Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Sin(s) of Cheapness

It’s seldom that I agree with Matt Mcarten, but I did last night as I watched the Starbucks strike and picket in Auckland.

Starbuck workers, who are represented by the Unite Union, which Mr Macarten ‘leads’ undertook the first strike by Starbuck workers ever, in relation to their conditions of work and their princely rates of pay (mostly $10 per hour) or as one Starbuck worker said the price of approximately 2 cups of Starbuck coffee.

Mcarten made the point that despite Labour’s oft repeated claims that it was protecting workers rights, this was not the case. He noted that the Government was ‘considering’ raising the minimum wage at some point during the next parliamentary term, but was otherwise non committal over the issue. It’s interesting to note that movement in the past in this area has been the result of parties other than Labour making it an issue, the Alliance and the Greens in 1999 and 2002 and (ironically) New Zealand First and the Greens in the recent election.

The lack of protection for low paid and causal workers made me think about the lack of protection that similar workers have had in the past and I was reminded of the low paid and ‘causalised’ working conditions in the late 19th Century. The pitiful wages, long hours and poor conditions led to a public outcry and caused a Dunedin Presbyterian Minister, Rev. Rutherford Wadell to deliver a famous sermon entitled ‘The Sin of Cheapness’ to his parishioners in his church on Walker Street, now Carroll Street, in Dunedin.

When Rutherford Wadell gave his sermon in 1887, he was referring to the ‘sweating’ conditions and low wages of those who worked in the various clothing factories in Dunedin and elsewhere in New Zealand’s 19th Century Victorian society.

Wadell’s comments as well as the comments and reports of others about the conditions of work in Victorian New Zealand led directly to a Commission to investigate these allegations. That Commission concluded that ‘sweating’ was occurring and detailed the detrimental effect such conditions were having on workers (mostly, women and children). As a result, legislation was introduced to ensure that conditions were improved. Further reforms in this area were enacted with the election of the Liberal Government in 1890.

Despite Labour’s 'cooing' about higher wages and increasing protection for workers, nothing much has changed as people employed in casualised, low paying jobs are aware. Under existing Employment legislation, causal workers are not provided with much employment protection, and as a result their wages and conditions remain pitiful. This is exactly the point that Rutherford Wadell was making in 1887. New Zealand’s minimum wage is also well below that of Australia’s, a point that has been made repeatedly by Mr Macarten and later, by John Campbell on ‘Campbell Live’.

If Labour was as bold as its political predecessors, it would move to ensure that workers like those at Starbuck got higher wages and improved conditions by immediately raising the minimum wage and getting rid of the discrimination in legislation that casual workers face

Sadly, I don’t think Labour is that bold - Go the Union!


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