Spencer Family Mansion

On the weekend, the New Zealand Herald ran a story about a mansion which is to be built in Stanley Point on the North Shore. The Devonport section is so big it covers 16 separate street addresses. With the current housing crisis in Auckland, it’s shocking that such a large property so close to the city is to be home to a single family. Or at least it would be shocking if this family didn’t have such a long and outrageous history.

The mansion is being built for Martin (Berridge) Spencer, on land the Spencers have owned for a while now. Berridge is the 4th generation inheritant of the Spencer family fortune, generated in 1890 when his great-grandfather Albert Spencer built the Caxton Printing Office in Auckland.

The Caxton Printing Office was founded with a Mr. Probert, who was bought out of his share in the business by Spencer five years later. It was eventually inherited by Albert Spencer’s son, Berridge Spencer Sr., who expanded the business following World War I, eventually establishing a monopoly on a wide array of paper-based household products. This was inherited in 1981 by his son, John Spencer (Berridge Jr.’s father), who sold it off 7 years later to Carter Holt Harvey for a tidy $300M. John Spencer’s wealth was estimated during the mid ’80s at around $675M, making him New Zealand’s richest man at the time.

Land owned by John Spencer on Waiheke island contains the Stony Batter Historic Reserve, a Category 1 Historic Place with a series of gun emplacements from World War II. Apparently annoyed with the public’s interest in our shared history, he launched a legal battle and eventually dumped a load of dirt to block a public road in an attempt to keep the rest of us out. After almost two decades of protest and legal battles with a $1.5M cost to Auckland ratepayers, the legal battle made it to the Privy Council, where Spencer lost.

Apparently unhappy with only costing the communities around him money, John Spencer along with his son Berridge, decided to try their hand at tax evasion. For 14 years they were, together, majority shareholders in TrustNet, a company specialising in setting up maze-like company structures to facilitate tax evasion. They both placed money in companies set up to hide their true locations and owners, ostensibly to evade tax themselves.

Having cost Aucklanders millions, and skimped on their own contribution to society by way of tax evasion, The Data Centre, owned and directed by Berridge Spencer installed a motion-activated sprinkler outside their premises. This has been at the entrance to The Data Centre, next door to the Starbucks on Queen St for over a year now, and is still visible and working. The sprinklers are an absolute disgrace, from a family who refuses to fund the social services we rely on to ensure people aren’t forced to sleep in Queen St doorways to begin with.

New Zealand hasn’t got as long a tradition of landed gentry as countries like Britain, but the Spencers certainly act with the impunity of English lords. The Spencers refuse to pay their fair share, and have no qualms about pissing on those who suffer as a result. That they’ve decided to build a mansion on a section, the likes of which the rest of us could never even dream, is just another slap in the face from our horrible, burgeoning upper class.

The Baddies of Agriculture: Employers or Employees?

A couple of days ago, John Key launched an attack on employees, labeling kiwi workers as lazy drug abusers. Key suggested immigrants were needed for seasonal work, as they are more reliable and harder working than local workers. While there are obvious arguments to be made here challenging the validity of his statements, this article instead aims to provide some context around industry practice.

Our agricultural sector is big, harvest seasons typically cause huge influxes of workers to those regions of the country. It’s not unreasonable to expect upwards pressure on the wages of seasonal work, workers are in high demand, but short supply. It’s surprising, then, to see the first results of a Google search for “fruit picking jobs” to result in a list of companies offering minimum wage for fruit pickers.

Jobs in agriculture are even worse. New Zealand Farm Source, a major farm labour recruitment website, advertises jobs with dubious conditions. A cursory search of the site reveals one promising a measly $40,000 per annum, while demanding an average of 56 hours a week, putting the pay rate at about $14 an hour, far lower than the minimum wage. Helen Kelly, former president of the Council of Trade Unions, has been tracking jobs on NZ Farm Source, and regularly finds jobs requiring dangerously long working hours, offering low pay (often below minimum wage) and necessitating illegal employment contracts.

Employment contracts are never provided to large tracts of agricultural workers. One in five workers are employed, illegally, without a contract. Agricultural employers are far less likely to comply with employment law when hiring workers.

In saying New Zealand workers are lazy and drug dependent, John Key is providing thinly masked defence of an exploitative and abusive industry. Kiwis expect to be treated better, and they demand their employers act lawfully. Immigrant workers face the threat of deportation if they ever challenge their employers, and uncertainty about whether their visas, which are linked to their employers, will remain valid if they complain.

Abusive employers should expect stroppy employees. We should be celebrating the kiwis who take their less-than-minimum-wage paycheck and stand on a shovel all day. Key’s statement is clearly untrue, but provides the reader with a good course of action for combatting bad employment practice; get high and stay home.