Do we need immigrant workers because New Zealand’s unskilled workers are lazy and on drugs?

Lazy and drug-addled New Zealand workers have been a widely discussed group over the last week. This is because their existence as a supposed major problem in the economy relates to two hot topics of the moment: the labour market and immigration. These two issues collided when Prime Minister John Key declared last week that we need to maintain immigration numbers coming into the country due to deficiencies in the local workforce.

Yesterday, the "immigration versus local workers" debate was the subject of a number of TVNZ items. The Q+A politics programme looked at the issue with a two-minute video exploring public opinion - watch: Are some young NZers too lazy to do the work migrants will do?, then an 11-minute Migrant workers debate, followed by an eight-minute Migrant workers - panel (which I took part in).

I explained how the National Government was strongly pushing this line because they have to justify why they are allowing higher numbers of immigrants at a time when unemployment is high. Their answer to this is to find something wrong with the current labour supply, thereby getting them off the hook of complaints about New Zealanders being left out of jobs done by immigrants.

Concern and debate about levels of immigration seems to be reaching a new peak. Therefore, it's not surprising to see TVNZ's latest poll - released last night - which shows that there's decreasing support for the high levels of current immigration numbers. TVNZ explain the poll result: "It finds 38 percent of those asked want fewer let in - that's up 11 percent on April. Forty-four percent think the current number is about right - compared with 51 percent six months ago. And 13 percent want more migrants let in - that's down from 18 percent" - see: More people worried about number of migrants entering NZ - poll.


Commenting on the TVNZ poll, Tracy Watkins says that this just shows how powerful the immigration debate is becoming, as concerns are not just being driven by an anti-foreigner or housing-related worry: "Even wages are now becoming part of the immigration narrative, as a growing number of horror stories emerge about the exploitation of new migrants, putting downward pressure on wages. Add it all up, and it takes immigration from the realm of a nationalist debate, into the realm of a hip pocket one" - see: Immigration tipping point - are we there yet? She also points out that, as with Brexit, "left unaddressed immigration concerns can reach a boiling point."

John Key's statement about New Zealand workers

The PM's controversial statement about the deficiency of low-skilled workers was made last week on RNZ - see: Immigrant workers needed due to NZers' work ethic, drug use - PM. In this item, a farmer elaborates on the problem getting fruit-picking labourers, and why he prefers foreigners: "We have 10 weeks of harvest. It is difficult for New Zealanders to come from out of town, to find accommodation just for a period of 10 weeks - and then there's the issue of if they bring families, the issue of schooling and finding schooling for them for that time, and making sure they don't fall through the cracks".

A number of unionists have responded to Key's statement, including CTU president Richard Wagstaff in the RNZ item above, who says "Demonising New Zealand workers and not giving them a shot at these jobs and creating reasonable jobs is the wrong way to go and I think it's a ... you know it's a political stunt."

First Union leader Robert Reid also explained why local workers wouldn't always take horticultural jobs: "Kiwis would happily fill the roles if the pay wasn't so bad - often illegally so" - see Newshub's Kiwis don't work because they're badly paid, not lazy - union. This also reports Reid's own view on the state of the labour market and immigration: "He says lax immigration rules are being used by the Government as "a form of labour trafficking" to keep wages down, and that many migrant workers don't get the travel and holiday pay they're entitled to because they're afraid of losing their jobs or being deported if they speak out."

Key's stance was sarcastically condemned by TVNZ's Dita de Boni: "Sign me up to hear what they've got to say about the work ethic of the New Zealand wage slave, for goodness sake! They're too high on drink and drugs to be any good at their jobs (that's why their health and safety stats are so bad too - nothing to do with their employers)" - see: High-flying merchant bankers have it right - NZ workers are drug addled.

An equally scathing response came from Sue Bradford, who is now the coordinator of the new leftwing think tank, Economic and Social Research Aotearoa (ESRA). She said: "John Key cynically used questions around our current high levels of immigration as an excuse to mount a shameful attack on New Zealand workers yesterday. In a remarkably uninformed comment, he took the prejudiced remarks of some employers at their word when he maligned employees' work ethics. The Prime Minister is not concerned with evidence. Nor does he display any balance in his remarks" - see: PM's attack on NZ workers 'shameful' - Bradford.

One young worker responded with a blog post, giving a different perspective on those at the bottom of the heap: "Most low waged workers who I know are some of the hardest working people you will ever meet. We undertake multiple jobs, which is hard, I promise you, and we have no choice other than to do this. There has been a major rise in the casualised and part-time economy, and full-time work is almost impossible to come by.

We are left stitching multiple jobs together to make up full-time work. We give up our nights, days and weekends to pour your pints, flip your burgers, to serve food we can't afford ourselves, and to clean your damn toilets. Yeah, you know all those jobs people don't want to do? We do them. We work twice as hard as CEOs and workers considered "highly skilled," for measly paychecks in high stress environments, and we endure the poverty shaming which comes with underappreciated low waged work. Being poor is to incur ridicule and constant put-downs from strangers, people we know, the mainstream media, and now, even our own political leaders" - see Chloe King's John Key, I am a low waged worker, and neither "lazy" nor "drug addled".

Other National Government statements on workers

But have the Prime Minister and his colleagues been unfairly reported on this issue? According to blogger Pete George it's not clear that John Key even said some of the words attributed to him, and "it appears to me that some journalists have cherry picked and embellished comments made and have created a week long story out of it" - see: Are lazy journalists drug addled?
However, it seems likely that the National Government has an orchestrated line about the deficiencies of local workers. The Minister of Immigration, Michael Woodhouse has made similar comments. And back in April, Bill English made some very strong statements about New Zealanders looking for jobs - especially "young males", saying they are "pretty damned hopeless" and "can't read and write properly" - see Jo Moir's Bill English describes some Kiwis looking for work as 'pretty damned hopeless'.

Standing up for those under attack, blogger Martyn Bradbury wrote an open letter to the finance minister: "Labourers in NZ on farms are expected to work 12 days on with 2 days off. They have to move to the middle of no where and are often price gouged by greedy farmers for rent meaning the minimum wage they do get is often far lower. The health and safety standards are appalling and we continue to see many die at work. These workers from WINZ are being forced to work in these places rather than chose them because they are being threatened with having their welfare cut off if they don't agree to work on farms" - see: Dear Bill English - if NZ Labourers are 'hopeless' who is to actually blame for that?

And columnist Jane Bowron thought English's statement amounted to a "cavalier marginalisation of the unemployed" and a sign of an administration that doesn't care about those at the bottom - see: 'Hopeless' comment a sign of a tired Government.

Debating the working visa scheme

It's the working visa scheme that is currently under scrutiny, as well as the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme, which provides fruit pickers etc to horticulturalists, often from Pacific Islands. According to Laura Walters, "A record 209,441 work visas were approved in the year to July, up nearly 25,000 on the previous year. And about 6500 visas have been issued to people who do labouring work" - see: Labour would review 'mismatched' immigration system.

Andrew Little is arguing that New Zealanders should be employed in many of the roles filled by the foreign workers, and says "The Labour Party would put a stop to work visas for overseas labourers when thousands in New Zealand are unemployed" - see RNZ's Make young NZ workers a priority - Labour.

Duncan Garner thinks that Labour has a fair point, and he's drawing attention to some of the roles he thinks could be filled by New Zealanders. For example, he cites the 600 "café/restaurant managers" who were brought in from offshore last year, as well as 683 "retail managers" - see: The Kiwi con: Why are we bringing in café and retail workers?

Garner says: "Some may call me racist or that fancy word for racism - xenophobic - but I'm merely shining the torch on the Government's claims that it's filling jobs where there are genuine skills shortages... Of course we need migrants. But really do we need 683 retail managers and 600 café managers? I reckon this immigration addiction is now the Government's central economic plan - it's a sugar hit that it can't stop sucking - and Kiwis in some areas are paying a high price for that. We need more truth and more honesty in this debate. The Government should just tell the truth - it's addicted to filling the country with as many as people as possible to keep things ticking over."

For a contrasting view, however, see last month's column by Duncan Garner: 'Hardworking Kiwis'? Not quite. In this, he says "No longer are we prepared to work all hours of the day and night for not much more than the minimum wage. People from other countries are flooding into the country, desperate for a fresh start in life - and they're willing to do the jobs that people born here turn their noses up at. The harder that work is, the less we want to know about it."

Furthermore: "We are bringing in low-skilled migrants to do minimum-wage jobs that we can't be bothered getting out of bed for. All this is driving down wages for everyone across the board. Wage growth is low, at just 1.6 per cent in the latest survey. That's because foreigners will work for low wages. Kiwis won't."

But do immigrants actually displace local workers, and therefore depress the level of wages? Not according to economist David Chaston, who's looked at the evidence, and argues that "Those who say more arrivals are causing pay rates to stagnate or even go backwards can't support that argument with the data" - see: We fact-check the claim that high migration levels are depressing average wage growth.

Treasury also produced a recent report that apparently shows "migrants helped the economy by providing complementary skills and filling skill gaps" - see Amanda Cropp's NZ industries would struggle without migrant labour.

Exploitation of migrant and local workers in New Zealand

There's been increased concern recently whether working conditions and arrangements are leading to increased exploitation. A report out last week from Catholic advocacy and aid agency Caritas Aotearoa, highlighted stories of migrant workers being exploited - see Mei Heron's Migrant workers paid $8/hr, exploited, report reveals. According to this news article, "The report found it wasn't uncommon for employers to refuse to pay workers for some time periods. The report detailed cases of employers taking advantage of new migrants, with limited employment options and limited understanding of employment rights, by overworking them. In some cases, employers demanded they work for free, the report by said."

Such stories are backed up by other evidence, including a recent editorial in The Press, which condemned the exploitation of post-earthquake immigrants to Christchurch - see: We need experienced migrant workers so why do we treat them so badly?

Statistics NZ also found that "170,000 workers do not have the basic legal requirement of a written employment agreement", and "the worst areas being among part-time and casual workers - where about 33 per cent were denied the right - and in the high-risk industries of forestry, fishing and farming where 20 per cent did not have a deal in writing" - see Vernon Small's Minister surprised after stats show 170,000 lack written work agreement.

There are problems when workers take their employers to the Employment Relations Authority, as it seems that even if they are awarded compensation, this doesn't necessarily mean they will actually receive it - see Samantha Gee's Unfairly treated workers still waiting for payouts, ERA powerless. And safety at work is still a major concern - especially in the forestry sector, where TVNZ reports that Forestry deaths on the rise despite changes to health and safety laws.

Finally, New Zealand's union movement victory over "zero hours" contracts seems to be of great interest to many in the UK, and recently there have been two interesting articles about the Unite union and its campaign here - see Aditya Chakrabortty's Yes, zero hours work can be banned: New Zealand has just done it, and Eleanor Ainge Roy's Can UK emulate New Zealand and ban zero-hours contracts? If you're looking for something a bit more humorous, see Jeremy Wells' two-minute parody of the hard working Mike Hosking: Hard Work.