New Zealand Trade Unionists Discuss, Defend Migrant Workers’ Rights

By Roger Annis
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND—More than 75 trade union and political activists gathered here on April 7 for a public forum on migrant workers rights in New Zealand. It was a spirited meeting with a panel of speakers arguing why the trade union movement in New Zealand should mobilize to defend the rights of migrant workers whose status and rights are coming under attack as unemployment rises.

Last year, 188,000 foreign workers received permits to live and work in New Zealand. Most are for temporary stays, but extensions are accorded. The newly-elected National government says it will review the whole program. The April 6 New Zealand Herald reports that Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman wants to end the granting of temporary permits as well as renewals for current holders.

The meeting was chaired by the National Director of the 8,000-member Unite union, Mike Treen. The first speaker he introduced was Dennis Maga of Migrante Aotearoa, a trade union-supported project that actively defends migrant workers.

Maga reported that some employers are stepping up the use of racism and discrimination against migrant workers, including violations of laws or union collective agreements governing pay scales. He said that tensions among workers are on the rise in certain workplaces as layoffs (redundancies) rise.

He reported on two cases of manufacturing factories where dozens of workers were made redundant (laid off) but the companies sought to retain temporary migrant workers. One company argued that six workers, welders by trade, had exceptional skills it did not want to lose. The cases received considerable publicity. Right-wing commentators in mainstream media used it to whip up hostility against migrant workers.

Eventually, the work permits of the six welders were revoked, but talks continue with the affected union and the government’s immigration department. Migrante is concerned that this case not set a precedent whereby migrant workers will always be the first out the door without consideration given to the specific conditions of the workplace.

Syd Keepa spoke on behalf of the Runanga, the council of Maori trade unionists in the country’s central labour federation, the Council of Trade Unions (CTU). He gave an inspiring summary of the evolution of the thinking of the Maori population on immigrant rights issues. Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. They number more than 600,000, 15 percent of the country’s population.

Keepa said that leading activists like himself have worked long and hard to convince fellow Maori to support the rights of immigrant workers. “I tell our people that they should support immigrant workers because our rights as Maori are attacked by the same people who are attacking immigrant workers.”

“Whether Maori, Pacific Islanders, Pakeha (European descent) or recent immigrants, workers should stand together and defend the rights of all those who live here.”

John Minto spoke on behalf of the Unite union. He described the vulnerability that migrant workers face in New Zealand. In his view, there have been harmful statements by several CTU leaders in recent weeks favoring the termination of migrant worker permits as unemployment rises. “The trade unions should not go down that path,” he said.

Laila Harre is the National Secretary of the 22,000 member National Distribution Union. Her presentation focused on several cases that her union has recently faced. She asked, should unemployed New Zealand citizens have the right to take the jobs of migrant workers when economic conditions worsen, necessarily sending these workers back to their countries of origin?

“I and other leaders of our union have wrestled with this question, and the conclusion that we have drawn is ‘no’,” she said.

She continued, “It is not the job of the trade union movement to become immigration police. We have a responsibility to defend all workers. Otherwise, we become complicit in the exploitation of workers in the boom and bust cycle of capitalism.”

There are progressive solutions to tensions over migrant workers’ place in society, Harre argued. They include better job training of New Zealand workers, granting full rights to workers invited into the country, and a minimum wage of at least $15 per hour (presently it is $12.50).

Harre said that immigration policy must recognize that foreign workers provide vital life support to families and communities back home. She also says that New Zealand unions should work much more closely in solidarity with unions in the countries of origin of migrant workers.

During the discussion period of the meeting, Mike Treen argued that a truly just world would eliminate barriers to the movement of workers. “Capital has unlimited freedom of movement, but labour does not,” he observed, “and that’s not right.”

He said that while a world without borders is not on the immediate agenda, one measure in that direction that should be taken in New Zealand is to grant to the peoples of the South Pacific islands the same right to residency and work that exists between Australians and New Zealanders. That’s because Pacific islanders have suffered colonial or semi-colonial exploitation at the hands of the two wealthy, regional powers.

Pacific Islanders are exploited today in New Zealand through short-term contracts in agriculture and other industries. Treen described a 1982 New Zealand court decision that ever so briefly granted full citizenship rights to the people of one of those islands—Samoa—who were born during the period of New Zealand colonial rule. This decision was immediately reversed by an emergency meeting of the government of the day.

The country’s largest daily newspaper, the New Zealand Herald, published a lengthy story on the forum on April 6. Radio New Zealand carried an extensive report on the forum the day after it took place.

New Zealand’s official unemployment rate is 4.6%, or 105,000 people. It’s rising rapidly. The government predicts it will reach 7.5% by the end of this year. The state unemployment insurance program expects the number of recipients to double by the end of this year, to 60,000. Forty percent of the population of the country’s capital city, Auckland, were born outside of New Zealand.


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