by Dougal McNeill
So this month saw the end of Planet Key. Bill English’s ascension gives us an opportunity to survey political possibilities for our movement. There is plenty for workers to feel angry about, and plenty about which the Government has nothing but the feeble excuses. From the housing situation in Auckland to the recent embarrassing back down in the face of union opposition to further education ‘reforms’, the last year has not gone all the government’s way. What has been missing, as usual, is any sort of concentrated opposition. There is the grounds to organise a credible opposition to National – just look at the inequality, poverty, and job insecurity that is the norm in New Zealand at the moment. But, shamefully, Labour have decided to pursue an anti-immigrant line. This is not helping them electorally, with September registering some of the worst poll results for Labour in a long time, and, more dangerously, it threatens to pull the whole 2017 election in a racist direction. This will be a disaster for working people. Instead of rejecting Labour’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, too many leaders in the trade union movement have accepted its logic.
Immigrants are not to blame for workers’ problems, and that we need to focus our political fire where it belongs – at the capitalist class and the National government.
A racist campaign
Labour insists it is not running a racist campaign. ‘Forget racism, we need an informed debate’, housing spokesperson Phil Twyford wrote in the Herald in July last year. But he was responding to criticism of Labour’s propaganda against house buyers with ‘Chinese sounding names’, a classic piece of race-baiting. Just as Labour backs away from its 2014 commitment to implement a Capital Gains Tax, and thus in some limited way pursue speculation in the housing market, it is now attempting to scapegoat foreigners – Asians in particular – as the source of Aucklanders’ problems. Phil Goff launched his mayoral campaign with an anti-immigrant pitch, calling for cuts in migration numbers in order to solve the housing crisis. Twyford continues to pitch ‘foreign speculators’ against ‘hard-working Kiwis’. In September Andrew Little was interviewed on Morning Report and claimed immigration had had ‘an impact’ on wages, and tried to pit out-of-work local labourers against recent arrivals.
The effect of all of this is to set up a division between ‘local’ workers and ‘foreigners’, whether they be Asian home-owners or Indian students with work visas. It deflects attention away from the real divisions in society – between bosses and workers, between the wealthy speculating in property and ordinary workers looking for a house – and encourages Pākehā and Māori workers to feel that immigrants are causing the problems in their lives. In that sense, the Labour campaign is working – 38% of respondents to a September Colmar Brunton poll wanted immigration cut, an 11% increase from when the question was asked in April. But, in political terms, none of this has brought any boost to Labour. And, of course, it has emboldened openly anti-immigrant politicians and race-baiters such as Winston Peters while doing nothing to build solidarity or confidence in struggle amongst workers.
Roots of the crisis
Most dangerously, Labour deflects real concerns in racist directions. As Martin Gregory argued for the ISO in March, “there is a genuine problem with speculators, ie buy-to-let housing landlords, but they are almost entirely New Zealand citizens. Labour does not target these real speculators. In fact it has softened its position on this front […] Labour has dropped this progressive policy in its drift to the right. The historic social democratic solution to housing problems was for the state to build thousands of homes for affordable rent. This straightforward policy is needed today, but it is not the modern Labour Party’s policy by a long chalk.”
Equally, it’s obvious that the latter-day anti-racism of the National Party is a sham. Steven Joyce has had a free pass to attack Labour because Labour is stoking bigotry – but National is no friend of foreign-born workers. Changes in migrations patterns recently do reflect real changes in the way New Zealand capitalism is operating. Capitalism in this country has always involved waves of migration, from the ‘assisted migrants’ of British workers who came in the post-war years to Pasefika migrants who staffed the meatworks and factories of the 1960s and 1970s. Today’s migration, especially into Auckland, is another part of this long story. And it is compounded by the slowdown in the Australian economy, with fewer New Zealand-born workers leaving (or staying in Australia) for the better opportunities once offered there. Net migration has increased significantly since 2012. The government’s ‘light touch’ regulation approach offers plenty of opportunities to scam recent migrants on student visas too, as recent exposes of dodgy practices in private tertiary education show. And a pool of under-the-table, under-employed and unorganised migrant workers with vulnerable visa status suits the bosses in myriad ways. How likely is someone reliant on their boss’s grace and favour for their visa status to kick up trouble to assert their work rights? As Unite Union’s Mike Treen argues, current policy “creates a pool of vulnerable, easily exploited labour – and that is the purpose.”
A left divided
Unfortunately, Mike doesn’t go on in that article (“The Truth About Migration” on The Daily Blog) to spell out how unionists should respond. Unite has taken some very important stands for migrant workers – recently protesting the deportation of scammed Indian students ripped off by a migration agent for instance – but, overall, the response of the union movement’s leadership has been patchy at best and complicit at worst.
In June FIRST Union’s Robert Reid told TVNZ that “the fact there are so many [migrants] in that work means that there are fewer opportunities for local people […] migration has the potential to drive down wages […] New Zealand workers need to start moving up the path.” Sue Bradford ended an otherwise thoughtful attack on John Key’s slander of workers as too lazy to take up seasonal work with a dangerous equivocation, equating workers’ movements with colonisation and then giving the mealy-mouthed observation that “In a country that is still grappling with how to deal with the results of the first wave of immigration, more accurately described as colonisation, we need to be very aware and thoughtful about how we approach further waves of immigration.”
Worse still, CTU Secretary Sam Huggard claims that: “Not only is high migration contributing to more people out of work, it is also pulling wages down.” This statement is factually and politically wrong. Huggard bases his claim on a report by the Reserve Bank. However, what that report actually says is quite different to what he makes out. As Martin Gregory points out: “The Reserve Bank report says that high immigration normally boosts the economy and reduces unemployment. However, the high immigration rate from 2013 through to 2015 has not boosted the economy as much as could be expected. The researchers explored why the unemployment rate has been higher than expected given high level of net immigration. They found that the current cycle of immigration was due to higher unemployment in Australia and that was affecting the unemployment rate in New Zealand. In other words, all the Reserve Bank is saying is that unemployed Kiwis returning from Australia are tending to dampen the normal correlation between immigration and job creation”. A recent Waikato University study of the housing market concludes immigration has little impact compared to questions of land, law, and development.
Huggard’s equation between immigration, unemployment and pay is baloney. If there has been one thing that has helped the New Zealand economy since the Global Financial Crisis it has been immigration. Blaming immigrants for unemployment and low pay is contemptible. This is Donald Trump talk. It recalls the politics of White Australia or nineteenth century anti-Irish racism in Britain. Throughout the history of capitalism reactionaries have raised the anti-immigration cry “they are taking our jobs, they are undermining our pay.”
A different path
The union leaders’ responses have been more contradictory than Labour’s – after all, the union bureaucracy relies for its position on being able to relate in some way to its membership, a significant chunk of whom are migrant workers. But, by accepting the lie that working-class migrants are in some way responsible for low wages, they undermine our ability – locally-born and ‘foreign’ – to fight back.
The socialist account starts from completely different assumptions. We start from a position of solidarity and internationalism – capital is able to travel the world freely, and so too must workers. Our challenge, as the needs of capital brings waves of migration in and out of the country over different periods, is to organise workers so they can resist the ways capital will try to keep us precarious, divided, insecure. That means insisting on equal rights and conditions for all workers, regardless of their legal migration status or ethnic background. It means seeing struggle with the employers and the state as at the heart of real trade unionism – they set the rules in their own system’s interest, so there’s no point in us appealing to their rules to protect us from ourselves. And an internationalist view looks to workers’ solidarity across borders rather than squabbling over ‘our’ local patch in the hope ‘our’ local capitalists will see us right. All of these will become urgent, pressing tactical questions in the years ahead. An internationalist view might seem unrealistic now and unlikely to win, but a nationalist one – calling on migration controls and pushing ‘locals first’ Little NZ chauvinism – is bound to bring us to defeat.
Migration is a fact of life. And it has brought generations’ worth of insight and wisdom to the workers’ movement, as ‘foreign’ workers share their experience with struggle overseas as they fight in this country. The last great outbreak of class struggle in the 1970s was led in many industries by migrant workers, both foreign – Pasifika and British – and local – Maori recently urbanised and ‘internal’ migrants from rural areas. Their traditions are the ones for us to rediscover. We should leave the ‘White NZ’ rhetoric in the dustbin of history where it belongs.