On May 31, a picket of 50 people organised by Solidarity Unity protested outside the offices of Mighty River Power, which supplies electricity to Mercury Energy, the company responsible for the death of an Auckland woman on May 29.
Folole Muliaga was suffering from heart and lung disease, and died two-and-a-half hours after her oxygen supply failed when the electricity supply to her home was cut off. Muliaga's family said she had pleaded with the contractor from Mercury Energy to "just give us a chance", but the contractor said he was just doing his job. The tragedy occurred after the family failed to pay a bill to the company of NZ$168.40 (A$150), although they had made payments of NZ$61 on May 1 and $45 on May 17.
The contractor entered the house and saw Muliaga with tubes running from an oxygen machine to her nose. According to her family, the contractor heard the emergency warning signal blare out as he cut the electricity, but her son said the man simply walked away.
Muliaga was a 44-year-old mother of four children, the youngest just seven years old. Her husband came home from work that day to find his wife dead. The Samoan family had migrated to New Zealand six years ago to provide a better education for the children. Muliaga had been a school teacher in Samoa for 15 years and when she arrived in New Zealand she gained further qualifications at Auckland University to allow her to continue teaching.
Muliaga's husband was working at Central Auckland Airport as a kitchen assistant, but had to take time off to look after his wife. At the time he was only earning $400 a week and the family had to pay $300 a week in rent. The tragedy emphasises the difficulty working families in New Zealand are experiencing today. Wages have been driven down, combined with the corporatisation of essential services, and electricity has become a commodity almost beyond the reach of many working families.
Muliaga had been working at the Congregational Christian Church childcare centre since January 2005, taking care of 40 children. After falling ill with breathing difficulties, she agreed to take three months off work and had been hospitalised for the last three weeks. She was sent home from Middlemore Hospital and expected to go back to work in the next few weeks.
Protest organiser Joe Carolan told the picket, "Yet again we see a so-called state-owned enterprise put profit before people in New Zealand. Mercury Energy should be renamed Murder Energy — they are corporate bully boys who prey on the weak, old and vulnerable of South Auckland, and are no better than the corrupt money lenders who plague our communities. They rely on the fact that people feel alone and isolated — that's why we want to give them a dose of people power they will never forget."
Electricity was a public utility until the 1980s, when under David Lange's Labor government it was corporatised and became a state-owned enterprise, expected to make a profit in competition with other electricity generators. Since the Helen Clark Labor government was returned 10 years ago, corporatisation has continued apace. Contractors for Mercury Energy carry out 150 disconnections a day.
Muliaga's family is stunned at the loss and her brother-in-law Brenden Sheehan told the picket: "This could happen to your sister, brother, grandmother or mother who falls behind in monthly payments to the electricity companies. People have been very kind and strangers have called in to the home and given food, drinks, donations and gifts." Two unions also joined in the picket — Unite and the Services and Food Workers Union. Protesters called for people to change to another provider and for the electricity companies to be renationalised under workers' control.