UNCTAD World Investment Report 2000 rated New Zealand as the most
transnationalised economy in the OECD. Most of New Zealand’s productive,
financial, energy, retail, transport, media and communications sectors are now
in the hands of transnational corporations (TNCs) that have sucked huge profits
out of the country. TNCs have benefitted enormously from the privatisation,
deregulation and liberalisation policies imposed here since 1984.
Naming and shaming was the name of the game when the fourth annual Roger Award
for the worst transnational corporation operating in New Zealand was announced
in Wellington on 5th April. It is a very modest effort, with a total annual
budget of a few hundred dollars, to hold TNCs responsible for their actions in
New Zealanders the name Roger Award has special meaning. The architect of New
Zealand’s neo-liberal reforms was former finance minister Roger Douglas, while
the New Zealand Business Roundtable executive director is Roger Kerr. "To roger"
is slang meaning "to screw". Then there’s the "Jolly Roger", the pirate flag….
Award is organised by activist organisations GATT Watchdog and the Campaign
Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA). Finalists are drawn from
nominations from the public and assessed by a panel of judges. Judges have
included prominent trade unionists, Maori lawyers, academics, environmentalists,
and the mayor of a major city. Organisers claim, tongue in cheek, that in its
short lifespan, the Roger Award has had an uncanny track record of winkling out
1997 winner was Tranz Rail, which made tremendous public protest at being named
that year’s worst transnational corporation in New Zealand. But now it is
beating a path to the door to get out of the country", says Leigh Cookson of
GATT Watchdog. "Virtually all of its business divisions are for sale. Its
American owner, Wisconsin Central Transportation, has itself been the subject of
a tremendous boardroom battle, and, most recently, taken over by the Canadian
National Railroad Company. Monsanto was the 1998 winner – all the agrichemical
and genetics transnationals are now under the scrutiny of a Royal Commission of
Inquiry into Genetic Engineering. Power company TransAlta was last year’s winner
- it took advantage of industry deregulation to buy electricity services, raise
prices and then sell out to an Australian company for a taxfree capital gain of
nearly NZ $300 million."
Roger Award is given to the TNC operating in New Zealand judged to have the most
negative impact in each or all of the following fields: unemployment, monopoly,
profiteering, abuse of workers/conditions, political interference, environmental
damage, cultural imperialism, impact on Maori, running an ideological crusade,
health and safety of workers and the public, and impact on women.
Rail is the first TNC to have the ignominy of winning twice. In announcing the
inaugural Roger Award, the judges ruled: "The critical factor in choosing Tranz
Rail was the calculated, callous attitude it has shown to the people it has
injured and the families who have lost their loved ones through its negligence
and workplace practices….Tranz Rail has abdicated its moral responsibility by
putting profits before people." In giving the award to the company again, this
year’s judges highlighted Tranz Rail’s recidivism, its failure to take heed of
bad publicity and public reaction to its behaviour, and its "inexcusable" safety
then state-owned New Zealand Rail was corporatised in 1986, and in 1993 it was
sold for NZ $328 million to a consortium led by Wisconsin Central Transportation
Corp and was soon renamed Tranz Rail. Between 1987 and 1991, the New Zealand
government corporatisation programme had slashed the workforce from 15000 to
6000. Staff levels were reduced by 11% from 1993 to 1996, while revenue per
employee increased by around 14% between 1993 and 1995. Tranz Rail owns the
tracks, rolling stock and other equipment. It pays just NZ $1 a year to the
government to lease the land under the tracks for the entire national railway
network. Tranz Rail’s new owners made huge profits after buying the assets from
the government. In 1996 Wisconsin’s shareholding was restructured through a
share issue which left Tranz Rail’s assets worth NZ $500 million more on paper
than in 1993.
just eight years, Wisconsin had transformed from being a small player in the
USA, hauling bulk cargo in the upper mid-West, to becoming the largest American
regional railway and a predatory transnational corporation. It enthusiastically
participated in the railway privatisation boom sweeping the globe, also buying
companies in the UK and Australia. Notorious for anti-union practices and the
worst railroad safety record in the USA, Wisconsin displayed the same approach
to industrial relations in New Zealand. Tranz Rail’s singleminded pursuit of
profits has seen constant restructuring and cost-cutting, reduced manning
levels, dangerous equipment, and excessively long hours for remaining workers.
Relatives talk of workers afraid to speak out about dangerous conditions for
fear of losing their jobs. Cost-cutting measures to reduce staff and threats of
layoffs pressured workers to take jobs for which they were poorly trained.
Downsizing and inadequate maintenance of rolling stock means overwork and danger
for remaining employees. Drivers regularly work on rostered days off.
Self-directing teams of overburdened workers are now responsible for their work
practices where half the work the bosses used to do. Shunting gangs comprising a
remote control operator and one shunter carry out the work that five men used to
do. The Transport Act prescribes that Tranz Rail must have safety at "reasonable
cost" whereas all other employers must meet a higher "all practicable steps"
threshold. Public safety has also been compromised with Tranz Rail reluctant to
fund safety barriers at level crossings despite several fatal accidents.
October Tranz Rail announced further staff cuts – reducing to 600 from the
current 4000 over two years. It wants to concentrate on the more lucrative
freight business and sell its passenger services, including Wellington and
Auckland commuter rail, and its long distance services. Tranz Rail’s corporate
ripoff of the New Zealand public continues. After Wisconsin and others had
obtained rich pickings at the public trough through their purchase of New
Zealand’s rail network, it looks like taxpayer contributions will be used to buy
back access from Tranz Rail for greater Auckland’s rail corridors, if a
much-needed suburban light rail network is ever to see the light of day in New
Zealand’s traffic-congested biggest city. The price agreed to between Tranz Rail
and local mayors was a steep NZ$112 million – about a third of the 1993 sale
price for the entire national rail network. There are renewed calls on the
government to buy back the national rail infrastructure and prevent its
dismemberment and further line closures.
years of being ignored, public outrage and union pressure about Tranz Rail’s
appalling safety record led to a ministerial inquiry into its safety procedures
last year. The inquiry report has yet to be released. Tranz Rail’s record of
fatal accidents is exceptionally high by international comparison. 15 of its
workers – 14 rail workers and a seaman on the inter-island ferry were killed in
accidents between 1993 and-2000. Sixty Tranz Rail workers had been seriously
injured between 1995 and August 2000 including two shunters who had their legs
amputated after accidents. Two Christchurch workers died in a week last May,
with five killed countrywide in only seven months. Just weeks ago, nearly a
third of Tranz Rail’s Dc locomotives failed safety checks and will require
repairs before engineers are prepared to operate them. Tranz Rail has
consistently attempted to blame workers for its appalling health and safety
year’s Roger Award report also slammed Tranz Rail’s environmental record.
According to the Rail and Maritime Transport Union, road transport emits around
five times as much carbon dioxide per tonne transported than rail transport.
"Transporting more people and freight by train is an important way for New
Zealand to reduce emissions that cause the rising seas that threaten many of New
Zealand’s Pacific Island neighbours. Yet at a time when the government has
signalled its intention to reduce emissions back to 1990 levels, New Zealand’s
rail network is being dismantled to maximise profits for a handful of overseas
exercise in exposing the activities of transnational capital in New Zealand, the
Roger has certainly ruffled some feathers. After the inaugural Award, Tranz Rail
spokesman Fred Cockram publicly attacked the judging panel for displaying
"supreme ignorance" about Tranz Rail and other transnational corporations in New
coverage of the Roger Award has precipitated phonecalls to the organisers from
public relations firms seeking advance notice of the finalists’ or the winner’s
identity in order to prepare responses, and attacks in the business press. After
agribusiness/biotech giant Monsanto won the Award, the Rural News wrote in May
1999: "Despite the fact that this award is supposed to be a negative thing, …
the make-up of the judging panel makes [me] want to run out and buy heaps of
Roundup for no good reason other than to upset this bunch of do-gooding lefties!
Let’s just hope the lentil sandwiches, no doubt passed around after the award
ceremony and washed down with lashings of herbal tea, weren’t made using
genetically modified canola margarine!"
Roger Award will not defeat the onslaught of corporate capital in New Zealand.
Yet in a country subjected to one of the world’s most radical free market
economic experiments it is a valuable contribution to a public debate about
the power of TNCs and the folly of maintaining an economy largely to cater for
their improved opportunities for quick profits.