Failure In Health & Safety Shows Lack Of Respect For Workers

- Joe Fleetwood

National Secretary, Maritime Union of New Zealand

It is not surprising that a large number of skilled workers are leaving New Zealand to Australia. Apart from the money, there's the question of respect, and safety. In New Zealand today, workers are not respected. In many working class occupations, workers are treated as disposable commodities. In many industries, especially the primary industries we rely on, not only do workers put up with poor pay, casual jobs and sub standard conditions, but their lives are put at risk daily. On 30 April 2013 the Health and Safety Taskforce* released an extensive report which laid out in very stark terms the way in which New Zealand workers have been let down.

It also provided a substantial package of recommendations to fix the problems. This includes creating a new Crown agency dedicated to health and safety, and pulling New Zealand’s workplace health and safety legislation in line with international best practice. The report also acknowledged the role of workers and unions in creating safe workplaces. This shows a big shift in the official mindset on health and safety and is a promising development. The taskforce should be congratulated for the serious work they have done.

Deregulation Ideology Led To Crime Of Pike River

However it’s also worth looking back to see how we got to this point, and learn from history. One of the main causes of the failure to provide safe workplaces is the “deregulation” ideology that has taken hold in New Zealand over the last 20 to 30 years. The terrible outcome of that failed ideology when applied to industry and safety was the 2010 Pike River disaster, which killed 29 men (who remain entombed in the sealed off West Coast mine). Over a considerable period, the Government has abdicated its responsibility to the many in order to benefit the few. The free market was left to its own devices.

There is a famous photo from a century ago of a group of New Zealand workers in the 1913 General Strike carrying a banner saying: "If blood be the price of your accursed wealth, then Good God we have bought it fair". Incredibly it seems that sentiment is still relevant, in 21st Century New Zealand. The recent Pike River Inquiry and its findings of systemic failure was a reminder of the needless deaths and shattered families and communities. The culture and mentality that led to Pike River is still ingrained elsewhere. The forestry industry is a national disgrace.

It seems like every time you open the newspaper, another death on the job. The maritime industry has suffered its share of deaths and injuries on the waterfront and aboard vessels in recent years. New Zealand maritime workers work alongside overseas crews and flag of convenience vessels, so we have a first hand understanding of how bad things can get. Large parts of the fishing industry have been run off the backs of exploited overseas labour aboard foreign charter vessels – the ships of shame. The litany of deaths, injuries, criminal activity and exploitation brought New Zealand under the international spotlight, which sadly may have been the main motivation for some action. Once again it took a terrible human cost before something was done. Taejin Fisheries won the 2013 Roger Award for the Worst Transnational Corporation Operating in Aotearoa/New Zealand; the Government and United Fisheries shared the Accomplice Award. The Judges’ Report can be read at Ed.

Human life is becoming cheap in New Zealand. Or, more specifically, working class human life is becoming cheap. Put together, it's a devastating indictment of where we are headed as a nation. In a similar way, unemployment has gone off the radar. It is now treated as some kind of natural phenomena, like bad weather, as opposed to a human creation. Because unemployment largely hurts the young, the poor and those without a political voice, it has been normalised, and now blamed on the victims.

A generation or so ago, even the National Party understood that mass unemployment was a corrosive social cancer that could not be allowed to return. But return it has, and has taken hold, causing immeasurable damage. For New Zealanders in work, many subsist on poor wages, even if they carry out essential work – work that is not glamorous, but nonetheless important to keep society ticking along. These jobs have to be done by someone. Surely the least we can do is ensure those who do them are paid a living wage.

The Answer Is A Confident & Organised Working Class

But even though that many working New Zealanders cannot maintain a decent standard of living for their families, nothing is done. Is it any surprise that this is where we are? Not really. The daily struggles facing working New Zealanders are remote from the political and business Establishment. The income and way of life of the upper strata means they have little common ground with their fellow citizens. So what's the answer? Relying on the goodwill of employers or the initiative of politicians is not going to do the trick.

For every business prepared to make an effort, there will be others who take advantage at every opportunity. If you make more money out of cutting corners, then corners will be cut, in a system that puts the mighty dollar first. The lowest common denominator is rewarded in this race to the bottom. So we need much stronger laws to protect workers health and safety, and their conditions of work, at the very least, and rigorous and effective enforcement. We need to stop treating workers as a cost to be minimised, and treat them as the foundation of our common wealth and success of our society. But workers are going to have to do it for themselves. In the end, our best chance is to unionise and fight for our rights on the job. A confident and organised working class would transform New Zealand for the better by advocating for ongoing improvements in our way of living and working. Only then we will make progress and reverse the shameful record of a generation of policies which have put the welfare and wellbeing of the worker last.

*I asked Victor Billot of the Maritime Union for more detail on the Health and Safety Taskforce. Ed. “The Website with full information, including downloadable reports, is at The Taskforce was Government-appointed and the Council of Trade Unions was represented by Bill Rosenberg. It came back with a surprisingly punchy report. Following is a short article that I wrote about it for The Maritimes (the Maritime Union’s publication). Note that there is a lot of other stuff going on in this area, with a new health & safety agency coming on line and demands for a forestry inquiry”.


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