Our West Papuan neighbours need our help

Neles Tebay (pronounced Tibuy) is a charming man. His eyes sparkle mischievously as he speaks and his thick accent and dark Melanesian skin add resonance to his words. With his mobile face and lively eyes he reminds me of Desmond Tutu.

I don’t think you’d have seen him on TV – probably some vacuous celebrity took up the viewing time he could have filled. It’s a huge pity because his presentation, heard by an audience of 60 at a public meeting in Auckland last week, needs wider airing.

His message is that one of our nearest neighbours is in serious trouble and desperately needs New Zealand’s help.

Neles is a Catholic priest from West Papua (that’s the left-hand bit of Papua New Guinea) which has suffered a cruel military occupation by Indonesia since 1962. The local people have lost control of their land and resources which are being stripped out by morality-free multinational firms, leaving a landscape denuded, degraded and destroyed.

The biggest of these companies is Freeport-McMoRan (sic) which has operated the largest copper and gold mine in the world in West Papua since 1967, paying the Indonesian military to provide security. Whole waterways and thousands of hectares of land have been destroyed by toxic tailings. Every day 700,000 tonnes of waste is dumped untreated into local rivers.

Other multinationals, predominantly Malaysian, are logging the local forests for kwila. It’s a slow-growing hardwood which is popular in countries like New Zealand for outdoor furniture and decking. As far as can be ascertained every single piece of kwila coming into New Zealand has been illegally logged.

So how did this all come about?

The former Dutch colonists of Papua New Guinea, with support from Australia, prepared West Papua for independence in the 1950s. However neighbouring Indonesia claimed the territory and invaded in 1962. The United Nations accepted the Indonesian takeover as a fait accompli on condition Indonesia conduct a referendum on self-determination for the territory.

Among its many mistakes the 1969 UN referendum must rank with the worst. The Indonesians hand-picked just 1,022 West Papuans (from a population of around 700,000) and brought them together to take part in the referendum but before they voted the assembled people were addressed by an Indonesian military officer who told them to support integration with Indonesia or they would “have their tongues cut out”. Unsurprisingly they voted unanimously to “remain with Indonesia” and the UN endorsed what it called the people’s “Act of Free Choice” and washed its hands of the dispute.

Over these past 36 years the local people have demonstrated for independence and against the destruction of their lands. An estimated 100,000 West Papuans have been killed in the conflict. Among the many hundreds of human rights abuses documented was the 2001 murder of Theys Uluay, the leader of the OPM (Free Papua Movement), by Indonesian special forces.

How can this be happening on our doorstep without a murmur from our government?

West Papua is strikingly similar to the situation in East Timor where brutal oppression of the people was conducted for decades with our government’s full knowledge but acquiescent silence. It was only when an embarrassed US turned in support of the East Timorese that finally the New Zealand government found its conscience and spoke out against human rights abuses and supported the independence struggle. Up till then leaders of the independence movement were denied visas to come to New Zealand out of respect for our relationship with murderous Indonesian generals.

We can’t expect Foreign Minister Murray McCully to do anything significant in support of Neles and the people of West Papua without real pressure. As with East Timor it is the people of New Zealand who must raise the issue and demand our government act. If it were a million whites under a tyrannical regime we would be up in arms. So why the silence over West Papua?

Neles asked New Zealanders to do several things including: do our best to keep the international spotlight on Indonesia’s human rights abuses in West Papua; stop the importation of kwila and cut our investments in Freeport-McMoRan (from its website our national superannuation fund still has close to a million dollars invested in the pillaging of West Papua).

Neles Tebay and the West Papuan people are our neighbours. We have no excuse to ignore their plight and say we don’t know what’s going on. The New Zealand based Indonesian Human Rights Campaign and the Catholic justice and peace group Pax Christi are working to support the West Papuan people. They in turn need the support of New Zealanders. All our voices can make a difference. Let your’s be heard.


Give migrant workers a fair go

Late last year I received a request from the Department of Labour to comment on a security company application to bring in overseas workers to fill vacancies they said couldn’t be filled from within New Zealand.

The response I wrote for our union was easy. At every union meeting workers from this company complain that managers are being recruited from overseas to fill jobs local employees could fill. When this issue was first raised the company assured us they were keen to promote their employees but often couldn’t find the skills needed among local staff. This would be easier to accept if a training programme was in place to provide opportunities for local staff to develop these skills. Instead it’s easier to get Labour department approval to bring people in from overseas.

I explained this and pointed out the security industry is notoriously underpaid with poor working conditions. Typically these workers do 12-hour night shifts on close to the minimum wage with no penal rates. It’s unclear how the department makes up its mind on these things but their officials were unmoved by our submission and have approved the company continuing to recruit overseas.

Bringing in migrant workers from overseas is commonplace enough. In horticulture for example Pacific Island workers are brought in to do seasonal work and in the Auckland hotels migrant workers often predominate in the servicing of guests.

In most cases the pay and working conditions are poor and this is the key reason these jobs are not filled locally. When local workers seek higher pay and better conditions employers get the government to open the immigration door so they can maintain a regular supply of low-paid, less secure workers. It seems a more docile workforce is every employer’s dream.

This issue came to the fore these past two weeks with CWF Hamilton making 29 New Zealand workers redundant at their Christchurch factory while maintaining the employment of migrant workers on work permits.

The union representing the employees says the migrant workers should have lost their jobs before the New Zealand workers and there will be strong sympathy for that view. However the union is on the wrong track here because once migrant workers are in the country they deserve the same level of community support as New Zealand workers.

Every time there is an economic downturn these same issues are raised. Pacific Island migrant workers were targeted as unemployment rose in the mid 1970s. The government instituted the now notorious dawn raids to target overstayers and anyone with a brown skin in Auckland was stopped at random. An MP at the time said they were stopped for the same reason a jersey cow stands out easily in a herd of friesians. It was thinly disguised racism.

In one notable incident from the late 1970s a Pacific Island worker was stopped by police in Auckland’s Karangahape Road on the way home from night shift in a plastics factory. He was deemed not to be an overstayer but police found a plastic comb in his pocket and charged him with theft. There was a minor uproar. Auckland University law lecturer David Williams marched with the media to the Auckland police station and produced a plastic ballpoint pen with Auckland University markings. He said he’d taken it from the University and had no intention of returning it. He demanded to be arrested. He wasn’t but the point was made. In the ensuing days it was found the plastic comb had been taken from the reject bin at the factory in any case and the police dropped the charge.

Activists formed a “pig patrol” to follow police on their “jersey spotting” trips and after much controversy the random stopping of Pacific Island workers ceased.

The real problem was not overstayers in the 1970s and neither is it workers from overseas today but an economic system which sees workers, migrant or otherwise, simply as a disposable resource to be flicked off when times get tough. New Zealand workers and migrant workers have much more in common and working together in mutual support is important to avoid the divide and rule scapegoating which so often comes to the fore in an economic downturn.

Last year we saw the appalling violence in South African townships resulting from attacks on migrant workers from Zimbabwe. They were blamed for taking the jobs of South African workers when they were simply doing their best as refugees from Mugabe’s tyranny across the border.

There is no excuse for using immigration policy to maintain low pay and poor conditions of work. However our unions should be encouraging their members and migrant workers to support each other in this economic downturn and remember the real problems arise from economic policies rather than the needs of people to feed their families.

ACC – attack then privatise!

If Nick Smith thought he would frame himself as the strong, decisive Accident Compensation Corporation Minister when he gatecrashed a parliamentary select committee last week he failed. Instead he looked like a pompous prat.

Smith’s escapade in standing in for his new Board Chair appointee John Judge and taking questions meant for the ACC Chief executive Dr White was a sexist, boorish display of spoiled-brat behaviour.

His appearance was part of a concerted National party push these past two weeks to convince us ACC is in a financial mess, its board incompetent and unless drastic steps are taken it will become a basket case.

Smith has claimed ACC’s liabilities – the amount needed to cover future costs of all existing claims – will stand at $21.8 billion by the middle of this year. This is like saying we have a $100 billion liability in our schools because we will have to fund teachers’ salaries for the next 20 years. Give us a break Nick!

The problem behind ACC rests with the financial crisis and the fact the corporation’s balance sheet has been hit hard by the past year’s stockmarket slide. If Smith complains about anything it should be the lunacy of successive governments relying on markets to provide income for essential services such as ACC payments or retirement income. The Cullen superannuation fund, which invests to subsidise future national superannuation payments, and private Kiwisaver investments are caught in the same market trap.

National’s real goal is to manufacture a crisis to soften us up for privatisation of various ACC accounts. National did this in the late 1990s and is desperate to do it again. So Smith went on the attack against the ACC board while ordering the board not to make media comment to defend itself. He wanted a clear space to attack without retaliation. He wanted the board’s hands tied before he got into the ring to give it a pounding.

More rational comments have been overlooked in Smith’s attacks on the corporation. A review by Price Waterhouse Coopers last year praised the corporation. Among other things it said our ACC provides broader coverage than any other scheme in the world; it returned 88% of people back to work within six months (compared to 85% in Australia); the cost to employers was lower than comparable private schemes overseas and its administration costs were lower. Management expenses were at 8% while Australian schemes ranged from 9% to 32%. And on it goes. In every significant aspect it is performing better than any similar scheme, public or private, overseas.

There is understandably significant reluctance among employers to privatise the scheme. Instead ideologues in the Business Roundtable, ACT and the National Party are those driving privatisation.

This is no bloated bureaucracy as National would like us to believe. It is efficient and able to easily expand its services to New Zealanders. In fact last year the corporation collected $3.6 billion from levies while the cost of claims was just $2.7 billion. The corporation was therefore able to build up its reserves. If ACC was privatised we all know that $0.9 billion would have been available as private sector profit.

Nick Smith’s claims of a crisis at ACC will be used to open up to competition some of ACC’s accounts. These will be the accounts where the private sector can be assured of making a profit while the corporation is left with accounts carrying heavier liabilities. This was the pattern followed with privatisations and part-privatisations in the 1980s and 1990s. The profits were privatised and the losses left to the taxpayer.

Nick Smith’s antics reflect a National Party having spent nine years in opposition and raring to get stuck in to the public sector. However they have been hobbled by their assurance they would not sell state assets in their first term in government.

So without the chance to enjoy the deep water of major policy change National ministers are thrashing around in the shallows.

In the next few weeks we will see State-Owned Enterprises Minister Simon Power beat his chest and talk tough to the heads of state-owned corporations. Power has summoned the heads of SOEs to a meeting in the Finance Minister’s office on April 9th to tell them he wants better financial performance. Power hasn’t asked them to improve their level of service or reduce their prices to the public in tough economic times. Instead he wants higher financial returns to the government to help replace the revenue lost when tax cuts come in on April 1st.

Cynics will also say (and count me among them) he wants to trim them into efficient money-making organisations so they can be readily privatised after the next election.

In the meantime the antics of Smith and Power reflect the frustrations of Ministers required to run services for the public rather than turn them over for private profit.

Blame the breweries for binge drinking

Marketing alcohol to teenagers is cynical more than subtle.

I had presumed the companies would develop a new drink from a variety of mixes and then conduct taste tests with the target audience. Once they had the taste they would then create a brand and logo and promote it heavily. But this isn’t what happens. One of the marketing team at Independent Liquor described the process to me a couple of years back. (Independent Liquor is based in Papakura to the South of Auckland. It was founded by Michael Erceg who started the company from scratch to mix and market RTDs (ready to drinks) or alco-pops to young people. His company was sold for over a billion after his death in a helicopter crash several years back)

The brand is created first, picking up on images and themes from youth culture, with an alcohol mix then developed to go with the brand. Batches of the new drink are produced with only cheap promotions, such as overseas trips for two, to encourage sales at liquor outlets. Only after the brand sells well will it be widely advertised with giveaways and sponsorships. If it doesn’t sell it will be quietly dropped and disappear from the shelves. Each year many brands are created but only a small minority become big sellers. For Independent Liquor brands like Woodstock, Pulse and KGB are the big money-spinners and heavily promoted to young New Zealanders.

Each week we see the inevitable result in scenes of drunken, boorish behaviour by teenagers engaging in binge drinking. It’s quite impossible to see the increase in youth binge drinking as separate from the rise of deliberate, cynical exploitation of young people by advertisers working for the alcohol industry.

Most people would be surprised to know the alcohol industry has a voluntary code whereby advertisements “must not imply that liquor creates a significant change in mood, contributes to personal, social or sexual success, nor imply offensive behaviour, nor have strong appeal to minors in particular, nor advocate heroes of the young”.

Look at the Tui adds on TV or the Miss Tui 2009 internet competition. Don’t anyone try to tell me these promotions follow the code.

The breweries have reliable allies in hospitality. Bars and liquor outlets have been criticised this week for promotions through social networking sites such as Facebook along with text messages to encourage youth drinking. Auckland bar Margaritas advertises a student night every Wednesday “with real student prices, $5 jugs and $4 tequila”. Other bars send out text messages when cheap alcohol promotions are launched. A Dunedin liquor store advertises a 15% loyalty discount to those who sign up on-line. A prize includes a 65-litre pallet of alcohol.

The Hospitality Association chief executive Bruce Robertson claims there are strict protocols around how bars can advertise promotions. He says it’s illegal for a bar to run a promotion that could lead to intoxication. Yeah right!

If anything is clear it is that self-regulation and codes of conduct are not working. Expecting responsible drinking from teenagers will mean nothing while they are adrift in a sea of cynical advertising, promotion and sponsorship costing more than $70 million every year.

The rules on alcohol promotion were relaxed by National in 1992 and we saw an explosion of advertising on TV and radio. From research conducted by GALA (Group Against Liquor Advertising) over the 10-year period 1990 to 1999, 14 to 17 year olds doubled the amount they drank on a typical drinking occasion. They drank 2-3 drinks in 1990 and 5-6 in 1999.

This link between alcohol abuse and advertising is indisputable.

Politicians however like to focus on the symptoms of the problem. They complain about youth attitudes to drink and argue about the drinking age. They worry how to encourage young people to drink moderately and responsibly.

The breweries and bars are happy because these arguments leave them off the hook. One of their favourite ploys is to claim they are “working with the government” to alleviate problems around the abuse of alcohol. When pressed they will call for more research before any new regulations are introduced. Any ruse will do to muddy the public debate and throw parents and politicians off the scent. If they have their way we will still be researching when half our 14-year-olds are alcoholics. In the meantime the profits roll in and pictures of drunken teenagers continue to appear regularly in the news media.

For too long we have blamed the young for falling into traps cynically set by breweries and bars. It’s time to reign them in hard with bans on advertising, promotion and sponsorship using alcohol. It’s called giving kiwi kids a fair go.

Workers expected to pay for capitalist crisis

John Key’s much vaunted jobs summit is over. The ministerial limousines and corporate cabs have left the South Auckland venue, the TV cameras have packed up and the cardboard lunchboxes have been recycled. Most participants have returned to their mansions in flashier parts of New Zealand.

It certainly wasn’t a cross-section of New Zealand. The faces were predominantly white, middle-aged and grey-haired. They came mainly from the corporate sector and would normally look uncomfortably out of place in South Auckland where the government chose to hold the event.

But all in all it was a tidy political affair for John Key. The keynote speakers were safe choices and noone tried to upstage the government. The message was that the government cares about the hurt faced by those who’ve lost their jobs and those whose jobs are at risk.

Aside from the obvious irony of a summit to discuss unemployment held in the highest unemployment area of the country but attended by well-heeled imports from anywhere but South Auckland, the most interesting feature of the meeting was the absence of any discussion about what has caused the crisis. By all accounts it didn’t get a mention.

Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard restricted himself to a vivid description of what the loss of paper wealth has been over the past year with apparently a line of dollar bills going end to end to the sun and halfway back. John Key pledged to be pragmatic and avoid a talk-fest.

But if anyone did ask the question “what caused the crisis?” there were no answers provided despite tens of thousands of New Zealanders expected to lose their jobs, their homes and their livelihoods.

It’s effects will be greater than the biggest crime wave we’ve ever seen but there is not even talk of a ministerial inquiry. The unsaid message was the crisis is a natural event – no different from a tsunami or an earthquake. But this is very different. It’s a man-made financial crisis.

It seem that words like greed, fraud, stupidity, hypocrisy, recklessness and corporate malfeasance were too close to comfort for most of the summit participants.

National Distribution Union secretary Laila Harre pointed out that among the attendees were Stephen Tindall who, while talking of saving jobs in the summit, is progressing with plans to cut up to 1000 jobs in the Warehouse chain. Likewise with Telecom CEO Paul Reynolds and Air New Zealand’s Rob Fyfe who have big plans for redundancies in their own businesses.

Nowhere at the summit was there a call for these companies to set aside their restructuring and help New Zealand families through the recession. Instead these companies are working to maximise the return to their shareholders rather than maximise jobs for those who made these companies what they are in the first place.

Once the dust and hubris cleared we were left with three big ideas the government says they will take further – a nine-day working fortnight, a public/private equity fund for businesses to borrow from and a cycleway to go the length of New Zealand.

The first two are predictable. Both involve proposals for the burden from the crisis to be put on the shoulders of working New Zealanders who it is suggested should face up to 10% loss of income while also providing bailout funds through taxation for the government to give to their employers.

The New Zealand workforce are getting the worst of both worlds. Over the past decade big business profits increased at twice the rate of workers’ wages. It should be no surprise we have such a low-wage economy. Having missed out in the good times workers are now expected to bear the brunt of the recession.

It’s unfortunately a common phenomenon under our capitalist economic system. Those that caused the crisis expect those with the least resources to pay for it.

The third big idea is an excellent proposal. A cycleway the length of New Zealand would be an asset for the future. It’s the sort of idea which would have been rubbished if the Greens had suggested it but because it was a businessman it’s insightful logic has been seen and welcomed by the Prime Minister.

There will inevitably be some parochial wrangling over the route but I hope it gets going quickly before some self-serving entrepreneur offers to build and fund it by charging tolls.

The world is full of self-servers and there were plenty at the summit. The only question remaining is why did the government bother to hold it in South Auckland instead of at the Sheraton?