A few members of Unite Union have commented to me that we have put too much emphasis on protecting the rights of migrant workers when “NZ workers” are also being exploited. It is absolutely true that anyone who works for an employer is exploited in some way. The most fundamental way that happens is that the employer pays less for the labour power they employ than they get for the products of that labour. All of an employer’s profit in the last analysis comes from the labour of workers.
However some groups of workers are able to be super-exploited for one reason or another – usually because they are in a weaker bargaining situation with their employer. Traditionally this has been true for women and young people. In the first half of last century Maori workers could be paid less. Until the 1970s in New Zealand many contracts (including collective agreements) had a lower rate of pay for women. Women weren’t considered the real breadwinner. They were only working for “pin money” and so could be paid less. This was also true for young workers until last decade when youth rates were finally abolished in most industries.
Some employers take advantage of migrant workers for the same reason. Many of these workers are desperate for a job and often willing to work for less or “go the extra mile” for the boss to prove they are good workers. Some aren’t “legal” in terms of their visas. Often this means working for less than the minimum wage in some industries. This super-exploitation can also be by bosses of their own ethnic group. But it can also be by a multi-national company if the managers are given the freedom to take advantage of these workers.
If we allow this “super-exploitation” to exist – whether it is for women, Maori, young people or migrants – we allow the employers to hold all of our wages down. All wage systems are built from the bottom up. That means we all benefit if the minimum wage goes up because those who traditionally earn above the minimum can argue that their wages need to go up to maintain their margins for skill or experience. If a boss is able to pay one group of workers less or force one group of workers in a workplace to do things that are not acceptable – then eventually everyone is dragged down.
So it is very important for a union to fight any signs of super-exploitation. In the end we all benefit because we are more united as a class and are able to fight harder to improve the situation for everyone.