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.