The only minimum wage is a living wage

The New Zealand government announced an increase to the minimum wage today – up to $15.75 an hour from 1 April. On Breakfast TV, MP and former tobacco lobbyist Chris Bishop praised the decision as striking a “balance” between the needs of business to pay workers as little as possible and the needs of workers to eat food and pay rent.

Not that he phrased it in quite that way. That might lead people to connect the dots between wages and living. Then we might start asking why we’re expected to accept that a person’s ability to put dinner on the table for their family is something to be “balanced”. Like survival is a nice-to-have.

A wage has to be enough to live on. It’s as simple as that.

If I offered you $20 to do something – carry a parcel somewhere, say – but the trip there and back would cost you $30 in petrol, you wouldn’t do it. It would make no sense. That’s not even considering the amount of time it would take you. You wouldn’t even consider it.

(You’d be much more likely to do it for free, as a favour, to help me out, from a sense of community or empathy – that’s something our economic models and the National Party don’t understand. But as soon as money replaces those social incentives, it’s a very different situation.)

You wouldn’t accept that it was fair or just or even rational to be doing a job for a wage which doesn’t cover your costs. And if I complained, “we need to strike a balance between my costs and your costs” you’d tell me to sod off. If I said, “but if I paid you $50 to do the job instead of $20, I’d go out of business!” you’d say, “You’re not very good at business. Maybe you should take up something different, like beetle racing.”

This is where the rightwingers cry triumph, and say “well obviously, if you don’t like the pay, you get a different job.” They’d say my scenario is actually a perfect market in action – you get to walk away from a terrible economic deal, and I face the consequences of my bad business decisions.

Except that’s not how the world works, and they know it. They’ve made sure of it. By driving down wages, by undermining unions and the power of workers to stand together and demand decent wages, by eroding our social welfare system so that people have literally no alternative but to take the crumbs they’re offered – there is no freedom to choose differently. Take the low wages, accept the terrible conditions, do the unpaid overtime, and don’t even think about complaining or, heaven forfend, wearing a t-shirt with an empowering slogan on it. Even if it’s not enough to pay the bills. Even if you’re not living – you’re just surviving.

The world does not have to be that way. We do not have to accept a heartless marketplace logic which says the value of your work is as low as a stingy employer can make it. We can say what we all know is true: the value of work is not nearly as important as the value of people. And a person’s life is worth more than a company’s profits.

If you cannot pay someone enough for them to live on, you aren’t paying enough. The minimum wage you should be allowed to pay is not determined by invisible market forces or Treasury forecast spreadsheets; it’s determined by human life. We do not work for the economy. We do not have to sacrifice ourselves to its glory.

All wages should be living wages. Or they’re just a dolled-up kind of servitude.

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