New Zealand factory workers fight to get back stolen pay

By Janet Roth
July 6, 2020
June 20 protest at Temperzone factory. Owners kept government subsidy for workers’ wages, “paid” workers out of vacation, sick pay.
Militant/Terry CogganJune 20 protest at Temperzone factory. Owners kept government subsidy for workers’ wages, “paid” workers out of vacation, sick pay.

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — “Management told us we had the option of using our paid leave or going without pay. That is, we could feed our families or not feed them. We could pay our bills or not. It was no option,” Pena Tamamasui, head union delegate at the Temperzone air-conditioning and ventilation factory, told some 200 co-workers and supporters rallying outside the plant here June 20. Workers are demanding the bosses reinstate their stolen vacation, sick day and other leave pay.

The factory closed for five weeks during the COVID-19 lockdown imposed by the government, and the company stopped paying wages. Instead, they paid workers by using up their accrued or future funds allocated for paid leaves.

The bosses delayed applying for the New Zealand government’s wage subsidy scheme, a “stimulus” handout to employers to cover workers’ pay while the factory was shut down. When the scheme was announced in late March, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said, “This is about helping business to adjust.”

The company has now received from the government’s wage subsidy just under 2.2 million New Zealand dollars ($1.4 million) for 310 workers.

They say they’ve paid us, but we haven’t been paid anything. We want our annual paid leave back,” union delegate Oriwa Morehu told the Militant. “We have no leave left for Christmas or if something crops up. A lot of us are Polynesians with big families. Bereavement leave only covers immediate family, so we use our annual leave for our wider family.”

The workers, members of the E tu and FIRST unions, have held several pickets in front of the plant since they’ve been called back to work. “In the history of Temperzone there has never been anything like this,” Grant Chalmers told this worker-correspondent. He has worked there 24 years. “They keep telling us ‘we’re a Temperzone family,’ but it doesn’t feel like that.”

The company also just eliminated the jobs of 65 factory workers, a number of whom were at the picket.

Throughout the protest, young people circulated giving out food and drinks. Madila Palu, who was handing out cupcakes she had baked and decorated that morning, said they were from a local group of Pacific Islanders called Brown Pride Boot Camp who had come to give support.

The African-born organizers of the huge June 1 Black Lives Matter march here also came to show solidarity. A cheer went up when it was announced they were there.

The spirited protest continued for four hours, with passing cars tooting their support. Workers’ chants included “Union power!” and “Give me my leave, you dirty thieves.”