Aotearoa: Unite union pushes for fair pay for hospitality workers

July 9, 2023
Unite unionists campaigning for fair pay. Photo: Unite Union/Facebook
Unite unionists campaigning for fair pay. Inset: Mike Treen speaking at Ecosocialism 2023. Photo: Unite Union/Facebook

Socialist activist Mike Treen, a founder of the Aotearoa/New Zealand (NZ) Unite Union, spoke to Jackie Kriz about the issues facing unions and the left. Treen was a guest at Ecosocialism 2023.

Can you tell me about Unite and the struggles it is involved in?

Unite has 5000 members and is a relatively small union covering low-paid workers in fast food, cinema, hotel, casino and call centres.

The union was formed in 2003 by Matt McCarten and myself. McCarten was critical to the union’s success. Before we began organising these workers, they did not get meal breaks and they were mostly on zero contract hours. We have managed to make major improvements in members’ wages and conditions.

Unite is currently in the middle of striving to achieve a Fair Pay Agreement for workers in the hospitality sector. This has opened the door to expand our membership. The sector has 150,000 workers.

Our aim is to join and organise as many workers as possible to Unite. Employers are obliged to provide Unite with workers’ contact details — a good starting point for us.

The new agreement must improve conditions and pay for workers by law (similar to the Australian Better Off Overall Test). We can’t strike, but the courts can make a ruling on areas where we disagree about matters that are covered by the agreement. This was conditional on Labour getting re-elected in October.

Aotearoa has been hit hard by the cost of living crisis and the price of necessities is blowing out. How are the people faring? Is the government doing enough?

The rising cost of living is seen most dramatically in housing.  There is a massive increase in the cost of a house to the percentage of a person’s income and there are huge waiting lists for social and state housing.

State housing stock has increased modestly under Labour over the past few years, at a rate of approximately 3000 a year, but waiting lists have gone from 5000 to 25,000 which have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although food prices have gone up at double digit rates, there has been some success in keeping wages above inflation in some areas. Public servants, teachers and nurses have gained through strike action.

Unite members have been protected in that the minimum wage has been rising above the rate of inflation and rising as a percentage of the average wage. Benefits have also included things like weekly winter energy payments.

What was Aotearoa's response to AUKUS?

It was greeted with some shock, because further militarisation of the region is likely.

Initially we thought Aotearoa wouldn’t be part of this, because of the nuclear-free ships position. Aotearoa has also signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

No party is promoting an anti-China agenda. Quite the opposite. A third of NZ’s trade goes to China, it was the first country to sign a free trade agreement with China and it sponsored its admission to the World Trade Organisation.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins recently visited China. He said the government didn’t have an opinion on the character of the government. Less hostility is welcome.

However, defence minister Andrew Little has now announced that Aotearoa will participate in AUKUS’ intelligence and technology sharing. Disappointingly, it is building off the Five Eyes arrangement. Unite has yet to take a position. The public discussion has only just started.

The Australian Labor Party talks a lot about plans for a climate transition, but it passed a law that relies on trading carbon offset credits and allows for new coal and gas projects. Greens MPs say dealing with Labor is like dealing with a coal or gas corporation. What is the situation there?

Aotearoa is marginally better, maybe.

The Green Party is in a coalition with Labour, but it doesn’t need the Greens to get votes through. The coalition’s goal in environmental policy is marginal. Agriculture, the major emitter is excluded.

There’s a lot of disappointment among Greens members about this. Labour isn’t expected to come out with a parliamentary majority at the next election.

On environment and social justice — welfare, housing, even tax policy — the Greens will try to get more. But they will be relying on a broken emissions trading scheme, even if they force in agriculture. That’s still relying on the market for solutions.

British leftist Phil Hearse linked uprisings and wars to food and water scarcity, causing climate refugees. He said climate change is worsening authoritarianism and “fortress style” policies in the Global North. Do you think this is the case?

I’d like to puncture the image of Aotearoa as a refugee-friendly country. It offered to take refugees detained by Australia offshore in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

But its regular program is significantly less than Australia’s — just 1500 after a recent rise. That’s a very modest number compared with the quarter of a million temporary visas that were issued each year pre-COVID-19, and again now. A quarter of a million of those who had stayed in Aotearoa during COVID-19 now have, after a union campaign, permanent visas.

Those temporary workers were being grossly exploited. That’s why Unite campaigned for them to get permanent visas.

Even though it’s almost impossible to get to Aotearoa by boat, which is why humans didn’t arrive there until 1000 years ago, the government has passed a law allowing those who arrive by ship to be detained.

What are your initial thoughts on the idea of “degrowth communism” and its impact on the Global South?

My initial reaction to the term “degrowth” is that it is unhelpful in terms of making clear what needs to be achieved when it's clear we want massive growth in some areas and we need to eliminate some areas of production.

For instance, we need to increase housing and social goods but not the military. We need to make sure that “degrowth” does not disadvantage the Global South. The need to de-intensify the earth’s finite resources is obvious.

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