Milk of human kindness curdles

By ROSEMARY McLEOD

Last updated 09:30 27/11/2008

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OPINION: I'm no fan of whiteware, that ugly necessity, but I do know where I won't be buying any, even if the milk curdles, the laundry rots, and the butter trickles down the wall.

That's because I don't buy the recent reported utterances of Australian retail king Gerry Harvey, of Harvey Norman. The most you can say for them is that they are at least honest.

Mr Harvey, who is worth A$1.8 billion in money terms, was asked about the good works he and his business do in the community. He replied that giving money to people who "are not putting anything back into the community" is like "helping a whole heap of no-hopers to survive for no good reason".

Little did Charles Darwin imagine where his theory of evolution would lead. He supplied men like Mr Harvey with the idea of survival of the fittest, a charming notion just so long as you're fit and healthy yourself.

The flow-on effect of that view is that you naturally think of yourself as fittest to live, and others who are less successful in the world as inferior, lazy and unworthy. It follows that they should quickly evolve themselves out of existence – unless, of course, they need whiteware and can be called that wonderful word, customers.

"So did that million you gave them help?" Mr Norman asked, rhetorically. "It helped to keep them alive, but did it help our society? No. Society might have been better off without them but we are supposed to look after the disadvantaged and so we do it."

Hence comes the expression, cold as charity. You could equally say, cold as whiteware.

What's interesting about the rich and superior Mr Harvey is his admission in the interview that he still fears going broke, despite his vast fortune.

You can see why. That would mean he, too, would possibly be a loser in life's lottery, and would expect himself to walk the plank.

Perhaps he'd have seasonal words of wisdom to impart to the three long-serving Porirua factory workers who were laid off this week with $1000 to come and go on, just before Christmas.

Kiwi Plastic Company, their former employer, makes supermarket bags. This week it laid off its three night shift workers, Aki Tuangalu, Tiaina Tavita and Nofo Wright.

It seems they are all Pacific Islanders, a group who were brought to this country in the first place to take on low-paid factory work and keep Porirua going – till the Todd factory closed.

It seemed like an excellent evolutionary idea to capitalists at the time, and also suited Islanders who wanted to better their chances in life. Sadly, many have since learned hard lessons.

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Mr Tuangalu, 40, had worked at the factory for 16 years, Mr Tavita, 44, for 12 years, and Mr Wright for eight. They have nine children between them. They were all union members, but the union had never managed to negotiate a redundancy deal for them. Mt Tuangalu said the union had also spent six years trying to get him a better deal than the minimum wage. If he'd had a redundancy deal, he'd have been owed $11,000.

Mr Tavita's wife, meanwhile, is on a waiting list for heart surgery, and they have three preschool children. "I don't know how I'm going to look after my kids," he said, "Since I first came to this country [in 1987] I've never been on a benefit."

These men earned just $550 a week before tax. Maybe they thought their company loyalty would count for something – such as job security.

Mr Harvey would naturally see the employer's point of view. Luxuries such as redundancy pay, we've all learned in recent times, are for superior people, whose families have costlier needs. I wonder what he makes of the welfare system, a kind of charity that all taxpayers support with a chunk of their wages.

I wonder, too, what he makes of Christmas. Increased sales, I suppose.

We're promised tougher times ahead, and these three men are just some of many in this situation. But when we're talking about putting back into society as a measure of worthiness, maybe we should remember intangibles that can't be measured with money. Love, duty, and loyalty would be some of them. Sadly, none of them are bankable.

- The Dominion Post

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