Workers need a Michael Joseph Savage

Shot at the opening of the Labour government's first state house at 12 Fife Lane, Miramar, Wellington, in 1937, this is ...

Shot at the opening of the Labour government's first state house at 12 Fife Lane, Miramar, Wellington, in 1937, this is one of New Zealand's iconic photographs: Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage lifts a cumbersome dining table through a cheering throng toward the house's threshold. Can anyone see Bill English doing that?

OPINION: In the lead-up to a general election, we have come to expect the usual election bribes. These are promises of government assistance for all manner of causes, from wage increases and tax cuts to new roads and community infrastructure.

It is entirely forgivable to treat these promises with healthy skepticism and to ask the logical question: why wait until just before an election, why haven't you done this before now?

In the latest lolly scramble, the Government has announced a new initiative to target four regions with the highest rates of long-term youth unemployment: Northland, Eastern Bay of Plenty, Hawke's Bay and the East Coast with a $50 million package to get young people into work and training. They have been crying out for help for more than 30 years! It was not long ago that Prime Minister Bill English referred to unemployed young people as hopeless, lazy and druggies - and that the country needed migrant workers. The truth is we only need migrant workers to keep wages down and to maintain a pool of lowly paid people.

The Government has also recently announced a significant pay rise for about 55,000 low-paid, mainly female workers in the state-funded aged care sector. They have been underpaid for many years and only received their just due when it was ordered by the Court of Appeal.

Hamilton is to get a $272m Government loan to open up a tract of land across the Waikato River from Hamilton Gardens for housing. The cash will, among other things, provide for a bridge linking the subdivision to Hillcrest.

There have also been other vague promises to help those on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, which we expect at election time but have learned not to rely on.

The current healthy economy is totally dependent on a significant portion of the population living on or below the poverty line. Our economy is only positive for those with the ability to share in it. Too many do not.

People entering the work force prior to 1970 will remember a time of good wages and adequate income for most families. Agricultural production was high and growing, manufacturing industries were thriving and almost everyone had a job and was able to share in the nation's wealth. Today, many of our grandchildren have no knowledge or concept of such a society in spite of high agricultural production and the fact that many secondary industries are booming. It is simply unacceptable to have thousands of hungry children and hundreds of homeless families while those who have inherited the wealth of past generations dream up new ways to avoid taxes. Some pay less in taxes than the lowest-paid wage earners.

The reasons for this shameful situation is our low-wage, international market-driven economy which had its genesis in the adoption of neo-liberalism and the destruction of effective trade unions in 1991.

Wages fell almost immediately and continue to fall in real terms today. As a consequence, we now have young people working for no wages for a week or more simply to have a chance for a paid job at the end of the trial. Others can be sacked without reason after 90 days and basic workplace conditions, gained over generations of hard-fought negotiations, are melting away.

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The 40-hour working week is but a memory. While the global marketplace of the new-age economy is lucrative for some, it is completely dependent on a large low-paid workforce. We do not, however, have a global workforce and our wage earners must now compete with some of the most exploited labourers of Third World nations. Migrant workers from these countries are equally exploited here.

These jobs still need to be done, but there is no justification for such low wages other than greed. In the not-too-distant past, bloody revolutions were born of such callous abuse of a nation's people.

New Zealanders don't want food parcels, charity or government-funded benefits. They are simply links in the chains of their bondage. They want the dignity of properly paid employment. The current system only ensures that gap between rich and poor becomes wider. Blaming the poor for their poverty, the ignorant for their poor education and the elderly for their illnesses are about the only shouted messages that can now be heard across the divide.

No party in the upcoming general election has yet had the courage to declare an end to neo-liberalism. We need another Michael Joseph Savage, but he is yet to be found.

 - Stuff


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