Gordon Campbell on our refugee intake, and Uber’s woes

On figures released this week, there are currently 65.6 million people worldwide who have been displaced from their homes by war, famine or other external causes. Faced with this explosion in the global need for sanctuary, New Zealand announced plans last year to increase our intake of UN assisted refugees from 750 to 1,000, as from 2018. This marked the first (belated) increase in our refugee intake in 30 years.

Moreover, the extra $25 million allocated to meet this puny increase seemed pretty ironic. As Brian Rudman pointed out at the time, in 2015 we allocated slightly more – $25.4 million – to support the 143 soldiers that we happily sent to Iraq to train one side of a conflict that’s generating the refugees still pouring out of Iraq and Syria.

Needless to repeat: on a refugees per capita basis, we are put to shame by almost every other developed country, including Australia. We also have the wealth to cope with far more refugees: New Zealand’s intake of refugees on a GDP basis is put to shame by those far poorer countries (eg Lebanon) that have taken in floods of refugees from the Middle East over the course of this decade. Yet at his post-Cabinet press conference on Monday, Prime Minister Bill English once again claimed that the current quota is all we can manage, at least until adequate resources are in place to help refugees to successfully resettle here.

Not that’s he rushing to boost those resources, mind. Not only are miniscule amounts being allocated to refugees from the bulging surpluses the government keeps boasting about, but the token efforts we are making are unfolding at snail’s pace. Even the rhetoric on this issue is deceptive. When the quota increase was announced a year ago, Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse claimed the UN quota intake was only part of the picture:

There are also 300 places available each year for family re-unification, and an additional 125 to 175 asylum seekers have their claims approved each year.”

Yet…the government puts little or no resources into family re-unification resettlements and the number of asylum seekers – even on the figures cited by Woodhouse – is roughly half what it was back in the late 1990s, early 2000s. That’s partly because a lot of effort and resources (eg via advanced passenger screening at airports) has gone into stopping asylum seekers from reaching our shores to lodge a claim for asylum. By doing so, successive governments have been in violation of the spirit of the commitments New Zealand signed up to, under the UN Refugee Convention.

At times, our response to the global refugee crisis has bordered on the farcical. Almost overnight. Canada took in thousands of Syrian refugees in a community-based programme that it largely built up as it went. Last year our government announced a “pilot” programme (explicitly based on the Canadian model) that would take in 25 refugees. Reportedly, the churches and other community organisations would provide the bulk of the support work. On Monday, PM English indicated that the pilot programme for those lucky 25 was still on the drawing board, 12 months down the track.

At least one political party has got tired of waiting. This week, the Greens announced plans to boost our refugee intake to 4,000 per annum, over the course of the next six years. An additional 1,000 refugees would come in under an expansion of the Canadian-style community support programme envisaged under the government’s pilot plan. Currently, the government spends circa $100 million a year on refugees. The Greens plan would cost $350 million, and would require building an extra processing centre, to be situated outside Auckland.

Not a big investment, by world standards. Yet at least it would enable us to reclaim some moral ground. If anything, we’ve been going backwards. Much of the rhetoric of the 2017 election campaign so far – from Labour and New Zealand First in particular – has been anti-immigrant, with a good deal of xenophobic dog whistling to voters driven by anger and prejudice to treat outsiders as threats and/or burdens. On the evidence though, this country can readily afford to take in more refugees and it has a moral obligation to do so. The Greens at least, are choosing to run with that message.

Uber’s woes

How times flies. Only a year ago, politicians would routinely name check Uber as a badge of their ‘down with the kids’ coolness with new tech options, and in contrast to all those old fuddy duds who just didn’t get this hot new way of delivering rides.

All is different now. Over the past 18 months, Uber has become one of the most poisonous brands in international commerce; a virtual byword for a firm that has (a) underpaid, manipulated, and exploited its own drivers (b) allegedly stolen intellectual property on driverless cars ( c) deployed predatory business practices during a social emergency and (d) operated a workplace culture riven with claims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

An internal probe into Uber’s workplace culture has resulted in the dismissal of at least 20 employees. The investigation led by former US Attorney-General Eric Holder reported back on 215 claims: 54 of discrimination, 47 of sexual harassment, 45 of unprofessional behavior, 33 of bullying, 19 of other harassment, 13 of retaliation, 3 of physical security and one wrongful termination claim. When this comprehensive examination of workplace gender discrimination was being tabled and discussed at a recent Uber board meeting, board member David Bonderman responded with a sexist joke. Bonderman has since resigned.

Last week, Founder CEO Travis Kalanick also agreed to go on indefinite leave, in the face of the firm’s mounting problems and adverse publicity. It may be too little, too late. From its inception, Uber was a libertarian fantasy project: it saw itself and promoted itself to the gullible as a bold new firm built on choice and tech innovation, busting through the cobwebs of regulation and scuppering the vested interests of a hidebound taxi industry. Best of all, it gave its users a magic formula that seemed too good to be true: a superior ride for less, appearing magically on demand.

Like most things too good to be true, it wasn’t. Uber enthusiasts never bothered to ask (or never wanted to know) just how this pixie dust had been sprinkled on their transport needs. Yet for a while, Uber and its users functioned as a mutual admiration society, confirming each other’s coolness. Well, everyone now knows about the dark side. All along, Uber had less to do with whizbang innovation, and more with life on the ol’ plantation.

The firm is now at a crossroads, along with a few other firms in the “gig economy.” So far, Uber is still burning through what Vanity Fair recently called “insane” amounts of money and the firm lost an estimated $2.8 billion last year in its pursuit of its growth-at–all-costs strategy. Going headlong down this same path won’t work in future if the changes to the company culture are only cosmetic ones. As Bloomberg News noted last week:

Replacing a focus on achievement at any price with more meetings, meditation and new-age rhetoric while still trying to be aggressive can only lead to cognitive dissonance, flagging employee morale and more painful staff departures.

So what’s the real alternative? As Bloomberg says:

Uber could focus on profitability rather than expansion. That would mean cutting costs, phasing out subsidies and perhaps leaving markets — primarily European ones — where the regulatory climate is only going to get tougher for “gig economy” companies. It could also mean doing the math in case Uber drivers are eventually recognized as employees, not independent contractors, in many markets. Fare increases — and not necessarily cleverly packaged ones such as the current price differentiation plan — would also be on the cards.

Exactly. Like Wile E Coyote in those old Warners cartoons, Uber and other gig economy companies have been pedalling out into regulatory thin air, in the hope that if they don’t look down, they won’t crash to earth. Reality is now rising to meet them, at pace. Around the world, the fiction that Uber workers are independent contractors is being successfully challenged. In the main, these court actions have been led and endorsed by the company’s own angry drivers, and not by taxi companies trying to protect their patch.

Uber’s redemption

Finally, is there a path of redemption that Uber could usefully regard as a precedent? There is. IMO, Uber’s current p.r. problems seem highly reminiscent of the hostile press that Nike incurred in the 1990s over where and how it got its trainers made. (Answer: in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia at slave rates of pay under terrible conditions.) After years of living in denial, Nike began to turn its image around only after its then-CEO Phil Knight finally ‘fessed up, begged for forgiveness and took steps to change some of the worst aspects of Nike’s contracting-out practices:

[…] “The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse,” Knight said [in a 1998 speech]. “I truly believe the American consumer doesn’t want to buy products made under abusive conditions.”

At that speech, he announced Nike would raise the minimum age of workers; significantly increase monitoring; and would adapt U.S. OSHA clean air standards in all factories.

1999: Nike began creating the Fair Labour Association, a non-profit group that combines companies, and human rights and labour representatives to establish independent monitoring and a code of conduct, including a minimum age and a 60-hour work week, and pushed other brands to join.

2002-2004: The company performed some 600 factory audits between 2002 and 2004, including repeat visits to problematic factories etc etc

That’s the same road that Uber now needs to travel. For its customers…well, the days of drivers effectively subsidising those magically cheap and available rides may also be coming to an end.

The Return of Rainer Maria

In the late 1990s/2000s, Rainer Maria were one of the also- ran US emo bands that emerged at the tail end of one of the periodic grunge/punk cycles. Obviously, the Rainer Maria name was a hat tip to the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) who had a sackful of emo quotes just waiting for some goth in crushed red velvet to set them to music : e.g.“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” Or how about : “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers…” Paint it black. And red.

Out of nowhere Rainer Maria (the band) have now returned to the fray, with a fine single called “Lower Worlds” from an upcoming album. This track ably marries Caithlin De Marrais’ clipped vocals to keyboards that convey some beautifully crushing and distorted intimations of the future that’s heading inexorably – like refugees? – for the gates of our little Antipodean castle.