Employment Today – April 2001 issue            back to articles menu

“Exploiter or Exploitee – Nature at Work?”

Unions came into being because of the harsh working conditions at the beginning of the 1900’s. People actually died for the Cause. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, organisations died because of excessive Union demands. In the 1990’s, Unions withered (some died) because of the ECA. The ERA 2000 has the potential to make the Pendulum swing back again...

One view of commerce generally (not necessarily mine) might be that commerce is based on greed, or the satisfaction of selfish goals. A person might start their own business because they’re not satisfied with the revenue they can earn on a wage or salary, so a company is born. As the company grows, they need staff to share the workload, and so they appoint them and pay them a wage. They share the workload, but they do not share the reward in the same way. It is their business (and their risk), created for their own ends, and with some (usually) material end goal in mind. If they share the reward equally with staff, then they will not reach that goal. Obviously then, the employer is driven to get staff to deliver as much work output as possible for the smallest share of the reward that is reasonable, given industry benchmarks. In other words, the employer exploits staff, yes?

You are a wage earner. You have ‘x’ children, a mortgage, a ‘significant other’ and your own goals – usually materially based. You are not prepared to start your own business because that involves high & unacceptable risk. You don’t want to risk all you own to pay the company’s creditors in the event of failure, therefore you are an employee and your wage or salary is your only income. Therefore you are similarly driven to ‘sell’ your work output for the best possible hourly rate you can get – and you will use your Union to help you get it – including the withdrawal of labour at critical moments – as happens with Holidays and public transport. In other words, you exploit the employer, yes? Therefore, is it true then that the employer/employee context is really one of mutual exploitation? Is it true that the expression ‘Industrial Relations Harmony’ is really a nice way of saying that both parties are happy with their respective levels of exploitation? In a parasitic relationship, one party feeds off the other without contributing anything back, and the host party suffers. In a symbiotic relationship, both parties feed off each other and contribute back in a balanced way such that both parties benefit and are sustained. Our employment relation’s history is littered with incidents where that ‘balance’ was lost, the relationship became parasitic – one party ‘over-exploited’ the other. Various Freezing Works (now gone), Marsden ‘B’, Ports, Shipping (how many NZ-owned Shipping Companies can you name?) – all at various times parasitic and many now deceased because of that. The extremes by which we might witness ‘unhappiness’ are businesses which stop trading rather than give into demands they do not wish to (or simply can’t) meet, and employees who strike or resign. There are some ‘lines in the sand’ – for instance, why should I continue to run my business and employ staff if the wage demands of the staff are such that I cannot reach my goal? No, I will take my business overseas… or close down altogether and try something else. I am not here just to provide jobs.

Why should a worker witness their standard of living deteriorate, become stressed through long hours, their families suffer through an inability to provide anything more than the minimums in Health, Schooling, Food, Social/Community activity – and sometimes, not even the minimums. If you make life too tough for the employer by making employment too expensive or difficult, then simply put, existing employers will move overseas and those who might be about to start a new venture will have second thoughts. As it is, I hear many comments from would-be employers who have chosen to ‘stay small’ as owner-operators because the idea of becoming an employer frightens the hell out of them. Perception is reality. Obviously, mature and responsible Unions are aware of the need to protect the goose that lays the golden egg – should we consider Unions as ‘farmers’, reaping a crop in a sustainable way without damaging the source of that crop? In the same way, if employment in NZ becomes too unattractive to the workforce, then we will see an exodus of willing workers going to other countries where ‘hope for the future’ is percieved as a reality, whereas it may be perceived that NZ provides no such hope. Speaking personally, I stay in NZ even though I am fully aware that I could do better financially overseas, because I love this country, I grew up here, my home is here, and I still think it’s one of the best places to raise a child. At what point though, would those positive aspects of life in NZ be outweighed by unfavourable employment conditions? Witness nursing over the last years. One can draw an analogy with students – the future of NZ - who leave and don’t return because of the appalling financial load they are saddled with. Belatedly, some MP’s are trying to attract them back…  Some readers may chafe at my use of the word ‘exploitation’. I’m a realist – employers don’t employ because of a desire to help the community or from a sense of social conscience. Most employees do not go to work in the morning thinking ‘another day of service to the employer whom I love, and for whom I would work for free if I could’. Perhaps we should consider Human Resource practitioners, and Union representatives, as specialists in the art of mutual (symbiotic) exploitation. At least, that might be a more honest description?

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2001 All rights reserved by the author.

steve@sta.co.nz                                                                                                                       back to articles menu