The article below appeared in one of the print predecessors to this blog.  It is transcribed from revolution #21, August-October 2003.

by Will Shannon

Economically, Pacific peoples have always faced considerable hardship in New Zealand.  Used as a source of cheap labour during the post-war boom they initially filled the hardest jobs for little reward.  These jobs were then often the first to go once the economy began to contract in the late 1960s.

This process intensified with the economic restructuring carried out by Labour in the late 1980s, which cut a swathe through the freezing works, car plants and other areas of industry with high concentrations of Pacific workers.  This meant that Pacific Islanders came to be over-represented among not only low-income earners in New Zealand, but the unemployed as well.

According to a newly-released report, however, since the early 1990s when the picture was undeniably disturbing, “there have been considerable improvements in the economic position of Pacific peoples” in New Zealand.  The report, entitled Pacific Progress, based largely on the 2001 census, claims, “overall, levels of education have improved, unemployment has fallen and there has been a move away from the traditional areas of blue-collar employment into more skilled white-collar jobs.”

Is everything quite this rosy for Pacific Islanders in New Zealand?

Improvements for whom?

While there has been a shift away from blue-collar employment, Pacific males especially have largely replaced the old manual jobs with similarly low-paying white-collar jobs in the service and sales sector as clerks.  This means that Pacific Islanders are still, as the report itself notes, “proportionately more likely to be in the lower-income bands and less likely to be in the higher income bands than the national population even after differences in age structure are controlled for.

“Sixty-one percent of Pacific peoples aged 15 years and over had an annual income of $NZ20,000 or less in the year to 3 March 2001.  In comparison, just over half the national population (54%) fell into this income band.  Meanwhile, just 7% of Pacific peoples received an annual income of over $NZ40,000 during this time period compared with 18% of people in the national population.”

This does, admittedly, constitute a slight improvement with some, mostly female, Pacific Islanders having moved into a small band of higher-paying jobs in the white-collar sector as technicians, professionals, associate professionals and, to a much lesser extent, administrators and managers.  This trend, though, shows nothing other than the birth of a small Pacific Island middle class.  This cannot be used to illustrate considerable improvements in the economic position of Pacific peoples in New Zealand when the majority are still forced to live on a pittance just like so many other blue-collar workers and low-paid white-collar workers, not to mention beneficiaries.

The door has opened for a few Pacific Islanders to gain a decent education and prosper economically.  It would, however, be foolish to see this as a success like the Pacific Progress report would want us to.

Unemployment

After the economic restructuring of the late 1980s unemployment among Pacific peoples rose steeply, peaking at 28.8% in 1992.  Given this massive level of Pacific unemployment, some kind of improvement was inevitable.  Since that time it has fallen to 11.2%.

Although this appears to represent a substantial fall, the criteria for defining a person as unemployed has been changed many times since, to downplay real jobless figures.  Additionally, the rate remains nearly twice as high as the total unemployment rate of 5.7% and nearly twice as high as the rate for Pacific peoples in New Zealand in 1987, prior to the effects of the fourth Labour government’s economic restructuring really kicking in.

This is, then, scarcely, a long-term “success”, especially considering that most of those who have entered or re-entered the workforce since have largely taken up low-paying jobs anyway.  They have simply joined the majority of Pacific Islanders already on a low income.

Behind the facade

All of this means that, as even the Pacific Progress report is forced to admit, albeit in a somewhat dismissive manner, “there are still economic disparities between Pacific peoples and others”.  The simple fact is that Pacific Islanders are still over-represented in the poorest sections of NZ society.

This makes the issue of Pacific poverty a very real one that the mere elevation of a few cannot hide.  Health statistics provided by the report certainly illustrate this.  As it states, “while there have been improvements in mortality and life expectancy among Pacific people, their health status remains relatively poor by comparison with the total population”.  This is the result of Pacific people suffering from high rates of clearly identifiable health problems, such as meningococcal disease, measles, rheumatic fever, rheumatic heart disease, diabetes and tuberculosis.

These are typical poverty-induced illnesses.  The relatively poor economic position of Pacific Islanders creates factors such as diet, lifestyle, exposure to risk factors and less frequent use of health services that ensure these problems continue.

Working class unity

Pacific poverty remains at a disturbing level and certainly needs to be addressed.  The mistake must not be made, though, to seek an individual solution.  As this report has shown, the advancement of a few Pacific Islanders economically has not helped the majority who remain in the poorest sections of the working class.

Moreover, even if capitalism could raise a section of the Pacific Island population in NZ to parity with the pakeha middle and upper classes, Pacific Islands workers would continue to be exploited and oppressed.

How is this to be addressed?

Since it is clear that allocation of resources and positions in society on a racialised or ethnic basis does not change things for the better for most people, the solution must be the allocation of resources on the basis of need.  This is a way of fighting for the interests of the oppressed through working class unity.  All workers have a vested interest in, can identify with, and will potentially struggle for, resources being distributed on the basis of need.

Production and distribution to meet the human needs of the masses rather than to profit a rich few, and their middle class underlings, in turn suggests that we collectively need to take over the means of producing and distributing wealth.

 

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