Treaty settlements, Maori workers, and the corporate model

The wealth of Maori business is estimated to be around $37 billion but with 60,000 Maori children living in poverty, Mana MP Hone Harawira has suggested to iwi leaders that “maybe it was time we turned our corporate bus around and went back to get all the kids”.

On the face of it, that’s just what the iwi leaders have done.

When Talley’s AFFCO freezing works locked out union workers earlier this year in a bid to smash the union, the Iwi Leaders Group came down on the side of the workers – most of whom are Maori – and forced the company back to the bargaining table.

What’s more, the Maori Council have stepped in to stop the asset sales. On that issue, Harawira put it “I suspect that there will be many Pakeha supporting this claim as well … as more and more of them come to realise that The Treaty is the only chance of keeping our power companies in the people’s hands”. While that may prove to be wishful thinking in the longer run, the role played by iwi leaders in the Affco dispute is hugely significant.

Capitalism with a friendly face?

The NZ Farmers Weekly wrote that: “a threat by iwi to take livestock to other meat companies for processing was the catalyst for getting Affco to settle its industrial dispute with the Meat Workers Union. Ngapuhi chairman Sonny Tau said his message to Affco director Andrew Talley was “either we sit down and work through this rationally or we flex our muscle and move stock away from the plants”.

Radio New Zealand reported Tau saying that, as chairman of one of Northland’s largest Maori land blocks, which supplies AFFCO with 45,000 head of stock a year, he is in a position to recommend withholding animals until Talley’s agree to sit down and talk.  One suggestion was that a rival meat processing plant might be set up, Waikato Tainui board chairman Tom Roa told TV3. “The suggestion there might be a rival must surely have played a part.”

Sonny Tau, a former union delegate, described Talley’s as “corporate thugs”: “They’ve shown that in the fishing industry. They have no consideration for their workers,” he said. About 80% of AFFCO plant workers are Maori and Tau said iwi were forced into action because they were spending thousands of dollars supporting families of workers either locked out or on strike.

“Our people were really hurting. There were about 5000 children hurting and we couldn’t let it carry on.”

Ngati Kahungungu and Tainui also weighed in during the lockout with practical help for the meatworkers, opening support centres. Tukuroirangi Morgan, Ngai Tahu’s Mark Solomon, Whanganui’s Ken Mair, Ngapuhi’s Sonny Tau and Ngati Kahungungu’s Ngahiwi Tomoana were in the front line of iwi leaders who were able to bring Talley’s AFFCO management and the union together to break the deadlock.

Morgan, most famous for his playboy style in the 1990s, when he spent thousands of dollars of money allocated by government to Maori television on clothes for himself, including $89 underpants, is an unlikely herald of the new order. But he claimed, with some justification, that:

“History has been made here and role of iwi in the modern industrial society has been forever changed.”

In many ways, iwi played a role that in the past was played by the social-democratic state, stepping in to mediate between classes and bring “compromise out of chaos”.

That they were able to do so is entirely due to the rise in Maori money, especially in the countryside. This represents a radical rupture from the past. New Zealand’s economy, unlike other advanced industrialised economies, has always been heavily skewed towards primary production. In other industrialised countries, the class contradiction between urban industrial workers and factory owners has been the main battleground in industrial relations. In New Zealand though, class struggle has been particularly intense in the countryside – between on the one hand farmers and their cooperatives, such as the meat processing factories, and the unions representing shearers, meat workers, truck drivers, railway workers, and waterfront workers. As such, industrial relations and race relations in New Zealand have always been closely tied together. For a start, the wealth of farmers is based historically on the relatively recent dispossession of Maori land. Then, to compound this, the rural labour essential for farmers to be able to process their livestock and get it to market has always been disproportionately Maori. It is no wonder that the bitterest industrial battles have ranged Pakeha farmers against disproportionately Maori trade unions.

The role of racism in encouraging Pakeha workers to identify with British New Zealand has been crucial to maintaining capitalism. In a profound way, the emergence of Maori iwi capitalists based in the countryside will change the subtext of politics in far-reaching ways.

Sealords: An example of rampant capitalism

The workers’ movement must acknowledge the progressive role played by the iwi leadership forum in the Talleys-Affco lockout – it was an important victory for our side in 2012. The question still remains: are iwi business interests fundamentally better than Pakeha companies, given that they both make profits from the labour of their workers?

The Sunday Star-Times reported on slave labour conditions on foreign charter vessels (FCVs) in New Zealand’s fishing industry in April last year. The report showed that tribal-owned businesses, which control about 37% of the industry, generate millions in profits by hiring the FCVs, which employ mainly Indonesian crew who are paid as little $260 a month and suffer frequent abuse. Under the Sealords deal, iwi were allocated fishing rights in recognition of the long-neglected guarantee under the Treaty. It was a major concession, which was worth around $750 million in 2004.

What’s more, fishing is an activity close to the heart of Maori culture and many Maori worked in the commercial fishing industry. But the Sealords deal did nothing to preserve that. Rather, Maori, Pakeha and Pacific workers have been made redundant, with thousands of jobs disappearing around the country. The fish caught by foreign-crewed vessels are usually processed in China then on sold around the world as “produce of New Zealand”. Maori-owned fishing boats super-exploit foreign labour and destroy the local fishing industry. One operator claimed Maori fishing would close down without the boats, which iwi sell quota to. Fairfax reported that about 2500 men from Third World countries work New Zealand waters in aging boats.

Ironically, the company slammed as “corporate thugs” by Ngapuhi’s Sonny Tau, Talley’s, employs New Zealand workers at normal wage rates.

Talley’s used the opportunity last year to attack Maori-owned foreign-crewed vessels. FCVs account for 90% of all seabird strikes, said Talley’s, and 70% of all deep water offences and 100% of ship desertions. That is why New Zealanders don’t work on the boats.

“[Nobody] should have to work in those conditions and certainly not in New Zealand.”

Talley’s told Stuff the company was puzzled why Maori leaders argued for FCVs when so many Maori were unemployed and hit out at the “economic” argument:

“If it is uneconomic to harvest a New Zealand resource under New Zealand labour conditions and costs then it is not a resource. Blood diamonds and Asian textile sweatshops use the same justification.”

The sorry Sealords saga is just one story of rampant capitalism triumphing over the collective values Maori struggle has sustained and fought for in the long campaigns for land rights and recognition. If this trend becomes dominant it will result in a super-rich tribal elite employing migrant labour either in the countryside or at sea while ordinary Maori are locked out of work or forced to emigrate or compete for starvation wages. The corporatisation of iwi is an example of the idea of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”. At heart it represents a loss of faith in the idea of sharing. In other words, if capitalism is hell-bent on commodification and privatisation, the only way to resist this process is to get in first – to claim as commodities, as “mine”, everything that can conceivably be traded and something’s that cannot (just in case).

Unlike private capital, iwi corporates are able to use the moral claim of indigeneity to provide an excuse for this commodification. Iwi are uniquely able to commodify areas of the world – plant life, chromosomes, birdsong, whakapapa – that private Pakeha capital would be mocked for. And once these things are turned into commodities they can be sold on the open market to any capitalist at all. Indeed, it is the defining feature of a commodity that it can be sold to anyone at all. Its economic value is “alienated” from the web of relationships that give it meaning.

It can be worse though. Once an iwi, or any other organisation or group, defines itself as playing the market game and positions itself to buy and sell, it is liable to be bought and sold itself. When you deal with the devil, you stake your soul.

Market Danger: Ngati Tama loses everything

The ugly reality of the capitalist road has already led to disaster for one iwi – Ngati Tama. This North Taranaki iwi was stripped of all of their land during the nineteenth century and were paid $14.5 million compensation in 2003 – less than one percent of the value of their land. Earlier this year the iwi lost almost $20 million, leaving it with only $1.5 million in savings.

Treaty negotiations minister Christopher Finlayson said iwi would never be bailed out for losses made after settlement:

“Any ongoing involvement of the Crown in iwi decision-making is a return to a very paternalistic period in our past. It also undermines the concept of full and final settlement by suggesting the Crown has an on-going role as guarantor.”

Dion Tuuta, of neighbouring iwi Ngati Mutunga, blamed high-risk investments for the collapse. In a sympathetic article “Risky path ends in disaster and shame for whanau”, he explains the decision to take those risks on the small sums of the settlement.

Ngati Mutunga, with similar numbers to Ngati Tama, received $14.9 million in compensation, which amounted to about $3600 per iwi member. $3600 in compensation for 150 years of colonisation and in return for the iwi accepting the theft of their land! What’s more, Tuuta writes:

“Ngati Mutunga felt firsthand the disdain many Taranaki people felt about our attempts to get back just a fraction of that which was taken.”

Ngati Mutunga now has a collective value of around $20 million, which though substantial, is not life-changing for iwi members:

“in fact, with an appropriate conservative investment focus, [the value] has probably just managed to stay ahead of inflation. With our conservative approach we earn less than $1m per annum. This must support our governance, our administration, our marae, and various cultural revitalisation activities, while still retaining some profit to reinvest and grow our people’s collective value. Looking ahead despite doing the right thing, the time when we can have real impact on the many wants and needs of our people remains a long way off.”

Ngati Tama, Tuuta says, decided to take a riskier strategy to be able to start making a difference for its members sooner.  Ngati Tama had shares in companies including the Eel Enhancement Company, Original Pipe Traders, Open Group and My Virtual Home, which is now in liquidation costing the tribe more than $12.5 million. Ngati Tama was also a sole shareholder in Ikatuna which had stakes in Septic Solutions Taranaki and Tu’Ere Fishing. Greg White was a director in four of the companies. Another failed investment was in a ship named the Shin Ji. Reports provided after an Official Information Act request by Tauranga human rights organisation Slave Free Seas show complaints of crew abuse and slave labour on the Shin Ji.

What kind of justice can the Treaty process claim to provide if ordinary members of Ngati Tama, through absolutely no fault of their own, remain in poverty, while their grievances with the crown have apparently been ‘settled’?

This scenario tragically represents a likely future for the corporate strategy. Even if all iwi had the best advice, and the safest investments they would not be safe from the wild fluctuations of the market. New Zealand has so far been sheltered from the worst of the global financial crisis of 2008 by Australia and China’s relative strength and the high price of food, but that crisis is far from over. Entire countries have been bankrupted, just as they were in the 1998 Asian financial crisis.

What is more, the failure of iwi corporates will be greeted with delight by racist elements in New Zealand. Racism is a world system that has resulted from the historic draining of blood and gold from Africa and the Americas to create industrial capitalism in Europe and North America. All advanced industrialised economies have benefited in some way from colonialism and continue to benefit from a world market whose terms of trade are heavily slanted against the Third World.

The corporate strategy is in effect an abandonment of solidarity with other colonised peoples for a competitive model, in the hope Maori will be able among the winners in a dog-eat-dog world, will be able to join their erstwhile masters at the table, instead of being stuck in the kitchen. The only non-European country to achieve this in the entire history of capitalism is Japan, which was able, because of its isolation from Europe, to mimic the technology and class structure quickly enough to avoid colonisation.

While biculturalism may be the state ideology of this small country, the world is still structured in an inescapably racist way. This ideology holds sway because it benefits the powerful and explains why things are the way they are and can never be anything different. If iwi capitalism fails, it would be greeted with relief by racists as further confirmation and justification of the radical injustice, poverty and war that is the capitalist world order.

Conclusions for activists

In the short term the workers’ movement has found allies among the Iwi Leadership forum. However, as we have shown, this body is committed to working within capitalism at the expense of any ‘traditional’ Maori values. For this reason it will be the strength and organisation of workers – and their willingness to fight – like the meat workers earlier this year that will open up the space to get support from other sections of society.

As revolutionary socialists, we hold the perspective that the colonial New Zealand state must be overthrown for there to be any lasting justice for Maori workers in Aotearoa (or any workers for that matter). The wealth of the world should not be owned and controlled by millionaire capitalists like the Talley family – instead it should be owned communally and controlled democratically by working people.

It will be through the process of a workers’ revolution that the lands stolen from Maori could be returned in full to iwi. For this reason we say that the Waitangi Tribunal has not gone far enough. Treaty settlements may be a step in the right direction but as they are on average only 1% of the value of stolen lands no one should expect local iwi or hapu to be able to lift their people out of poverty.