Lyndon Hood - consumer, Lower Hutt

Monday, April 19, 2004

I have been ill and the quality of my thought processes is degraded. The pressure from my sinuses and the swollen glands in the back of my neck appears to be preventing me joining up ideas in any satisfactory manner.

So when I say that I feel some thematic connection between my personal attitude to the Lower Hutt produce market and sweatshops, you might have to bear with me.

I will, I admit, take any opportunity to disparage Lower Hutt in general conversation. Thursday night, for example, is late night shopping (as in, "and not Friday"), and the way it closes on Sunday. It suffers in comparison with Wellington, which is both inevitable (it's just down the harbor) and unfair (they're really just different parts of the same beast).

It's actually quite nice.

And one thing it does have is the Riverside Market, which sets up at the Weekend (in a good chunk of the area which on workdays provides all the parking that Lower Hutt could possibly want) and supplies fruit and veg to the masses. Apples and pears are 99c a kilo at the moment, though there was somebody selling huge bags for two dollars out the back of a ute. It's busy from early in the morning, there's a range of snack food and bric-a-brac available, but the thing that sticks in my mind, apart from "vast amounts of vegetable at wholesale prices", is the cosmopolitan mix of people.

I mean cosmopolitan in the sense of "from all parts of the world", but without the overtones of urban-ness or european-ness, and or course not in the sense of vodka with lime, tripe sec and cranberry juice.

The observation that gave rise to this descriptor was, "Wow. What a lot of brown people."

I should note that I recently moved up from Dunedin. There is a food market in Dunedin. It's called the Farmers' Market, held next to the Edwardian railway station and most notable for supplying locally-produced specialty food — boutique stuff at not unreasonable prices. It's mostly patronised by Dunedin's core population of white folks.

Not so in the Hutt. The crowd, the merchants, the vegetables and the snack food all show a real ethnic mix. Brussel sprouts, puha, taro, daikon, lemongrass and chillis in bulk. Maori breads, Island-style fried stuff and some people with a huge wok steaming pork buns. People drifting past chatting in languages I don't even recognize.

If this is any indication then the Hutt is just close enough to Wellington to attract people and just far enough out that immigrant communities can afford to develop there. The is borne out by the variety of ethic events I've seen since I arrived. In one weekend there was the annual Italian community celebration in Petone and in Lower Hutt the annual but eerily named "Racial Unity Day".

Now, I've never really understood what the beef is with immigration. I hold to the idea that interacting voices and ethnicities are what keeps a culture lively, and the more of those the merrier. My lingering liberal niggle is the sense that I'm only enthusiastic about it all because it means I get to go to all these interesting ethnic restaurants.

And at the market it took me a few visits to stop feeling like an interloper. My wife and I do feel financially restricted, but that's mostly caused by moving to the more expensive (apart from the fruit and veg prices) climes of Wellington. Basically, standing in the market I feel white and rich. But I technically local, it's not as if I'm getting any surly looks and my money really is as good as anyone else's. I'm supporting something I approve of and having an experience I enjoy at the same time as saving money. It is, in fact, a triumph of capitalism.

Although I have to admit that I don't have the faintest idea where all of this produce comes from. It's obvious some of it is imported, but it's unlikely that the ya pears were assembled in unventilated factories with no fire exits by people working for 18 US cents an hour.

It's a huge strain to suggest that the Dunedin market is a bit like buying local and the Hutt market is like having goods made overseas. It's probably just that I've been reading No Logo while under the effects of an infection (someone suggested I had all the skills for branding so I got a bunch of relevant books out of the library).

There's really another, far better-research post in this thought, so I'll just give you the punchline. New Zealand is gearing up to negotiate a free trade agreement with China. The Prime Minister has been said that labour and environmental standards will be raised in negotiations, Trade Negotiations Minister is optimistic that environmental issues will be included in any deal. I'm not against free trade per se, but unless China enforces labour standards in its export processing zones we will be competing with sweatshops. And until it recognizes a number of human rights, as of free speech and assembly, its labour market cannot be described as "free". It seems to be agreed that China wants the deal as an entree to the world trade community. I don't imagine they want it that bad.