Utu for Xmas

Matt McCarten’s public revenge on exploitative employers

Matt McCarten: “Nothing scares me.”
LAWRENCE SMITH/StuffMatt McCarten: “Nothing scares me.”


Utu. Noun: Revenge, vengeance, retaliation, payback, retribution, cost, price, wage, fee, payment, salary, reciprocity

Also.. compensation, recompense, reparation.

It’s a serene, sunny Sunday summer’s morning in the suburbs. Only birdsong and the odd lawnmower punctuate the serenity. Then a flame-red truck rolls around the corner and disgorges a uniformed squad of union activists, who leaflet-drop your neighbours, chant, sing, and organise a picket line at your front fence.

This, says, Matt McCarten, is utu. After three years of “plotting in the dark” since his exit from the Labour Party’s high command, this is his solution for worker exploitation.

The targets for his Sunday “church for sinners” will be the recalcitrant employers whom he cannot get to the negotiating table to hear complaints against them of bullying, sexual harassment and migrant exploitation.

With a forensic IT expert and a private detective, he’s compiled a list of nine wealthy employers he’s accused of serious labour law breaches, and intends to protest outside all their homes before Christmas. “They are leeches, absolute leeches,” he says, “and they are destroying our country.

“We will directly focus on the criminal boss, and we will expose them, because I am sick of them all being able to do it in the dark.”

The UTU truck is ready to roll out.
suppliedThe UTU truck is ready to roll out.

He’ll only do it when he’s absolutely certain, he says. Only when they’ve refused all entreaties to negotiate. Only when he knows they are guilty of serious exploitation, sexual harassment or bullying – and they’ve got the money to pay up for their crimes.

He’ll publish stories on Martyn Bradbury’s Daily Blog, use a social media team to disseminate it further, publish their names, photographs, home address and phone numbers. “I am going to be quite hardline on this,” he says, “and I know there will be some pushback.”

The words of a warrior back at the coalface. McCarten, former New Labour founder, Alliance Party president and leader, Mana and Maori Party insider, Labour party chief of staff and Unite Union creator has set up another union.

His One Union aims to take up the cases of unrepresented low-wage workers in small businesses. It has two offshoots: it has consumed the Migrant Workers’ Association, probably the most significant of a handful of campaigning migrants rights groups, and McCarten has also set up Utu – his direct action squad in the red truck.

He says he has about 40 volunteers lined up, with veteran Unite organiser Joe Carolan as ‘captain of the guard’, with another 30 primed to run the name-and-shame social media. The idea came to him, he says, after first considering constituting a French Revolution-style Court of the People.

He expects he’ll be charged with vigilantism, like the judge-and-jury types who pursue paedophiles. He has an answer for that: he’d go after paedophiles too if they could make a small payment, never admit their guilt, be allowed to retain anonymity and continue as they did before.

For that’s what tends to happen in a cumbersome system in which it can take over a year to secure a date for mediation, the compulsory first step when an employee complains an employer has breached their rights.

It can be another year before a case is heard at the Employment Relations Authority, while the Labour Inspectorate, which takes many cases of exploitation, is overloaded with case work and has an investigative backlog.

McCarten at the offices of One Union in Morningside, central Auckland.
LAWRENCE SMITH/StuffMcCarten at the offices of One Union in Morningside, central Auckland.

Financially, it’s a hard road. Most exploited workers are low-wage earners who cannot afford $15,000 to pay a lawyer’s costs through to a full hearing. Mediated settlements are often for just a fraction of the debt, barely cover costs and come with confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses.

That leaves most reliant on advocates such as McCarten, many of whom work on a percentage of the settlement. McCarten says One Union will take a case through to mediation for $500, payment deferred if the client can’t afford it, and ask for a voluntary donation of 10% of any settlement towards the union fighting fund – and he’ll cover his own wage through demanding his costs from the employer.

Since departing the Labour leaders’ office, McCarten has handled about 100 cases of worker exploitation. Never, he says, does the employer admit their guilt: all lie until the end.

Mediation hearings are confidential. What’s said cannot be used in court, and certainly not shared with the public.

If a worker steals $100,000 from their boss, McCarten says, they are arrested, convicted, shamed and fined. If the reverse happens, the boss can get away with paying a percentage and agreeing to confidentiality and a non disparagement clause.

McCarten doesn’t like those compromises. He wants to get everything back, and leave with his client feeling justice has been done – and the employer is paying enough that it “hurts”. He reckons his deals are several times better than others.

He begins reeling off rollicking tales of past negotiations. He’s ruthless. In one, every time the other side made an offer, he upped his own claim by another $5,000. In one where the offending was particularly vile, he told the other side he knew about their affairs and their regular visits to prostitutes. “Nothing scares me, I can’t be threatened.“

The mask, says McCarten, symbolises an exploited worker who cannot speak up.
StuffThe mask, says McCarten, symbolises an exploited worker who cannot speak up.

His approach is to open a mediation hearing with a short korero. That, he says, is “to change the battlefield”, re-balance the power equation from the employer with their hundreds-per-hour lawyer back towards the worker, and their humble advocate.

“I say ‘I am an utu man’. Let me explain what utu is. When you take mana away from someone… you must restore it. This kid you stole 100k from? You have trampled on his mana, and it must be restored. That’s what utu is. In Māori terms, it means recognition, responsibility, reparations, reciprocity. That’s that pathway.

“Then there’s the other pathway, which most Pakeha understand – revenge. It’s about putting it right – but if you don’t put it right, there’s another reaction.”

And so if they don’t see sense, he’ll roll the truck out.

But, he says, he’s reasonable and pragmatic. He knows in many cases, the exploited worker shares some culpability. He has some sympathy for a corner-cutting small business owner just trying to stay afloat: “I live in a world where there are shades of grey and I always let them find a way out of the predicament they have put themselves into.”

But when they don’t – “we have to do a campaign so that people think ‘f—, I better not do that again’.”

“I am braver”

2001: McCarten, then the Alliance Party president, in his office in Wellington.
Dominion/Stuff2001: McCarten, then the Alliance Party president, in his office in Wellington.

Raised in orphanages, McCarten was politicised as a teenager by reading Steinbeck’s novel of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath. He developed the belief that work brings dignity and hope, and began a life embedded in the union movement.

In his twenties, he says, he was helping migrant workers in his free time away from union work, and now he’s done with mainstream politics, he’s back in the same place. “I started off as a union activist and I will end as a union activist.”

A decade ago, McCarten, now 61, was dying of liver cancer. And then he wasn’t. It didn’t, he says, really change him. He considers. “It made me less fearful,” he says. “I haven’t changed a lot but I think I might be more focused. I am braver.”

He’s been sued and lost four times, he says, and never paid up. He told one lawyer he would occupy their office and picket their client, and every time a bill for costs arrived, he wrote ‘f– off’ on it and posted it back. He’s happy to be trespassed and sued by those who are visited by the Utu truck.

“This is the work of my life,” he says. “This is the stuff that has always driven me.”

Change, he says, must come from the people, not Parliament. He wants to campaign for a simple law change, one he suggested while inside the Labour elite: for any claim below $20,000, there should be a hearing within two weeks, with a binding mediator’s decision and no right of appeal for either side.

It would be one way of countering the stultifying delays in the ERA system and the ability it gives employers to run the clock down, knowing the pressures of an expiring visa and the need to earn a wage will have on the complainant.

But first, the Utu truck. “The way exploitation will end is when the community says we don’t want to have this s… here. People want to do something about it.. this is not the country we set out to build. This poison which is seeping into our land has to be cut out.”

McCarten says Labour have shown little political will to resolve the issue and he’s disappointed in their choice of Kris Faafoi and Phil Twyford to take the immigration portfolio. But he thinks once the wealthy neighbours of his targets are on board and public opinion swells, something can happen.

“Change the community’s thinking, then the parliamentarians will change the law. They won’t do it first … they test the wind, is this popular? Is it unpopular?

“So you have to change people’s minds first … So I will come to those leafy suburbs and not let people think it is okay.”

Source : Stuff.co.nz


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