2019 05 – Letter from New Zealand

A Letter from Our New Zealand Correspondent

Feargus O’Raghallaigh

 A living wage? (etc)

Life is good, life is good.

There is an idea once in the ebb but now again, in full flood and high. This is so even in the wake of the GFC. It is first, that business (profit-pursuing capitalism) knows best and is best for society at large. Second, even where for whatever reason business is excluded (e.g. public health provision, local government) the best model of provision is one that mimics the ‘business’ model. So, public treasuries imagine themselves as investors or investment funds or worse, ‘managers’ and public agencies see themselves as business units pursuing a rate of return (even – as in New Zealand – targeted by the treasury-as-investor). Another, key, element in this capitalist-imposed imagining of the world is of course workers, employees having to accept, accordingly, a ‘labour market’; the individualisation of such ‘market’; and the constriction of any form of collective action – effective unionisation in other words; and acceptance of wage slavery.


Life is good.

Two stories from recent weeks and current from New Zealand: one from the public sector (health provision), the other from everyday factory life (‘production’).



First, doctors or rather ‘resident doctors’ (‘junior doctors’ in British and Irish parlance). Young doctors, graduated and in hospital training (perhaps specialising or simply preparing for GP life) are the backbone of medical systems everywhere. For all kinds of reasons also (and whether or not it makes sense) hospital systems have weight and priority in health-provision. Second, ‘resident’ or ‘junior’ doctors (hereafter ‘residents’ or ‘resident doctors’) for various reasons accept and endure abuse by their employers including the state as employer, with employers everywhere insisting on being abusive as a matter of culture.

Residents are still learning, training (and so accept ‘teacher’ which is to say employer abuse); are committed to their Socratic oath and the vocational idea of service; and unless grossly idiotic have a very good life prospect at the end of the tunnel. Essential to all of this – the mitigation of the worst of resident life and the achievement of the good life – is strong unionism (in NZ through the Resident Doctors Association or RDA) and a commitment to collective action, negotiating collective agreements and the reserve of the strike weapon through the RDA.

Now introduce as NZ has done, a full-fledged ‘business’ model to health provision. Like Ireland and unlike the UK the public health delivery system is regionally organised, in NZ a system of District Health Boards (DHBs) including hospitals (unlike Ireland, all state facilities). Unlike Ireland and the UK the DHBs are critically, separate, semi-state corporate entities, established according to the business model and must aim to balance their books and if deficits emerge must eliminate them (i.e. cut back). This of course doesn’t work: health provision is subject to Baumol’s Law. Nonetheless stupid public officials (Ministers and civil servants) pursue the ‘business’ model and never deviate – to the extent of forever confronting nurses, residents and all of the other grades and health service employees in their wage demands, stupidly seeking ‘efficiency’ and ‘value for money’ and so on – even to the point of denying living wages and insisting on a public sector proxi-equivalent of zero hour contracts, the elimination of OT and so on and on and on.

DHBs in NZ have finally acceeded to sustained over years treasury pressures to be ‘business-like’ and ‘responsible’. This is to say they are pursuing demolition of collective agreements with workers in pursuit of the mirage of not being ‘loss-making’ or ‘deficit-incurring’ or ‘wasteful’ (and therefore ‘burdensome on the taxpayer’) undertakings (which is to say ‘businesses’).

Resident doctors are numerous, critical to the system (essential), relatively well-paid but also with incomes and conditions secured by countervailing power, unionisation. They and their union power are in accounting terms, key costs, obstructions in the path to being business-like public businesses. Accounting balance calls so, break the union and sweat the residents even more and in pursuit break the RDA by encouraging an anti-union union. Central to the current spat is the end-date of a collective agreement with the RDA (just passed) and the pursuit by the civil servants of a key objective – to slip out of the collective agreement regime entirely into what every big private employer does or pursues under law in NZ: individual contracts, which is to say employee oppression. A big objective of the civil servants is to assign hours/rostering in hospitals to ‘managers’ thus uncapping hours and roster rules as well as binning unsocial hours premiums. Bingo, budget cuts! Balanced books! Where is uncle Bob!


Life is good.

For DHB ‘business’ ‘managers’ (civil servants) however, currently it is not going well. RDA members are a pissed-off shower of bolshies (however bright their personal longer-term futures as consultants). This week they are again on strike and also they have been successful in forcing their DHB employers into a process known as ‘facilitation’ – think ACAS (UK) and Labour Court (Ireland) and so on. Not going well for the civil servant book-keeper entrepreneurs. We’ll see how it all unfolds or unravels.


Factory life

Maori have, they are told, a life on the capitalist-model and planet. Pakeha theft, exploitation, discrimination and worse have been acknowledged and a process of restitution put in place through the Waitangi Tribunal and financial and resource settlements made on claimant tribes. We now have Maori capitalism. Life is good, life is good.

One big settlement was to give Maori (the tribes) ownership in effect of the fisheries of the oceans (as in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ). I suspect neither side to the settlement knew at all what was being given and gifted (settled). Then came the Japanese – with capital, fleets, demand (for fish) and a business model, partnership with the tribes for the EEZ. Life looked good, life looked good.

Today the biggest beasts in the ocean fishing business in the EEZ in NZ are Maori corporations in cahoots with Japanese capital and resources with fleets crewed by Asian slave labour. The high profile front-end of this system is Sealord, the ship in which sail the Maori-tribal and Japanese hopes for and pursuit of global and local profit. It is all huge and growing. Life is good, life is good.

Enter ‘da wurkurz’ at Ruakaka. In the township of Ruakaka in Northland (the Maori heartland) there is an employer, Moana New Zealand (‘Moana’). The word ‘moana’ is Maori (or te reo) for ‘sea’ and Moana, the company, is one front end of the ocean fishing settlement. It is part of the Sealord empire-system. At Ruakaka they process blue abalone – and da wurkurz (mostly Maori I suspect) are unionised: and looking for and now striking for the Living Wage, the Maori chiefs at Moana having said ‘no’ (bugger off in other words); can’t afford; unable to pay (while cranking out the dividend).

There is a formula in all of this. First, employers (including the state) embrace the fictions of the existence of business, enterprise, and a labour market. Then, statutorily comforted as necessary, they individualise and contractualise labour relations in the name of profit, efficiency, value for money, shareholder return, whatever. Life is good, life is good.

Just like the resident doctors, the workers at Ruakaka find themselves confronted by exploitative employers acting they claim in the name of markets and competition and efficiency and profits and consumers and the taxpayer (in whatever combination you choose or combine).


Life is good. Life is good.