Updated: Aug 29
Design by the wonderful Toby Morris
Recently I started working at a small accommodation business in Rotorua as a cleaner. Immediately, without trial I began at an hourly rate just above the minimum wage at $23 per hour.
Two weeks into my job, I began noticing that some of my colleagues were unhappy. I overheard staff speaking in whispers, (for fear of a colleague snitching to the bosses or the bosses themselves overhearing) but they were saying “I want a strike,” “I am being bullied,” “This is unfair.”
Eventually I got a private moment to talk to one of the unhappy colleagues in the hotel room about how she was feeling, as we knew we were being listened to and spied on in the laundry room. Suddenly I asked, “Not to be rude, your wage doesn’t say anything about your worth but more about our boss - but - how much do you make?” When she gave me her answer, I was surprised, but not that surprised, to learn that I was making more than her.
I knew that talking about how much you were earning at the workplace was frowned upon, however as a history and sociology student, I knew that this staying silent helped employers and owners get away with paying their employees unfairly and unequally. I also knew that white women in New Zealand made less than white men, but that Maori women made even less than me. My conversation with this worker confirmed those terrible statistics I had read about in uni.
After work I talked to my friend on the phone, furious, and then she said she knew someone who would have some advice. She then referred me to Shanna and the Unite Union. I talked to Shanna, who was lovely, in solidarity with me and my colleagues and was able to give me some advice on how to handle the situation, “Don’t do a strike - protest instead. Strikes have too many legal implications around it.”
The next day, another colleague expressed her concerns with me when suddenly, she noticed that the boss was outside the room recording us with his phone and listening in. I was scared, going up against powerful people that are in control of your finances is scary. But we weren’t even confronting him, we were simply talking in private, and my colleague was telling me about the bullying she had endured - not the boss who had invaded our privacy like that.
Immediately I rang up Shanna, shaking, and she was able to provide me with support. I knew that the boss would come to growl at me, or discipline me, and he did. While I was on the phone wth Shanna he came in and called me into the office. Shanna overheard and said she would attend the discussion in support over the phone, and she backed me up and made me feel more secure as I was very anxious at the time. She told my boss that I was right and couldn’t get into trouble so I didn’t get into trouble and the meeting ended.
But word had already gotten out amongst the colleagues that the pay wasn’t equal, and within days the employers, trying to win back their workers’ trust, increased my colleagues wages.
Unions can help to bring about working class organisation and power. Historically unions have won victories and achievements such as the sick-pay, rights for working women, the weekend, higher wages and so much more. If you are feeling fed up, unionise. If you are feeling bullied or underpaid, unionise. It is your right.