“Because the Oppressors of Albion in every City and Village…
They compel the Poor to live upon a crust of bread by soft mild arts:
They reduce Man to want, then give with pomp and ceremony:
The praise of Jehovah is chaunted from lips of hunger and thirst.” – William Blake
Ponsonby entrepreneurs stood up one after the other extolling the virtues of their ethical startups.I was at a design magazine launch for a friend. Some of them were restaurateurs, some architects, some fashion designers. They were organic, gluten-free, sustainable, eco-friendly and community-oriented and spoke of this at length. Emotional, as they told us the story of discovering their dream and making it a reality. “All it takes is an idea,” they said. Their idea kernels had grown to small businesses and empires were on the horizon. While the warm fuzzies reverberated throughout the room and backs were patted , a question came piercing through the crowd from the back of the room. “ Do you pay your employees a living wage?” It was from a worker of a restaurant just up the road, someone who was working 60 hour weeks often without breaks. The response came from one of the owners of a high class burger joint known to pay their workers much lower than anyone else in the area. “That’s not the point,” she said, “we’re like a family, it not about the money, we work together like a project.” There was no mention of whether this ‘joint project’ meant the owners being on low wages too but after one glance at her Karen Walker bodysuit, the answer would be blatantly not.
While the room was audibly shocked at the question, what shocked me more is why this question doesn’t come up sooner when we support so-called ‘local-authentic-ethical’ businesses.
These businesses glean much liberal kudos from their contributions to the greater good. “For every plastic bag you don’t use we plant a tree in the Amazon”. “We sponsor an underprivileged South Auckland teenager in the arts”. But these businesses are noticeably silent on workers rights and pay. In fact, if you watch closely, you will also find many of them supporting business lobby initiatives that suppress union organisation, health and safety measures and rights on public holidays.
I work for a union and at collective agreement negotiations recently we compared the the corporation in question to McDonald’s as an insult to their record of low pay rises and general approach to their employees. The employer retorted, “We prefer to see ourselves as a boutique French cafe in Ponsonby.”On reflection, the employer was correct. The boutique cafe in Ponsonby is much more likely to have casualised contracts with low wages and poor conditions than McDonald’s.
When we were growing up we were admonished for bad behaviour with the threat of ‘ending up working at McDonalds’ if we continue on this path. Recently , however I found myself telling my niece she would be better off a fast-food worker than continuing on in the high-class fashion shop where she is currently exploited. Ironically, for young people these days mainstream chainstore corporations like McDonald’s have ended up being at the better end of terms and conditions in present day Aotearoa
This is not the result of benevolent philanthropic employers but well-organised workplaces with collective mechanisms for improving work life – they’re unionised. The recent Unite Union win against Zero Hours contracts has changed the face of fast food employment and unfortunately remains but a dream for thousands of workers in unorganized workplaces across the country. The most pressing issue in New Zealand is the 80% of workers who aren’t collectivised and struggle for basic respect, rights and representation at work.
For private sector unions in their current format, organising tiny franchisee companies and small businesses is a resource intensive operation that we can’t afford. It makes sense to prioritise the organisation of bigger corporates and see to it the little resource we do have is utilised for a better life to a larger number of families. But while the public’s attention is rightfully faced towards organised labour’s industrial disputes with major corporates let us not forget the boutique smaller employers out there are quietly getting away with much worse. Life for workers under these employers can only improve with the ability and mechanisms to organise themselves collectively. Until all workers are allowed and able to organise freely for improved wages and conditions, the “eco/community friendly” patter of so called ethical business is meaningless and ought to be challenged.
On the last day of each month TDB will ask a range of progressive voices in NZ to write a guest blog on what they think ‘the most pressing issue in NZ right now’ is. This month our guest progressives are, Labour Party MP and Marriage Equality champion Louisa Wall; Unionist and human rights activist Tali Williams; and regional champion for the Labour Party, Stuart Nash.