The blue zone: Kiwi workers' wage gap trap

by Virginia Larson / 23 April, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - wage gap

The gap between the haves and the have-littles seems to be widening.

Tom phoned North & South recently to have a chat about how blue-collar workers are faring in Christchurch as rebuild fever subsides.

Tom isn’t his real name, but he doesn’t want to lose his job, just because he’s “a bit stroppy… outspoken”. He then apologises for describing all his mates in construction, transport, roading and manual labour as “blue collar”. I doubt they’d mind, seeing as Tom’s stroppiness tends to be unleashed on their behalf.

He’s still smarting over Prime Minister Bill English’s claim that young New Zealanders can’t get jobs because they’re too zoned out on drugs to pass the workplace tests. He reminds me that only last year English, as finance minister, also summed up a bunch of Kiwi jobseekers as “pretty damned hopeless”.

Tom isn’t anti-business. In a letter he sent to Labour leader Andrew Little in January – and shared with me – he made it clear he understands that profit drives business and entrepreneurship, while delivering taxes needed for public works and social programmes.

He was busily self-employed himself for 30 years, working with property owners and developers, before the Canterbury earthquakes clobbered his largely commission-based livelihood. Effectively out of work in his mid-50s, he dusted off his HT licence and went truck driving.

What Tom sees from behind the wheel of a 20-tonne truck – and talking to fellow workers – disturbs him. He believes the balance of power has moved too far away from employees, at least in the big roading, construction and excavation industries he’s now familiar with.

“Companies are putting contracts in front of people that are close enough to the zero-hours deals that made the news last year over fast-food workers. Management will say, ‘We guarantee you 40 hours a week,’ with the kicker, ‘as long as there’s work available.’ At the same time, if you’re in a vital service like road repair, power supply or drainage, those same bosses will want you on call 24/7. And if you don’t respond in a timely manner to an after-hours call-out, you risk being black-marked for ‘inflexibility’.”

While the Canterbury rebuild was in full swing, Tom adds, punishingly long work days were more of a challenge than getting enough hours of employment. He says he’s still doing a lot of 50 to 60-hour weeks – with no overtime pay. Many Christchurch companies moved their headquarters to outlying centres after the quakes, leaving truckies like Tom driving 40 to 60 minutes from home before starting their long shifts on the road; and he often has a junior to train. 

He makes $23 an hour and, despite straight-A performance reviews, hasn’t had a pay rise in 20 months. Meanwhile, there’s been no such sluggishness in the housing market. The rental house Tom shares with a flatmate costs $550 a week. They spend about $250 a week on no-frills, no-treats groceries.

“Employers are keeping the lid on wages, abetted by a government that keeps the immigration spigot wide open,” he says.

“I know places around Christchurch where there are eight or more foreign workers piled into one small house; some are sleeping in cars. They’re never going to protest wages or conditions. And Kiwis I work with just aren’t earning enough to support a family.”

Tom doesn’t want the old, hard-line unions back, but he believes good-faith bargaining is under threat, and the union movement needs to regroup for these new and interesting times.

“A road worker with a shovel and limited education has no chance up against a company boss with an HR person who’s representing the company, not the worker,” he says.

Is Tom’s view of life at the sharp end of the shovel a fair one? I don’t know. I was on the fringes of a family business for a few years in the 90s and for the owners, it was seven-day work weeks and lots of grief for very little reward.

But for Tom and his workmates, it must seem the gap between the haves and the have-littles is widening.

“A friend of mine needs a good employment lawyer,” he says.

“But he earns 20 bucks an hour and the lawyer’s on $300. I’m not sure about the trickle-down theory. It seems to be all trickle-up.”         



This is published in the May 2017 issue of North & South.

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