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Niwa Knobs.

datePosted on 21:13, April 15th, 2010 by Pablo



Niwa has announced that a contract to upgrade the research vessel RV Tangaroa has been let to a Singaporean company rather than a NZ-based consortium. The EPMU and Labour Party have criticised the move, citing the fact that local jobs were at stake and a chance to up-skill NZ workers was lost. And of course, the flow-on effects of employing NZ workers is obvious, because they will spend their  wages a bit on beer but more on nappies, mortgages, rent and DIY projects. All that is true and reason enough to oppose the Niwa deal, but there is much more to the story. That is because the bottom line boils down to what I shall call a dirty money savings. Here is how it works.

The Niwa chief knob, John Morgan, refused to state what the bids were, but other sources have noted that at $9 million the NZ contractor bid was more than double the $4 million Singaporean bid. Sounds like he got his maths right. Mr. Morgan then went on to say that the Singaporean contractor had a lot of experience and 3000 staff  dedicated to the task as well as many resources to do the upgrade, which he claimed was a complex operation that involved cutting holes in the hull of the ship in order to install a dynamic positioning system (DPS) that holds the ship steady and precise over an undersea target in variable conditions (how he thinks that 3000 people will work on that one job is another question,  as is the complexity of cutting holes in a boat, but I am just quoting from the NZPA article on the decision).

He defended the decision as a cost-savings bonus for the NZ taxpayer, and the Minister for Research, Science and Technology the vainglorious “Dr” Wayne Mapp (Ph.D.s in Law are not usually addressed as Dr.) pontificated that although he was not involved in the decision he supported it because the NZ consortium was not dependent on that contract (presumably that resource-rich Singaporean outfit was) and, quote, “after all we have an FTA with Singapore.” File that one under “another Mapp moronity.”

Here is why the deal is dirty. Unskilled and semi-skilled Singaporean shipyard workers (e.g. stevedores, drivers, loaders, builders and roustabouts)  are paid between SG$10-15 dollars per day. Non-engineer skilled workers (divers, torchmen, pipefitters) may earn double or triple that. They are mostly foreign workers on temporary visas (mainly from Bangladesh, mainland China and India) who cannot bring their families with them and who are housed in containers and squalid dormitories with occupancies of 20-50 men per room and one toilet amongst them (women are not allowed on the docks). They are not allowed to independently organise or collectively bargain. They work 12 hour days and suffer extremely high rates of industrial accidents–over 50 workers died in 2009 from injuries received on the job, and dozens if not hundreds more were crippled by accidents. In the vast majority of cases, seriously injured foreign workers who are unable to return to work are left dependent for months on private charity until their claims for compensation are resolved or are deported once they leave hospital (and often repatriated in any event).

Mr. Morgan is reported as saying that the Singaporean bid, at $30/hour (it is not clear if he is speaking of US, NZ or Singaporean dollars), was half the NZ $60/hour labour costs. But whatever the currency, $30/hour would only apply to supervisory and managerial staff who would not be doing the physical labour involved in installing the DPS system (which would be done by the foreign workers mentioned above). That means that his claims of labour costs savings on which the decision partially rested is either a willful misprepresentation of  the true Singaporean figures or, worse yet, a sign that Niwa did not undertake due dilligence in ascertaining the veracity of the $30/hour figure. In other words, if the latter is true then Niwa got fleeced by the Singaporean contractor, who then pocketed the difference between its real labour costs and the $30/hour figure. If the former is true, the Mr. Morgan needs to be held to account for his miserepresentation.

There is a bigger picture to consider. Singapore is an authoritarian state in which political  party competition and elections are rigged, freedom of speech is restricted and foreign workers are  not covered by the same labour laws as Singaporean citizens. Instruments for foreign worker redress, compensation and mediation are virtually non-existent. The Singaporean lifestyle, so admired by John Key and other acolytes of the Singaporean regime, is based on the gross exploitation of these foreign workers who, after all, build the buildings Singaporeans live and work in, provide the food, transport and maid services they are accustomed to, construct their highways and polish their cars, and staff the hundreds of foreign MNCs the use the country as an operational hub. Foreign workers comprise a quarter of Singapore’s nearly 5 million population, so the economic debt owed to them is great.

That is why the decision is about dirty money savings. Forget the job-related issues in NZ. Niwa’s decision is based on its knowingly countenancing the human rights abuse of a vulnerable group of people in a foreign country. It violates ILO standards, it violates NZ labour law, and it violates nominal notions of decency in doing so. Mrs. Morgan and Mapp may argue that Niwa is saving the NZ taxpayer money, and that it is not responsible for the behavior of foreign contractors, but in doing business with the Singaporean firm it could well wind up with blood on its hands. Put succinctly: the money Niwa saves on the deal comes directly from the sweat and blood of these foreign workers.

None of this would matter if NZ was an authoritarian state unconcerned about human rights and fair labour standards. The problem is, NZ spends a lot of time in international fora banging on about exactly such things. However, this appears to be more a case of  “do as I say, not as I do” because NZ in recent years has seen fit to cozy up to regimes like those of  Singapore, China and a host of Middle Eastern autocracies, in which the very concepts of universal rights and fair labour standards are not only disputed, but rejected out of hand on “cultural difference” grounds. Well, that may be the case because as Lew so nicely put it a while back, “NZ foreign policy is trade,”  but NZ does not have to contribute to the perpetuation of exploitation in foreign cultural contexts, especially if its reputation depends on its rhetorical championing of human rights. That is a matter of choice, and the choice in this instance is clear.

There is such a thing a trading fairly and doing business in an ethical way in which the bottom line is not just about money, but about human decency as well.  A restrained rate of profit or reduced savings on cost are often a better guarantee of long term investment than short term profit maximisation or miserliness,  and an interest in foreign worker conditions can contribute to the betterment of international business practices. But the choice here has been to save costs rather than stand on principle and improve by example. For a country that prides itself on its international status based upon fairness principles, decisions like this one give the lie to the cheap talk in international confabs.

All of which is to say–shame on both of you, Misters Mapp and Morgan. But then again, we would not expect otherwise.

27 Responses to “Niwa Knobs.”

  1. jcuknz on April 15th, 2010 at 21:58

    You don’t have to be an EPMU member or of the Labour Party to be disgusted at this happening … so much for stimulating the ecconomy.

  2. Eddie C on April 15th, 2010 at 22:50

    Riffing off a very minor point of the post, who says that Law PhDs don’t traditionally get referred to as Dr? Most uni law lecturers don’t HAVE PhDs, but thats another issue entirely. Not that they insist on its use, but as far as I know the Law PhDs I’m acquainted with are entitled to it. Obviously if you have the ridiculously named North American “Juris Doctorate” you’re not entitled to be called “doctor”, but a PhD/SJD (depending on one’s jurisdiction) is very different.

    I’m curious about this topic given that I’m starting an SJD in August, and I don’t see why years of effort, research, and application in law should be treated differently that, say, english literature, international security studies, or political science.

  3. Pablo on April 15th, 2010 at 23:00


    The proper titled for any Ph.D. is “Mr.” or “Ms.” (old English usage). The term “Dr.” is confined to MDs and Dentists. The reason is that there is an irony to the titles–the more knowlegable one is the more humble s/he should be. I hope that you are.

    Any Ph.D. who insists on being called “Doctor” (like “Dr.” Mapp) have serious insecurity issues, most often in my experience due to the quality of their degrees.

    I prefer to be addressed by my given name or “Exalted Cyclops.”

    Now, having gotten that important issue out of the way, do you have anything substantive to add to the discussion?

  4. Barnsley Bill on April 15th, 2010 at 23:07

    Meanwhile Mr Morgan is so consumed by saving money he has 2 carparks under the NIWA Auck HQ so that he can park his Porsche across two parks to lower the risk of anybody parking too close to it. Apart from the days he has govt ministers visiting at which point he comes to work in the Suzuki Jimny.

  5. Eddie C on April 15th, 2010 at 23:10

    *shrug* News to me and not, I think, the general practice in NZ. I think its an unnecessary cheap shot on Mapp, and your last line is an unnecessary cheap shot on me, which kind of makes me disinclined to comment further.

    Both of which are unnecessary. Your post is absolutely spot on, and Wayne Mapp is at least a mild embarrassment to legal academia.

  6. Pablo on April 15th, 2010 at 23:17


    Do not take it personally. As for Mapp and cheap shots–is that a synonym?

    Bill: I did not know that.

  7. Eddie C on April 15th, 2010 at 23:35

    Pablo – fair enough, guess I was being a bit touchy (given that I’m about to dedicate 3+ years of my life to the subject, perhaps understandable); apologies.

    And doesn’t this fit in with the current govt’s general procurement philosophy? Another example being the prison privatisation post Lew made earlier today – Collins in her interviews has focussed solely on the costs, and not on prisoner welfare, rehabilitation, or the undermining of the state’s role in crime & punishment (I’m not convinced at all that it’ll actually save money, but that’s another issue).

    Govt procurement guidelines tough under Labour re cost control, but its got even more extreme under the Nats. I suspect NIWA, like the rest of govt, is under very strict direction re “value for money”, and that value for money has been given a very narrow definition. When one is thinking that narrowly, important considerations, such as those you raised, tend to fall by the wayside. I agree – shame on them. But I suspect its not NIWA in isolation.

  8. Pablo on April 15th, 2010 at 23:43


    On the degree/title thing: join the crowd. I did a Ph.D. in seven years after a two year MA program at two different US universities (requirements are a bit stricter there). That was considered a fast progression to the final degree. All to be called “Mr.”

    Your substantive point is, in an a nutshell, on point. Just like the bums in seats mentality that consumes NZ higher education management at the expense of quality of instruction, so too does the monetary bottom line trump all other considerations in the National logic. Labour was not much better when it comes to trade partners, but at least on domestic policy issues they understood the “output” side of things.

  9. DeepRed on April 16th, 2010 at 02:10

    Am I sensing a Lindsey Oil Refinery incident in the making? I’m not surprised if there’s a strategy to “hire half the working class to kill the other half” – scare the blue-collar locals into thinking dirty foreigners are stealing jobs, and at the same time scaring the migrant workers into thinking Kiwi blue-collars are racist.

  10. MollyByGolly on April 16th, 2010 at 10:07

    Hey Dr Pabs,

    Given NZ has no influence on Singaporean labour laws or their attitudes towards their foreigh workforce, what happens to those shipyard workers if NIWA decides not to go ahead with their tender? No work? Deportation back home where there is also no work?

    Not defending their labour practices; just wondering if you have given consideration to the Singaporean workers if we don’t go ahead with this.


  11. MollyByGolly on April 16th, 2010 at 10:20

    On the “Dr” thingee – from what I’ve observed, MPs with doctorates are always referred to with the honorific Dr by the press – when an honorifc is used. Michael Cullen was not called Mr Cullen; Lockwood Smith is never Mr Smith; and Michael Bassett was always Dr Bassett.

    One poor sod of an MP with an honorary doctorate made the mistake of having himself called “Dr” but the nature of his doctorate was soon exposed and he was made to look a fool…

    The point is that in NZ we rarely use honorifics. Academics tend to be referred to by their name, and their job title (Senior Lecturer in Obfuscatory Jargon or whatever) is then given to indicate expertise.

    When NZ academics do use an honorific, and the context is work-related, they use “Dr” not Mr or Ms.

    What honorific they use *outside* of work-related situations, however, may well say something about their insecurity or humility/lack of humility…

  12. Lew on April 16th, 2010 at 10:32

    I hesitate to extend this tangent, but I would observe that Lockwood Smith is particularly vainglorious — a lovely word — in being the only MP to insist on being Dr The Honourable, rather than The Honourable Dr.


  13. DaveW on April 16th, 2010 at 11:29

    NZ in recent years has seen fit to cozy up to regimes like those of  Singapore, China and a host of Middle Eastern autocracies, in which the very concepts of universal rights and fair labour standards are not only disputed, but rejected out of hand on “cultural difference” grounds.

    Could be mistaken but I think we have been very cosy with Singapore for rather more than “recent years”…… More like 4 or 5 decades.

  14. MollyByGolly on April 16th, 2010 at 11:29

    I hesitate to extend this tangent, but I would observe that Lockwood Smith is particularly vainglorious — a lovely word — in being the only MP to insist on being Dr The Honourable, rather than The Honourable Dr.

    Touché. You’d think “Honourable” would be enough glory and formality on its own…

    Do you know of any MPs who have (real) doctorates, who do not use the honorific Dr?

  15. Pablo on April 16th, 2010 at 12:50

    You guys are killing me with the focus on titles. The reason I made reference to it with regard to Mapp is that he insists on being called “Dr.,” whereas most sefl-regarding Ph.D.s do not give a hoot. Having said that I have often been introduced with that title, to the point that I do not bother to correct people. But I sure do not insist on it.

    MBG. The Singaporean regime imposes conditions on employers that require full employment of foreign workers, mostly because they do not want idle bands of Bangladeshis or Indians making trouble. Unemployed foreign workers are deported. Thus, given what Mr. Morgan said about the successful bidder, its 3000 workers most likely are securely employed and would not suffer job losses due to the loss of a one boat contract.

    Dave W. You are right (in fact NZ is part of a defense alliance with Singapore dating back 4 decades), but what I was thinking of is the FTA that Mapp mentioned, which was signed in the early 2000s.

  16. BWaugh on April 16th, 2010 at 13:29

    You guys are killing me with the focus on titles. The reason I made reference to it with regard to Mapp is that he insists on being called “Dr.,” whereas most sefl-regarding Ph.D.s do not give a hoot. Having said that I have often been introduced with that title, to the point that I do not bother to correct people. But I sure do not insist on it.

    Never mind the titles for academics, MPs or otherwise. The title of this post is gold, Pablo!

    And an enjoyable read of an article, too. Thank you for the insight.

  17. Ag on April 16th, 2010 at 20:50

    You guys are killing me with the focus on titles. The reason I made reference to it with regard to Mapp is that he insists on being called “Dr.,” whereas most sefl-regarding Ph.D.s do not give a hoot. Having said that I have often been introduced with that title, to the point that I do not bother to correct people. But I sure do not insist on it.

    In NZ the practice is for lecturers and senior lecturers to be called “Dr”, if they hold a doctorate and then only if they are being addressed formally. But that hardly ever happens, since NZ academics tend to prefer being addressed by their first names.

    In North America, the practice is for university teachers to be called “Professor”, which is a reserved title of high academic rank in NZ. I’m not sure what the practice is for those with Doctorates outside the academy.

    I tend to only tick the “Dr” box on official forms if I want to amuse myself.

    I beat Pablo by a year for mine, and I bet he didn’t have to do all the horrendous comps that I did. ;)

  18. Pablo on April 16th, 2010 at 22:05


    You are completely right on the different forms of academic address. Imagine my perplexion when I arrived in NZ as a professor and got demoted to Senior Lecturer!

    Good on you for getting out in six. I did 2 years for the MA (4 semesters of courses followed by comps in two sub-fields), transfered to a different school to do two years of coursework (in a quarter system–9 courses), 2 years to write two qualifying essays that each spanned two sub-fields of the discipline along with formulating a Ph.D. dissertation proposal for a 3 person committee that had to be approved my the entire academic staff, and 3 years researching and writing the dissertation (including the field work). I was one of 5 in entering Ph.D. class of 60 who eventually graduated. Some of my successful cohort took 10+ years to finish.

    That is the difference between US programs and NZ. In NZ a person with an MA (one year of courses, one year of thesis) can do a Ph.D. with one supervisor in 3 years, then is vetted by one NZ-based and one foreign assessor. This allows for specialisation in a narrow field but misses the broader based approach utilised by the American style of grad education.

    And thus I have been sucked into this tangent….

  19. Ag on April 16th, 2010 at 23:30

    That is the difference between US programs and NZ. In NZ a person with an MA (one year of courses, one year of thesis) can do a Ph.D. with one supervisor in 3 years, then is vetted by one NZ-based and one foreign assessor. This allows for specialisation in a narrow field but misses the broader based approach utilised by the American style of grad education.

    Alas no. I did my PhD in Canada. I already had an MA (5 papers + thesis)

    1 year of coursework (6 courses). 2 modern languages to reading standard + 1 classical language to 95% sight translation standard (no aids at all) + 1 year of area work (defended 4 hour examination on basically everything in my specialization + 2 hour selection from prepared translation from classical language with no aids again) + 300 page dissertation.

    No wonder I got fed up of it. I still can’t believe I stuck it out.

  20. Pablo on April 16th, 2010 at 23:43

    Made to work hard for a Canadian degree, eh? Have a donut.

  21. Eddie C on April 16th, 2010 at 23:51

    Hurray tangent! Ag – am also heading to Canada for mine. U of T.

  22. Ag on April 17th, 2010 at 10:39

    That’s where I went. Go Leafs go.

  23. MollyByGolly on April 18th, 2010 at 10:37

    You guys are killing me with the focus on titles.

    And the credit for making this possible is entirely yours, Dr Pabs :-P

    If I can add a slightly different angle on this: gender.

    A number of women I know with PhDs were relieved to have the option of choosing a title that was earned and had nothing to do with their immaturity/maturity, sexual availability/unavailability/marital status or politics.

    “Ms” is not the female equivalent of “Mr” because it carries so much baggage. By comparison, Mr is a neutral term of address. It signals adult maleness and nothing more.

    Oftentimes you are forced to pick an honorific (on official forms etc) and the dilemma for me, and so many other women, is Miss? Ms? or Mrs? when we are comfortable with none of these and would really prefer to just be addressed using our names.

    Of course using “Dr” is political too, because it is about status – but it is an earned status and one that commands respect in a way that other options for women do not.

    (Which does not excuse or explain the use of titles by Drs Mapp, Smith, Cullen, Bassett et al.)

  24. Bruce Hamilton on April 18th, 2010 at 11:47

    It may be worth noting that Murray McCully was in Singapore in last year attending an A*Star exploitation of technology meeting discussing collaboration with NZ.

    Perhaps a significant inbalance in cash investment in the govt. research collaboration was pointed out to him.

    Those meetings presumably also involve the NZ equivalents ( CRIs and Research Councils ) of the Singapore A*Star government entity, and may have included discussions of future mutual investments – with or without Dr Mapp’s approval.

  25. JD on April 18th, 2010 at 12:50

    Any Ph.D. who insists on being called “Doctor” (like “Dr.” Mapp) have serious insecurity issues, most often in my experience due to the quality of their degrees.

    LOL I agree with you Pablo

  26. Stuart Mackey on April 18th, 2010 at 15:05

    God, quit it with the titles!
    I seem to recall something similar with a frigate some 25-30 odd years ago also involving Singers, except that time the work stayed in NZ..

  27. Pablo on April 18th, 2010 at 17:29

    Point noted. Lets hope that concludes the discussion about titles, and my apologies for bringing the issue up in the first place.

    A note to proponents of comparative advantage. Besides the fact that the Ricardian premise was born of pre-industrial capitalist experience, the current situation between SG and NZ is simply not comparable because SG restricts worker’s collective choices and freedom to withdraw their labour services as well as contest capitalist prerogatives, whereas NZ workers do have the freedom to do so. This allows SG capitalists, backed by the state, to artificially increase their “comparative” advantage vis a vis a liberal democratic country in which workers can exercise their labour power in a relatively unfettered fashion. That is not what Ricardo had in mind, and it certainly is not a level playing field in which issues of comparative advantage can rightly be discussed. Some neo-Ricardians might call this SG’s “competitive” advantage, although that too is a misnomer because the orgins of the notion of competitive advantage lie in the promotion of education and technology based value-added outputs. This simply does not apply to the labour output of SG foreign workers, who are mostly unskilled and unschooled. Thus the option for the neo-Ricardian crowd is to either eschew ethical trade, or to accept the fact that trade must be symmetrical with regards to the business ethics governing each (all) side(s).

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