Class and Race: we are still getting things the wrong way round

It’s impossible to read any media outlet today without an academic report being discussed which points out the disparities in social and economic indicators between Māori and Pasifika on the one hand and Pākehā New Zealanders on the other. These reports don’t usually propose solutions but are appeals to the wider community to pay attention and develop plans to address what are seen as racial injustices.

(Older readers will recall that under Helen Clarke’s Labour government the slogan “closing the gaps”* was used, initially at least, to emphasise the importance of addressing these issues)

The latest such report is from the Auckland University of Technology and says the Covid pandemic has worsened labour market disparities between New Zealand European and Pasifika people.

The research also found that pre-pandemic, Pasifika men earned on average 22.5 percent less than NZ European men when entering employment.

The disparity increased by a further 2.4 percentage points during the pandemic.

It also found that pre-Covid-19, when compared NZ European women, Pasifika women were on average 0.4 percentage points less likely to exit unemployment.

But during Covid-19, the probability gap widened to 1 percentage point, meaning the pandemic deteriorated Pasifika women’s chances of entering employment by 0.6 percentage points.

Lead author of the report, Dr Alexander Plum from the NZWRI, said it was important to tackle the gaps.

“There must be as a first step awareness of what is going on. Being aware [that] there is this large gap between both populations and [have] the willingness to try to somehow address this gap.

“The other [reason] why it’s so crucial is because it’s affecting young people, it can leave a long term scar on their career and make progression in the future harder.”

It was important to improve access to education, training, building pathways to higher occupations or have active labour market programmes for displaced workers, Plum said.

AUT professor and NZWRI director Gail Pacheco said while the labour market was generally robust during the pandemic, not everyone managed to benefit from it.

“Covid-19 has amplified the prevalence of ethnic disparities in the workforce, but it did not create those disparities in the first place. Therefore, policy needs to not only tackle recent Covid-related disruptions to the workforce but be long-term focused on addressing the entrenched disparities evident before the pandemic hit.”

The research was commissioned by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment

This report didn’t cover Māori but we can be certain similar negative disparities from Covid will be present in the indigenous community.

So why are all these negative disparities for Māori and Pasifika so prevalent across pretty much all social and economic indicators?

The answer is straightforward. For the most part it is because Māori and Pasifika are disproportionately represented in the working class and these negative statistics affect all working class New Zealanders.

There are two important questions which follow and these are the ones we should  grapple with.

Firstly why are Māori and Pasifika disproportionately represented in the working class and secondly why is the focus on “closing the gaps” rather than confronting the problems faced by everyone in the working class?

The first question as it relates to Māori is directly a result of colonisation – pushing Māori off their land and using racism (ideas of European racial superiority) to justify doing so. There are many layers to this but understanding colonisation is the key. Pasifika were a cheap labour force (as they are today in the RSE worker scheme) brought in from the 1960s to make up labour shortages in our factories and then faced state oppression to drive them out through the “dawn raids” etc when the economy declined. It was the demands of capitalist businesses that made these decisions undertaken by successive Labour and National governments (the dawn raids started under Labour in the mid 1970s) rather than any concern for the welfare of Pasifika people. Racism was rife then as it is today.

The second question should lead to us asking why is it that as a country we are happy to have the working class suffer to maintain the deep streams of unearned income for the 1%?

Working class New Zealanders pay the highest proportion of their income in taxes and local body rates and they are consigned to be capitialism’s shock absorbers – the first to lose their jobs when times are tough and the last to be rehired when things improve. As a class, they and their children suffer the worst health, education and employment outcomes compared to the middle class and the ruling elite.

The only changes we are likely to see as a result of this latest academic report, commissioned by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, will be plans to grow the Pasifika middle class so the social and economic disparities related to race disappear while the whole rotten capitalist system gets off the hook.

Uniting to fight all forms of oppression and discrimination – including capitalism – is the only way to a decent world.


*We don’t say “close the gaps” any more after Labour abandoned that phrase under Helen Clark in the face of Pākehā backlash roused by Don Brash’s Orewa speech. Labour minister Trevor Mallard – yes the same one – went on a mini crusade to root out any government plans to close the gaps.

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