Migrant worker rights

Maybe if Gareth Morgan's declaration of war on the hapless household moggy had come a lot earlier, we wouldn't have had the proverbial among the pigeons caused by another technocrat economist, Don Brash, with his call to turn a blind eye towards illegal immigrant workers.

Exactly what caused Dr Brash, who left public office long ago, to speak out on this topic I do not know. He even made his comments on Facebook before they were picked up by the media.

How modern.

But he is a serious economist and has occupied public roles at the highest levels, including being a former leader of the National Party, so he will know that his criticisms have a high likelihood of being covered widely.

Of immigrant labour, especially migrant workers involved in the Christchurch rebuild, Don Brash said he "couldn't give a damn about so-called illegal workers helping to rebuild Christchurch".

He said, "If I had somebody helping to rebuild my home . . . I wouldn't care what their immigration status was."

It's as if he learned nothing from the radical deregulation we've experimented with in the past and that he has always championed.

There is an echo in his comments of the sorts of sentiments that were common in the 1980s.

"Damn standards for building materials and techniques when we just need bigger houses faster."

And so the leaky homes fiasco was born.

"Damn having strict requirements on banks and tight regulations for finance companies.

"People know what they can afford to borrow and can decide the risk they want to take with their money."

And so began the totally avoidable debt- fuelled housing boom and shonky finance companies riding the same debt-fuelled housing market with other people's money.

Here's why I think that what happens with migrant workers matters.

Firstly, let me say we are a nation of migrant workers.

For most of us, our forebears came here from other places to work and to get a better life. We are a richer country for that.

Our biggest sources of immigration today remain English-speaking countries: the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa.

Behind the history of migration to this country is the urge to seek a better life.

Our European history is of a country aspiring to the best standards of civilised life for all who came here (unfortunately, usually at the expense of treating those who were already here pretty shabbily), that with an honest day's work we can make a decent living and do better than just hovering above the bread line.

Having minimum civilised standards, whether by government regulation or, when it came to employment issues, through industrial awards and agreements, used to be a lot more important to us as a nation than it is today.

The catch-cry used to be "a fair day's pay for a fair day's work".

Not so much any more.

The dream we hold out for new arrivals today was summed up by a Federated Farmers representative, who was recently commenting on the growth of migrant labour from poorer countries being employed on New Zealand farms.

"It's better for them to be earning $14 an hour than $14 a day back home," this farming leader said.

That's it, brother. The best we can do for you is minimum wage. Never mind the cost of living.

This is what we're saying to legal migrant workers.

I am naturally suspicious of those, like Don Brash, who cheer on illegal migrants. What else are they cheering on?

Wages below the minimum wage? Avoiding their responsibility to the rest of the community when they don't pay tax? Poor health and safety standards?

You don't think it would happen here? It already has.

The old Department of Labour has dealt with many cases of overseas nationals coming here legally then bringing many of their fellow citizens over, usually on tourist visas, and putting them to work in sweat shops. Their passports are taken off them, they have no rights and they are paid less than the minimum wage, if they are paid at all.

Our priority must be to get citizens already living here sorted. We have one of the highest youth unemployment rates we've ever had. Let's get our young unemployed skilled and working.

The benefit to New Zealand long term is much greater than sneaking in overseas workers of unknown skill level just so we can get away with paying poverty wages that aren't taxed.

We've known the Christchurch rebuild was going to happen for two years. We've also known for a long time that there is a shortage of housing in this country.

Our failure to do anything meaningful to accelerate the number of qualified locals into the building industry before now shouldn't be an excuse to import cheap labour for a quick and dirty fix.

It cheapens us all.

Taranaki Daily News