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.

Jobs! What are they good for?

Your brighter future, New Zealand:

A Wellington employment training centre has had its Government contract abruptly pulled because it did not focus on placing people in the hospitality, aged care and call centre sectors.

More details at Stuff.

The closure of the Bowerman School is a real puzzle. It helped many people not just find any jobs, but good jobs – relevant jobs, fulfilling jobs, jobs which could lead to a career they enjoyed.

Bowerman said her students had ranged from people who had never worked, to architects and two doctors who came through the course last year.

The difference between her course and others in the region was that Bowerman would do “whatever they actually needed”, in terms of jobseeking support.

“Whether that was getting them first aid certificates, or haircuts or clothing. Just whatever was required.”

Bowerman said most of their students were also in the older age bracket.

“First, it’s so bloody hard, especially if you’re over 50 these days, to get a job. But they’re unable to go into hospo, they’re not going to go into call centres, and aged care facilities actually want trained nurses now.”

It also makes no sense in light of the rave reviews it was getting from the agency which funded it:

So what’s going on? Why the narrow focus on “hospitality, aged care and call centres”? It makes no sense!

Actually, it makes all kinds of sense. Because this government has shown, time and time again, that it doesn’t care about good jobs or careers or skills, only forcing people off benefits so the current Minister of Social Development can crow success.

This government shut down night classes, sneering about Moroccan cooking. They sneered at the Training Incentive Allowance, which gave single parents (like my mum) the ability to get a degree. They sneered at anyone over 40 who needed support to retrain or upskill through tertiary education.

So of course you can’t have a jobs centre which supports people to flourish as talented innovative creators. That would ruin everything.

This can sound as conspiratorial as you like, but the logic is pretty simple: an uneducated, desperate minimum-wage workforce is easier to exploit. People who don’t have a lot of qualifications have more difficulty changing jobs. People who are paid at near-minimum wage after 20 years on the job don’t have the luxury of sitting back and pondering the big questions of democratic governance. And people whose only other option is being bullied and micro-managed for a pittance by WINZ aren’t going to complain too much when their breaks get taken off them or their holiday pay is short.

And it’s far easier for the kinds of people who give the National Party lots of money to leech short-term profits off a service-based economy. Why build anything real when you can just put 19-year-olds through a meatgrinder of youth rates and rolling 90-day trials?

The thing is, everyone does better when wages are good, when broad-based education is available to everyone, and when skilled jobs and a solid manufacturing base are what generates the economy – not a bunch of wealthy people flipping each other properties while the rest of us make their coffee and drive their Ubers.

But building the foundations for that kind of economy takes time, and resources, and a view more long-term than next quarter’s balance sheet.

It requires the ability to understand why the state exists in the first place, and knowing that the most important thing in the world is people, not profit.

When you don’t believe that, well. Shutting down a successful jobs centre is just the logical thing to do.


Stopping the clock

First up, I need to make make it clear as someone who’s spent the majority of my adult life in the movement and who still does a bit of contract work for unions, including the current push to get the Holidays Act payroll problem fixed: I’m perhaps not the most impartial commentator on union issues.

That aside, I’d want to see this business with the Holidays Act sorted even if I’d never heard the word “union”. The idea that one million dollars of debt owed to Kiwis could be written off every single day, or that $2.3bn (!) could be owed to hundreds of thousands of us is a Big Deal.

Watching One News last night I was a bit surprised to hear John Key refuse to stop the clock on this debt-bleed by claiming legislation takes too long. It’s not something I noticed last year when the validation of speeding tickets was passed from whoa to go in one sitting. Or when they passed the Hobbit law in just two days back in 2010 – a law that took work rights off hundreds of Kiwis.

Sam Huggard from the Council of Trade Unions is right. This is a matter of priorities:


What I find most surprising is Key’s antenna has failed on this issue. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that people feel a bit differently about speeding tickets than they do about surprise extra back pay. And, even further on that limb, I imagine that many New Zealanders probably have a few choice opinions about a Prime Minister who urgently addresses the former while letting the latter disappear over the horizon.

So why not just do it? It’s not like freezing the statute acknowledges any government liability, nor does it lock them into accepting the union movement’s fix for the problem. It merely stops people from losing money while the problem gets sorted out.

My guess is that, caught on the hop, Key’s natural response was to say no to “The Unions”. I think that’s a mistake based on his, and other National Party folks’, unwillingness to acknowledge that “The Unions” is in fact a group of democratic organisations comprising a huge cross-section of New Zealanders, including many National Party voters.

In my experience, the union movement mostly consists of people from “middle”* New Zealand. Which is why reflexively pushing back on unions has repeatedly put National on the wrong side of public opinion, from the Hobbit law, to health and safety reforms touting dangerous worm-farms, to trying to lock zero hour contracts into law.

That said, Key’s found himself on the wrong side a lot in the last few months from the trivial (flags), to the very very serious (homelessness). Maybe he’s tired, maybe he’s out of touch, maybe he’s just not getting good advice any more.
Whatever the case, he should do himself and all working New Zealanders a favour and stop the clock on the back pay. Even if it’s just in the name of the good politics he’s built his reputation on.

By the way, if you want to join thousands of others who are telling John Key to stop the clock the Together petition is here.


*note: I use the term only as shorthand – the notion a homogeneous “middle” New Zealand exists and can be identified and targeted is responsible for some of the silliest political decisions of the last 30 years.

Rob Egan is an ex-senior advisor to two Labour leaders and co-owner of public relations firm Piko Consulting.

How we talk about industrial action

There’s a problem with the way we talk about working people who take industrial action. The problem is we don’t talk about them at all.

Check out the framing of industrial action on the front page of Radio NZ – hardly NZ’s equivalent of Fox News – a couple of weeks ago.

rnz strike

“Auckland hit by bus strike” – as though a strike is a natural weather event which comes out of nowhere, and definitely isn’t about people taking action. Where are the people? “Auckland commuters left stranded” – there they are. Stranded! Because this strike came out of nowhere, and definitely didn’t involve any warning or notice. Much like a tornado.

There’s another interesting conversation to have about flexible working arrangements and how for many people working from home isn’t an option – usually people in lower-paid jobs, doing service work, providing “essential services” which aren’t compensated as such. But that’s not really what we’re saying when we talk about “commuters left stranded”, is it?

The blurb does get around to mentioning the people taking action – “bus drivers walked off the job.” As though a strike is just about a bunch of layabouts getting bored and wandering away, for no good reason at all!

It’s fair to point out that this is just the headline, and that the article behind it may well go into more detail – about the fact that the people who take responsibility for operating large, complex machines which transport hundreds of other human beings are overworked, underpaid, and being bullied when they dare to stand together in union.

But … it’s also the headline. This is the side of the story which gets the attention. Not the very real concerns faced by the people who drive buses full of other people and who are asking for totally unreasonable things like not driving for 5.5 hours straight without a break.

And so it is reinforced that strikes are random and unfair, that people who take strike action are doing it for no good reason, and that the real victims here are the white-collar workers who got inconvenienced on the way to work.

Which might be how we end up in situations like this:

Because we’ve lost sight of the people in the story and let the conversation about public transport, like so many other vital public services, become about money.

Speaking of which, here’s how yesterday’s announced industrial action was reported:

auckland dhb strike

loki sigh

There are real issues here. Our health system is missing at least $1.7 billion thanks to eight years of penny-pinching public-service-eroding National government. People who do absolutely vital work like managing pharmacies, providing occupational therapy and mental health support, and much less vital work like administering anaesthesia during surgery have been expected to keep on keeping on while their wages and work conditions have been eroded and outright cut.

The government has chosen to starve our health system, and DHBs have chosen – perhaps with little choice given their squeezed finances, but some nevertheless – to put pay and conditions for staff last on the list of priorities (except possibly for their chief executives.)

They’re not storming off in a huff because Daddy won’t buy them another pony. They are people being pushed to the limits who see no other way to get the message through.

Let’s remember that next time we see headlines about Cyclone Industrial Action Strikes Innocent Commuters as Faceless Robots Walk Off The Job.

Bold politics: redefining a good business model

I’m slightly in love with this idea of Jeremy Corbyn’s: to stop companies paying dividends until they pay the people who work for them a living wage. He said in a speech to the Fabian Society on Saturday:

Only profitable employers will be paying dividends, if they depend on cheap labour for those profits then I think there is a question over whether that is a business model to which we should be turning a blind eye.

By “slightly in love” I mean I cackled for a good five minutes after reading it because it’s so beautiful, righteous, and utterly outraging to the anti-Corbyn folk who have so desperately tried to get him to back down from his principles. This is not a guy who’s worried about being called “hard left” or “socialist”.

jeremy corbyn gives you the eye

It’s a serious proposition, though. It challenges our ideas of how businesses should operate – ideas which we tend to take for granted.

We know what a “good business” is meant to look like. It must be profitable! And efficient! And innovative! And of course it must “value” its employees – by giving them their own nametags or buying them Christmas hampers or talking a lot about just how much you value them. Even the second-most-horrible employer would agree that having happy employees/staff/associates/~partners~ is important to the success of your business.

(The most horrible employer is the Talley family, who think workers should be grateful to be fired for wearing green t-shirts. There’s always an exception that proves the rule, etc.)

We often talk about profit as though it’s the single most important measurement of a company’s success – but profit doesn’t trump everything.

britney serious

We don’t say “you only need to implement basic food hygiene after you become profitable.” We don’t say “accuracy in advertising is only required once you’re making money.” We understand the need for common-sense minimum standards in business.

If a CEO stood up and said “Look, our business model just wouldn’t be profitable if we had to ensure there wasn’t fecal matter in the ground beef” we would say “Your business model is broken.”

If a Director of Corporate Social Responsibility stood up and said “Our business model isn’t sustainable if we have to stop pumping raw sewage into the harbour” we would say “Your business model is both literally and figuratively shit.”

We already accept the idea of a minimum mandated wage for people who work. So why not stand up and say, “if you can’t afford to pay the people who do your work enough to live on, your business model is broken”?

Of course there’ll be pushback. Of course there’ll be resistance. And the people opposing us will have larger media platforms and greater influence and more money to throw into advertising and astroturf.

But that’s nothing we haven’t overcome before. That’s pretty much the entire story of the labour movement and the entire reason we have Labour Parties across the world.

This is the kind of idea which ticks all the boxes. It just makes sense. It challenges the rich and powerful who get whacking great payrises while the people who do the work struggle.

It’s the right thing to do. And taking a stand when it’s the right thing to do is how you win progressive causes. Isn’t it?