Stand up and fight for your Cadbury workers, New Zealand (Video)
OPINION: Last week, a young man named Sherif led my wife and I on a tour of Dunedin's Cadbury factory. We paid $22 each to join the group of about a dozen people and thought it was terrific value.
Sherif, clad in purple overalls and a permanent smile, spoke with pride about how the factory was a centre of quality, and how Dunedin is where Cadbury's popular marshmallow products were made: Pineapple Lumps, Pinkys, Buzz Bars. These were the chocolates of my childhood in Central Otago, a source of nostalgia equal in power to the prominence of the factory that sits in the centre of the city where I attended university. My wife packed two handfuls of Pinkys in her suitcase for the trip back to San Francisco, where we now live.
A few days later, we heard that Cadbury's American owner, Mondelez International – the $93 billion food and beverage conglomerate behind mega brands such as Oreo, Nabisco, and Trident – was planning to close the factory. About 360 workers – including, likely, Sherif – would lose their jobs.
Politicians from both National and Labour were quick to excuse Mondelez, expressing sadness about the closure but accepting it as inevitable. Mondelez pointed to the factory's low volumes and distance from the Australian markets as the key factors in their shutdown decision. They could get the same job done for cheaper in Oz.
This is not just about chocolate bars. In fact, here we can see the same economic patterns that have given rise to President Donald Trump in the United States. While much political commentary has focused on Trump's narcissism and bigotry, the most important force in ensuring his election was a bloc of voters in rust-belt states who had previously supported President Obama but this time went for the opposite: a cavalier ranter who cares nothing for liberal values but at least said he would bring back jobs for ordinary people.
Ordinary people in those parts of the US feel they have been cheated – and not without reason. In the last few decades, they have seen their prospects diminish and good manufacturing jobs disappear, in no small part because of multinational conglomerates like Mondelez shifting factories around the planet as if they were tiddlywinks on a Bingo board.
Five million US manufacturing jobs have disappeared since 2000, according to government data, and wages for the average American worker are going nowhere. While economic output has increased by 72 per cent since 1973, pay for the average worker has increased just 9 per cent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In 2016, life expectancy in the US dropped for the first time in 22 years. The system isn't working.
Given the anxiety of life in Trump's America, and seeing the ineffectual political response from the Democratic Party, I have been disappointed by Labour's reaction to the Cadbury factory closure. While Mondelez has described its plan for Sherif and friends as a proposal, the politicians have already given up. Labour leader Andrew Little and Dunedin MPs Clare Curran and David Clark all expressed sorrow upon hearing the news, but have done little else. To them, the jobs are already gone.
What happened to the Labour Party that stood up for ordinary people? Why is no one organising a protest, or threatening political consequences for Mondelez's enablers? Why does no one suggest that it might not be a good idea to meekly submit to an economic order that amply rewards the most fortunate of our society but punishes those without the privilege of advanced educations or access to enriching social connections? The politicians and Mondelez's executives will be fine. In fact, they'll probably get richer. The workers are the ones who'll lose out.
Dunedin will endure serious economic pain from the sudden loss of these jobs, but the damage to Kiwi values and the basic tenets of equality will be of much more profound consequence if we all just accept these losses as the new normal. New Zealand is different in many ways to the United States, but it is not invulnerable to the economic megatrends that have deprived tens of millions of ordinary Americans of their pride and created an appetite for a leader like Trump. We don't want that here.
Hamish McKenzie is a San Francisco-based writer.