Migrant Workers – their problems are every worker’s problems

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worker human rights
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.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. The treatment of the most vulnerable members of our society, in all spheres of society, is a baseline for all of us.

    If we allow the treatment of the most vulnerable to be eroded, or we ignore their plight, we put all of society in danger.

    This is a difficult concept for many of us, particularly young and inexperienced people, to grasp and truly understand.

    I think that is the problem Unite organisers may be encountering.

    Perhaps a better way to explain it to them may be thus:

    If they don’t care for the plight of migrant workers (who are more vulnerable than they may be) and they allow those migrant workers to be paid less / treated worse, then they risk their own jobs because they allow a new class of cheaper workers to exist below them. If migrant workers have to be paid the same and treated the same as them, then they’re not competing for jobs with them.

    • Perhaps a better way to explain it to them may be thus: If they don’t care for the plight of migrant workers (who are more vulnerable than they may be) and they allow those migrant workers to be paid less / treated worse, then they risk their own jobs because they allow a new class of cheaper workers to exist below them. If migrant workers have to be paid the same and treated the same as them, then they’re not competing for jobs with them. –

      Couldn’t put it a better way myself.

  2. It is the age old dillema,a Union defending a migrant worker and being pilloried for what about us.How can you defend them, when they are taking our jobs,and working for lower rates and conditions that undermine our years of struggle.

    Simple,they like you are wage slaved,and if we do not protect and educate them who will.

  3. (“It is absolutely true that anyone who works for an employer is exploited in some way.”)
    Well not really Mike. Surely without the employer there wouldn’t be a job at all ! The implied generalisation that all employers are rich bastards ripping off their staff is just nonsense & will not get support from the fair minded. There are plenty of businesses not operating profitably for a start, but also plenty of good employers. It is a fact there are some bad employers, so maybe we should just address those. I don’t think migrants have it any worse than young New Zealanders frankly. At the moment my big bug bear is the plethora of cafes & some other businesses, using “free trials” for the young & vunerable. These are nothing less than “free” labour & should be banned. Young people & migrants alike should be encouraged not to agree to these.
    I would really like to see your organisation supporting this sort of policy as it has become prevalent & needs to be addressed. I would like to do something active about this, however I am unlikely to support an organisation that makes unreasonably broad generalisations such as your one above as I see it as not being constructive to negotiating good outcomes.

    • “It is absolutely true that anyone who works for an employer is exploited in some way.”

      I think Mike’s pointing out that an employer gains profit from the profits produced by the workers. This is a Marxist analysis of capitalism, but it is commonly accepted and will not be disputed by anyone – even Don Brash.
      So your point about good employers and bad employers is true to an extent, but even the good employers are still exploiting workers.
      Therefore, exploitation is not an individual trait, but a structural reality. To have unexploited workers means a business needs to lose money!

      “I don’t think migrants have it any worse than young New Zealanders frankly”

      You’re also right here – but only sometimes. Many migrants have better working conditions than NZers. However the point is that the working rights of NZers cannot happen while migrant workers do not get equal rights (see Lara’s point above).

      “I am unlikely to support an organisation that makes unreasonably broad generalisations such as your one above as I see it as not being constructive to negotiating good outcomes.”

      Mike’s post here has just outlined one point that he sees as an issue. Unite is a union which is well worth supporting, especially these days with insecure employment contracts and a fractured workforce. It’s worth checking out the work Unite do – supporting migrant workers is only a tiny part of their fight.

  4. Without the labour of the producers,employers would not have profit and loss,even those robot producers,who need human labour to maintain.

    Its about fairness in our Aotearoa,its about worker exploitation, either Aotearoan, or foreign.Both exploited for greeds illusion of right (without us, what would you have).

  5. So the facts of labour exploitaion don!t fit with your employer right of profit and loss.

    Constructive, minimum wage $18 per hour,smoko times right of all workers to have a break negotiable, within the parameters of morning and afternoon breaks exepting a lunch break of half hour non negotiable.Overtime paid $18-50.Time spent travelling to work and back 30 cents a day.

  6. “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.”

    Yes, it is a problem, and has always been a problem, at times getting worse, like now in the days of significant immigration of new workers and residents.

    Any form of exploitation must be opposed and addressed, and for that sake it does not matter whether it is migrants, women, ethnic minorities, Tangata Whenua or any other group of people. The culprit will in almost all cases be the employer, who is responsible for such exploitation. So the employer must be exposed, held to account and where possible face the legal consequences.

    I am afraid though that as long as there will be enough desperate migrants, legal or without legal permits, to try and get a foothold in the labour market here, the problems will not go away. Ultimately the solution will have to be found at a transnational or global level, where more justice and better conditions are created for workers in all countries, so that fewer will see a need to find better lives on other shores.

    That is a challenge not easy to deal with.

    I do understand the sentiment of certain local workers, that is Kiwi born, or longer term migrants, as they fear their wages and living conditions will inevitably be undermined by willing and often non-organised migrant labour.

    It is my impression that UNITE as a union tries to be fair to all in this regards, and for some that is not so easy to follow. But having more frictions and mistrust between groups of workers, between migrants and long established local workers, that is only in the interest of the employers, as that will create competition and an environment for bosses to play off one against the other.

    Hence there is no alternative to stand united on minimum conditions and terms to be upheld, and they must be enough to protect and pay a living income.

  7. I think this issue needs to be attacked from both directions.

    The workers need to be supported and assisted to make sure the kinds of systematic exploitation that has occurred does not happen again.

    But a sensible constriction of the neo-liberal expansion of immigration laws is long overdue.

    Personally, if I were designing immigration policy, the ability to import unskilled or semi-skilled workers would be required to balance with employment/underemployment rates. On 3% unemployment, a few might not be out of the question. On 6% unemployment an employer ought to have to go through the eye of a needle to avoid employing New Zealanders.

    Language students are an interesting category. Many of them need to work – the rule for them needs to be that accepting a lower than legal rate will get their employer into serious trouble – and them into moderate trouble.

    But the slave ships! Still sailing twenty-five years after they were let in to allow NZ companies to gain expertise. The companies have learned nothing. They should never have been allowed in, they are an ongoing disgrace. While that mode of business is permitted, progress within the industry is stymied. What prodigies of moral laxness allowed supposedly Labour governments to license slavery? There is plenty of shame to go around.

    • Language students cannot work unless they’re here on a working holiday visa, or a student visa, where they’re allowed to work 20 hours per week if they enrol at a category one school. They should damn well absolutely be paid minimum wage, and it’s also worth remembering that everyone here on a student visa has already paid their full tuition fees, and demonstrated their ability to pay for their living costs for the term of the visa up front.

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