It’s become a depressing pattern. Every time news of record migration numbers come out in the media, the National Party leap into action with another excuse for why they’re justified.
The most recent “alternative facts” laden argument for adding tens of thousands of people to the New Zealand labour market … is that apparently the workers already here can’t pass drug tests.
Now, the notion that people are unemployed because they’re on drugs is not a new concept to the national political lexicon. We’ve heard it before, quite a number of times. In fact, it even became such a serious concern that then-Social Development Minister Paula Bennett instituted mandatory drug-testing for beneficiaries thought to be out of work for this reason.
How did this go?
Well, in 2015 there were more than thirty thousand beneficiaries referred to jobs which required them to be drug free … and only fifty five failures of the requisite pre-work drug tests. (Gosh, what a wonderful use of taxpayer money) This is a rate of failure of 0.173%; which would rather strongly suggest that drugs are not a significant barrier to participation in the workforce for tens of thousands of beneficiaries.
So clearly, something else is going on here.
In order to find out what, we need to ask ourselves two questions.
First up, why do some employers seem to have a preference for immigrant labour; and second, why the Government is continually content to airbrush reality and attempt to present the ongoing importation of tens of thousands of people a year as something of an economic necessity.
The answer to the first question is, regrettably, quite simple. Less scrupulous employers want to take on migrant labour rather than employ Kiwis, in the main, because the former are far more readily exploitable than the latter.
Now obviously, this will not be the case in all instances. The Skilled Migrant category of immigration exists precisely because we’ve long recognized that on occasion it is more desirable to bring in somebody with a needed skill, rather than waiting the potential months or years for a Kiwi to either upskill or otherwise become available for the position.
But it has become painfully apparent of late that under this Government, the immigration system is not being used just to plug vital gaps in our workforce – but instead, as part of a calculated and cynical effort to keep pay and conditions down in a number of workplaces and industries.
How else to interpret, for instance, then-Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse making the nonsensical statement that “supermarket checkout operator” apparently count as an “Essential Skill” in the eyes of Immigration New Zealand, as justification for dozens of entry-visas being issued.
Are we really to be expected to believe that amongst the tens of thousands of New Zealanders unemployed and looking for work on any given day … that there weren’t a few dozen people already here who could have performed the enormously complex task of operating a supermarket checkout?
I think not.
So what makes a migrant worker on a (temporary) visa more valuable to an employer than an equivalent Kiwi?
Simple. The New Zealander doesn’t have the threat of fairly immediate deportation hanging over them if they should happen to do anything to incur their employer’s displeasure. So if you’re after a workforce you can pay less, feasibly expect to be less likely to unionize, and who won’t get ‘uppity’ about little things like unpaid over-time or being denied their breaks … why WOULDN’T you hire from offshore.
We hear a lot about migrant-worker exploitation in the hospitality and restauranting sectors, but it would be fallacious to attempt to pretend that similar things don’t also take place in other industries. The Christchurch Rebuild, in particular, appears to have been carried out in large part upon the backs of unfairly treated foreign labour. A situation actively contributed to by, among other personages, the then-Philippines Ambassador to New Zealand – who scurrilously urged her countrymen not to join unions or otherwise involve them in workplace disputes.
The evidence is pretty clear. It isn’t just a matter of employers hiring migrant workers rather than Kiwis – the Damoclean sword of being able to insta-deport large chunks of your workforce is also being used by some businesses to mercilessly drive down pay and conditions in some sectors of our economy.
Which leads us on to the next question. Why is the Government seemingly OK with this?
First part of the answer’s easy. Lower wages help to keep a lid on inflation; and National has not for some decades been anything like a friend to Unions or the average worker. Some big corporates being able to rake in higher profits thanks to their lower-cost workforces certainly won’t hurt, either – particularly if they later ‘return the favour’ by making donations to the National Party’s coffers.
But I also think there’s more going on here than initially meets the eye. It’s no secret that New Zealand’s economic growth rates have been comparatively sluggish. Despite all of the hype and spin about National being “the party of business”, and the occasional high-profile success story; for the most part, the only seriously growing sector of the New Zealand economy is the property market. A market which, incidentally, can only benefit by rapidly adding more people whilst only veeerrrryyyy sloooooowwwwllllyyyy increasing the number of houses to domicile them in. Which is certainly good for upper-middle-class National voters who are on the property-ladder already (and thus able to borrow ever more against the increased value of their portfolios in order to fund a lavish lifestyle, or net incredible returns by rapidly flipping property for huge capital gains), and never mind about anyone else.
And there’s also the matter of the cash which several classes of migrant are required to bring in with them representing a paper gain for the New Zealand economy.
So why is the Government really allowing unprecedented numbers of foreign-born workers to come to New Zealand? It seems to be because doing so serves their long-term economic objectives. An easy form of delusory “growth” (which never seems to take into account the additional costs of a rapidly expanding population requiring greater service expenditure), and a few favours to their corporate mates.
But this doesn’t exactly sound great in a press conference. So instead of being truthful about their priorities, our Government instead insists upon laying down a fulminating barrage of falsehood designed to appeal to the prejudices of the middle classes. After all, who’s an easier and more “legitimate” target for moral outrage than drug users. How better to make the moral fault for being unemployed that of the beneficiary rather than that of the economic system and its neoliberal presiding overlords. And how else to effectively silence the qualms of Middle New Zealanders worried about the potential futures of our young people … than by blatantly projecting into the public political consciousness the idea that drug addiction, rather than migratory flows and other policy-settings are why our kids can’t get jobs in a supermarket.
I don’t blame nor begrudge foreign folk wanting to come here, make their contribution and in exchange receive the benefits of a better life here in New Zealand. But it seems hard to overlook the fact that some employers – seemingly actively supported in this by the Government – are obviously intent upon using them in a way that’s detrimental to both foreign and domestic-sourced labour.
It cannot be allowed to continue. And while it’s certainly an interesting change of pace for “drug addiction” rather than “racism”to be the officially designated Nat red-herring on this issue, about the only positive from this shift is that at least the recent claim is more easily statistically refutable.