Poshing The Proletariat: As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, the question for New Zealand politicians is a simple one. Will workers’ expectations of fair treatment erode faster than their rising political determination to find someone to follow and something to blame? Significant sections of the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s working-classes have already answered this question by following along behind populist politicians – Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – who are only too happy to blame “illegal immigration” and/or “the free movement of peoples” for their troubles.
I NEVER BELIEVED it was possible, and, in a way, I’ve been proved right. Workers who have grown up in, or hearing about, the “old” New Zealand, would never consent willingly to accept the wages and conditions of “Third World” workers. Being paid a decent wage and treated fairly by your employer are expectations deeply ingrained in the New Zealand worker. Enormous pressure is required to secure the abandonment of such expectations. The consequences: economically, socially, politically; are potentially quite significant – and dangerous.
Expectations of fair treatment arrived here with the very first wave of European migrants. Samuel Parnell, a carpenter, insisted on an eight-hour day and, in colonial conditions of acute labour scarcity, he got it. That scarcity: New Zealand’s small population more-or-less guaranteeing a sellers’ market in labour power; underpinned this being “God’s own country” for the ordinary working person for nearly a century. From 1894 until 1991, or, more specifically, from the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act to the Employment Contracts Act, the collective strength of the New Zealand working-class was nurtured and protected by the New Zealand state.
During that century it became an accepted part of working-class life that wages would be sufficient to raise a family in, if not luxury, then relative comfort. State house construction kept rentals low. Cheap, state-provided and/or guaranteed loans put private home-ownership well within the reach of most working-class families. A world-class health and education system made it possible for the children of workers to move up into professional and managerial occupations. Those with entrepreneurial flair could set up their own businesses. The country’s comprehensive welfare system meant that personal misfortune or commercial misjudgement did not automatically result in financial misery.
New Zealand’s was as solid a social-democratic society as any to be found elsewhere in the world. It could not, however, withstand the sudden and enormous expansion in the quantity of labour available to global capitalism which accompanied the opening up of the People’s Republic of China and the demise of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire. Over the course of a single decade, what had been a sellers’ market for labour in the Western economies became a buyers’ market. Workers who valued themselves too highly saw their employers’ businesses relocated to places where the labour was cheaper – much cheaper – and trade union protections non-existent.
The economic and social consequences of globalisation in the West have been evident for some time. Not only here in New Zealand, but all across what used to be called the “First World”. Factory closures; mass lay-offs; depopulation; urban decay: these were just the start. In their wake came the social pathologies of homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence and the pernicious expansion of organised crime. What had been proud working-class communities simply imploded. Those who could escape, got out. Those who couldn’t, rotted from the inside out.
Not that there wasn’t still a lot of work to be done in the First World. Much to the frustration of employers, however, expectations of fair reward and treatment proved to be astonishingly resilient. Once strong and proud working-class towns and cities were an unconscionably long time dying. The answer to this irksome longevity of working-class pride was the same in New Zealand as elsewhere: import workers with lower expectations.
Maintaining a steady downward pressure on workers’ incomes by means of increased immigration was especially important in New Zealand where profits have for so long been underwritten by low wages. Indeed, this system, supported for nearly three decades by both Labour- and National-led governments, has produced industries in which the imposition of a “living wage” would render an alarming number of individual businesses uneconomic.
As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, the question for New Zealand politicians is a simple one. Will workers’ expectations of fair treatment erode faster than their rising political determination to find someone to follow and something to blame? Significant sections of the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s working-classes have already answered this question by following along behind populist politicians – Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – who are only too happy to blame “illegal immigration” and/or “the free movement of peoples” for their troubles.
For the present Coalition Government, raising the minimum wage was a very good start. Now it needs to cut immigration – to the bone.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 January 2020.