years too late. Back in 2003 calls were made for Labour to buy back the railways when the government picked up the battered remains after the likes of Fay and Richwhite has milked it dry. Instead Labour sold it to Toll only to find the Australian owners making incessant and increasing demands for subsidies.

The only surprise in all this is the time it’s taken for the stranglehold on common sense to be eased. It’s a welcome change for some debate about private versus public ownership to come to centre stage.

Is he really Virgin Green, or is Branson killing the planet to save it?

Virgin Blue’s Richard Branson has stolen a march on other airlines with a flight from London to Amsterdam on what many describe as the new wonder fuel, biofuel.

He was ecstatic. He fronted the cameras and gushed his excitement. He claimed the flight as the world’s first commercial airline flight powered by renewable energy.

“Today marks a vital breakthrough for the whole airline industry,” said a breathless Branson. It’s not the magic bullet but it’s an important step on the path to sustainable air travel.

It was a story with added colour because the fuel was a blend which included babassu oil produced from nuts picked from Amazon rainforests along with coconut oil.

How green can one get?

Air travel is often and rightly sighted as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change, and at a superficial level Branson makes an important point.

Fuel produced by biofuels does not release additional carbon into the environment in the way fossil fuel does. Because they are made from plant material already in the environment they don’t add to the amount of carbon in circulation. On the other hand when coal, oil and gas are burned, carbon in the environment increases. In theory if we could convert to biofuels we could use as much as we like without disturbing the balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Is this too green to be true?

Yes is the simple answer.

Branson hinted at one of the major problems when he said the company chose not to use fuel from corn oil as this competed with the growth of food needed in a hungry world. This is not a new story. Across the globe land is being set aside to grow crops and already this is having a huge impact on food production and the price of food.

For example, in the United States two years ago, 20 per cent of the whole maize crop was used for biofuel production. With less grain available for food the price of grain- related food around the world is climbing quickly.

We are now being told the age of cheap food is over (if any of us were aware we were in such an age). In a deeply disturbing symptom of the problem international aid organisations are seeking greater donations to help purchase the food they need for existing food programmes even before they look at extending these for the one billion of the world’s population who go to bed hungry every night.

We get a better perspective on Branson’s claims when we see the extent of the land required for biofuel production to replace fossil fuels. Estimates have been made that an eye-popping three-quarters of all the cultivatable land on earth would be required to produce enough ethanol for vehicles in the United States alone.

We should remember also Branson’s biofuel was a mix of 20% renewable and 80% normal jet fuel. He predicts the mix could be increased to 40% renewable in future. In any case, the more biofuel used by aircraft the less is available for essential transport needs.

So let’s get real here. Branson’s biofuel is a boutique fuel which is masquerading as the saviour for air travel. If this is sustainable flying we are on a different planet.

Worse still the production of more biofuel can only result in those least able to pay increases in food prices supporting environmentally damaging air travel. To put it bluntly: the world’s poor are once more expected to subsidise, with their lives, the lifestyles of the world’s rich.

It’s been a very successful publicity stunt and Branson has a lot to gain telling us Virgin Blue is the new green in air travel. The expansion of his company depends on consumer perception. It’s not unlike the re-branding exercise conducted by BP several years ago when they changed to green with yellow trim and included a sunflower motif. It’s disturbing to think we can be so easily taken in with such superficiality to divert us from uncomfortable realities.

Branson claims he is committed to spending all the profits from his airline and rail business to combat global warming by cutting carbon emissions. On the one hand, this is an admirable objective and more research is needed into alternative renewable energy sources. But let’s keep our eyes open. Branson is killing the planet to find ways to save the planet. His carbon footprint is colossal and his proposed solution is unsustainable and self-serving.