TDB Guest Blog Project: Tali Williams – ‘The most pressing issue in NZ right now’ –



“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.

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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. 


  1. Excellent Post @ Tali Williams and good work .
    We must be ever vigilant for the Lizard People .
    ” … Karen Walker bodysuit,… ” Should be Karen Walker bodyarmour ?

    … ” some are born to sweet delight and some are born to endless night. ”

    One of my favourites .

    William Blake.

    To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour.

    A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
    Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
    A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
    Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
    A Dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
    Predicts the ruin of the State.
    A Horse misus’d upon the Road
    Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
    Each outcry of the hunted Hare
    A fiber from the Brain does tear.

    He who shall train the Horse to War
    Shall never pass the Polar Bar.
    The Beggar’s Dog and Widow’s Cat,
    Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.
    The Gnat that sings his Summer song
    Poison gets from Slander’s tongue.
    The poison of the Snake and Newt
    Is the sweat of Envy’s Foot.

    A truth that’s told with bad intent
    Beats all the Lies you can invent.
    It is right it should be so;
    Man was made for Joy and Woe;
    And when this we rightly know
    Thro’ the World we safely go.

    Every Night and every Morn
    Some to Misery are Born.
    Every Morn and every Night
    Some are Born to sweet delight.
    Some are Born to sweet delight,
    Some are Born to Endless Night.

  2. Great points.

    NZ has been totally polluted by anti worker talk since the 1980’s reforms.

    Even as a leftie there is this ‘fear’ of employees. Paying them decent wages and improving conditions.

    Bill English is proud we are a low wage economy so we can ‘compete’.

    All I can think of, is there needs to be a rethink of our fundamental ideas of neoliberalism.

    Now execs and lawyers are paid a fortune to keep wages low as possible. Often negating the fiscal benefits of actually increasing the wage in the first place. It also lowers the tax take that people are getting less but with family credits etc, the tax payer is actually subsidising the business. It does not make any sense.

    There are not more jobs being created. All the incentives are to lose jobs in this country.

    Yep the execs kept wages low, but the consultant costs for doing so added to the negative effects of having poorly paid employees and the subsequent loss of employees and costs of re hiring.

    And any business short term gain was returned to the execs giving themselves a big dividend for ‘getting that short term profit’ rolling in.

    The mantra was the profits were to make more jobs but instead they execs think of more ways to lose jobs and pay employees less.

    Consequence runaway corporate welfare and extreme inequality.

  3. Workers’ rights have been dismantled since the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act 1991, and the Employment Relations Act we have now, has been amended so often now under this government, it is not offering all that much protection for the weakest of workers.

    New Zealand has lower union membership rates than many countries in Europe, and nowadays employers love to just have individual mercenaries, all competing against each other, but bought with some carrots that offer little “privileges” of sorts, some more “status” lifting or trend setting.

    I worked for employers that always loved to talk about working as “a team”, about “team spirit” and about “belonging” and “sharing” and such stuff. In reality they just tried to make workers “feel good”, without paying them a decent pay. I was expected to do the work of two persons, never offered a pay increase or compensation for coming in on week ends in one job.

    Much talk, many promises, and only symbolic gestures were made, and little, irrelevant rituals or cheap “gifts” for a staff member’s birthday were offered.

    I see some of this going on today, and can only advise young workers, do not let your employer have you on, and take advantage of you, demand your rights, and certainly a fair pay, for a fair day’s work.

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