New Zealand unions scapegoat immigrant workers


Like their counterparts internationally, New Zealand’s unions are responding to the deepening global recession by attempting to foment nationalism and chauvinism as they collaborate with government and employer attacks on jobs, wages and conditions.

Immediately after participating in the conservative National government’s “Jobs Summit” in February—which was used to launch a program to cut hours and wages through a 9-day working fortnight—two unions moved to demand a crack down on immigration and called for employers to fire migrant workers.

The Press newspaper reported in March that Manufacturing and Construction Workers Union (MCWU) general secretary Graeme Clarke had been in contact with the government about companies continuing to employ migrants in preference to New Zealanders.

According to Clarke, any businesses that had imported workers through the recognised skills-shortage scheme should have to “re-prove” they could not fill the positions with “Kiwi workers.” “Our answer has always been ‘yes, you can import people’, but now we want it proved again that the shortage still exists”, he said. Clarke is widely regarded as a union “left”, having been active during the 1980’s as a leader of the now defunct pro-Stalinist Workers Communist League.

Christchurch MCWU branch secretary Phil Yarrall told The Press that the union had complained to the Labour Department about jet boat manufacturer CWF Hamilton’s decision to make 28 “Kiwi workers” redundant while retaining 24 migrant workers on temporary contracts. “They got the permit because there was a labour shortage. Now there’s no shortage,” he said. Yarrall complained that another company had recently applied to bring in more migrant workers when there was “clearly no longer a need”.

New Zealand workers need to be clear: the MCWU’s position has nothing to do with defending jobs. The union is trying to lay the blame for the global onslaught on jobs, not on global capitalism, but on the most vulnerable sections of the working class. This is part of a conscious campaign to divert growing anger among workers at rising unemployment away from employers and the government and into reactionary protectionist “jobs for New Zealanders first” channels. In this way, instead of unifying their struggles, workers are pitted against each other and weakened in the face of demands by the ruling elite for “sacrifices”—all in the name of defending the “national economy”.

Within a few days of the MCWU bureaucrats launching their anti-immigrant campaign, the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU), the country’s biggest union, joined in. EPMU national secretary Andrew Little told the Taranaki Daily News he was investigating a New Plymouth business after a worker, one of 28 sacked from MCK Metals Pacific before Christmas, lodged a complaint with both the union and the Immigration Service.

MCK retained a group of nine Filipino specialist aluminium welders, who were brought in on temporary work permits in late 2007, following the redundancies. Some kept their jobs and others were moved to general duties under a legal variation to the terms of their work permits. The complainant, who was given widespread media coverage, said that as someone with a mortgage and two young children, he was “furious” that jobs had been taken off “local Taranaki” workers while the migrants had been kept on.

According to Little, the EPMU would be “asking the question” why the migrant workers on short-term visas “appear to have been given priority over long-term workers ...who have been made redundant.” He warned that, if the union were dissatisfied at the employer’s selection criteria and its reasons for retaining the short-term workers, the union would be prepared to take legal action.

Little—who is also president of the opposition Labour Party—stressed the advantages to employers of retaining “Kiwi workers”, insisting they were “obviously capable of making a long-term commitment to the business, but those on work visas are limited to a couple of years”. “I would hope employers would take that into account,” he said.

The National government’s Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman immediately supported the union, instructing his ministry to investigate the allegations and declaring “immigration policy was designed so migrants on short-term permits do not take jobs from New Zealanders”. If MCK Metals had breached immigration policy action would be taken, Coleman said, indicating that some or all of the immigrant workers could be deported. The minister also promised that the government would tighten up immigration controls in general.

The Labour Party, not to be outdone, promptly took up the unions’ demands, with opposition leader Phil Goff telling TV One that “jobs for Kiwi workers” should be an absolute priority. Secretary of the National Distribution Union (NDU) Laila Harre, a former “left” cabinet minister in the 1999-2002 Labour-Alliance government seized the opportunity to castigate the Labour Department for allegedly failing to properly control the inflow of immigrant workers into cheap labour schemes.

Not one of the unions clamouring for the victimisation of immigrant workers has taken up a struggle to defend a single job for the workers they claim to represent. On the contrary, the unions are moving en bloc to establish themselves as the prime enforcers of the government’s austerity measures against the working class. Underlining its wider agenda, the NZ Council of Trade Unions dedicated its biennial conference in March to the theme of improving “productivity”—in other words, using the recession to extract ever-greater concessions from its members.

A particularly pernicious role in this endeavour is being played by a layer of erstwhile “lefts” within the union apparatus. As a cover for their own collaboration in plant closures and the wholesale destruction of jobs, they have taken to defending New Zealand employers, painting them as more compassionate than their hard-nosed Australian counterparts.

The NDU, which is presently overseeing the closure of two New Zealand plants of the Australian-owned apparel manufacturer Pacific Brands, has complained that the company is “determined to treat its New Zealand workers as second class citizens”. According to NDU president Robert Reid, Pacific Brands is giving the 1,800 workers being made redundant in Australia more favourable treatment than their New Zealand counterparts.

Reid insists that Pacific Brands is offering to the Australian workers a number of measures above the requirements contained in their employment agreements. “However in New Zealand the company refuses to even formally meet with the union until mid-May, refuses to discuss many of the issues when it does meet and tries to dictate who the union can bring to the meeting when it takes place”, Reid complained. As a result the union has declared it is considering legal action to force the company to come to the table.

The purpose of this charade is to block a united struggle by Pacific Brands workers in Australia, New Zealand and China, across national lines, to defend their jobs and to tie workers in each country to their “own” government, banks and employers. This perspective was recently underscored by the well-known “radical” Matt McCarten, leader of the Unite union and former chairman of the “left wing” Alliance party. McCarten used his regular column in the Herald on Sunday on April 19 to rail against “Aussie bosses” whom, he claims, have “no intention of assimilating into our society” and who treat New Zealand like an “Australian colony”.

The NDU meanwhile, has positioned itself as a major supporter of the government’s 9-day working fortnight scheme, lauding it as a “real success” that should be expanded. The basis of this appraisal was the NDU’s claim that at the company, Summit Wool Spinners, in Oamaru, the new scheme had led to “only” 48 redundancies, instead of the 105 that had been proposed before the government-union negotiations on the reduced working hours program. 

New Zealand workers must reject these thoroughly reactionary positions. Whatever their national origin, workers are not the cause of the current global crisis—its source lies in deep-rooted contradictions within the capitalist system itself. Workers, wherever they live and work, have the same needs and aspirations, and face the same economic and social crisis.

The defence of jobs in New Zealand cannot proceed within the national framework. It requires an international struggle, uniting workers in New Zealand with workers in Australia, the Asia Pacific region and throughout the world, in defence of their common interests, on the basis of a socialist program, aimed at ending the profit system and fundamentally reorganising society on the basis of the social needs of the vast majority, not the profit interests of a tiny minority. To embark on such a struggle, workers must make a decisive political break from Labour and the unions and their thoroughly bankrupt nationalist, pro-capitalist and anti-immigrant perspective.