The best arguments for a living wage are its opponents

The fundamental difference between the left and the right is that the left think people are more important than money.

That statement usually raises the hackles of nice moderate rightwingers, but I’m sorry, guys: I can only go on what your side keep saying. Even though overseas even Tories like Boris Johnson have seen the benefits of a living wage, this is what mainstays of the Kiwi right wing keep putting out:

Wellington Chamber of Commerce is calling on the Wellington City Council to drop its flawed Living Wage proposal after its own legal advice said the changes would not be within the law…

“The Chamber has said from the start that the council’s pursuit of the Living Wage is an ideologically driven decision. The council has a duty to ratepayers to deliver services in a way that is most cost-effective for households and businesses. This is their clear legal obligation under the Local Government Act.

“Delivering services in the most cost-effective way” is one of those statements that sounds really reasonable and pragmatic and ~fiscally responsible~, until you realise that a perfectly logical end point of this is paying people minimum wage to do vitally important work and engineering society to deny them the power to organise and demand better work conditions. Until you realise that people deliver the services. Not robots.

How about this line from Wellington City Council chief executive Ken Lavery:

[The Council] flew in the face of warnings from its own officers and chief executive Kevin Lavery that it would effectively be paying 19 per cent more than the going rate for guarding, noise control and cash collection services over the seven-year life of the security contract without seeing any extra benefit.

People don’t have “a going rate”, Kevin. People need to eat, and pay the rent, and when they’re doing critical jobs like keeping our city running I’m entirely happy to take a miniscule rates increase to cover it.

The living wage doesn’t provide some extravagant “I want a pony” lifestyle. It’s as simple as this:

… councillors also heard from Wellington security guard Tipo Panapa, who said earning the minimum wage made him feel undervalued for the difficult work he does.

His dream was simply to earn enough money to take his paraplegic father to Lyall Bay for fish and chips on the beach once a week, he said.

The benefits are obvious and demonstrated. When people have enough to take their dad for fish and chips once a week, they’re happier. They’re more engaged with their work because they know their employer cares about them as people, not as “a going rate”. Less turnover, lower recruitment costs, more experienced people doing the work of guarding our city and cracking down on those damn noisy teens across the road. More money going into local businesses – like the fish and chip shop which I’m pretty sure would be delighted to get more regulars.

The arguments against the living wage, time and time again, boil down to “over the last thirty years we’ve worked damn hard to make sure people’s income hasn’t kept up with productivity or the cost of living, and that’s a feature, not a bug.”

And when that is the argument against, why wouldn’t you be in favour?

The myth of hiring on merit: James Shaw at the CTU conference

Green co-leader James Shaw announced at the CTU conference last week that in any future government, when the Greens are at the Cabinet table, at least half of their seats will be filled by women.

Cue the #manban headlines.

hermione unimpressed clap

But seriously, Shaw showed some good, clear thinking here on an issue which so often gets swamped with #notallmen whining or #butwhataboutmerit or #reversesexism!!!

Take a look at our current Parliament which is seventy percent male. Or Cabinet, which governs the country, also seventy percent male.

No one seriously thinks all those guys are there because they’re the best of the best, or that they’ve all got so much more merit than any female politicians.

The reality is that it’s a traditionally male institution.

There were legal and social barriers preventing women from entering. And those overt barriers are gone but many subtle barriers remain.

And just to really reach the psyche of ~middle New Zealand~ (I’m joking, James, you’re doing good work here) he goes for the king of metaphors:

I’m going to steal a trick from our friend John Key here – this is his only trick – and use an All Blacks analogy.

Imagine if we had a coach who almost always picked players from only the North Island, or only the South Island to join the squad.

And they said ‘We pick whoever is best for the team,’ but the team kept losing all its matches.

How long would the nation put up with that? I think you could measure it in seconds before everyone said, ‘This is stupid. This isn’t working. You need to pick players from the whole country.’

That’s what’s happened with the representation of women in politics for decades.

And it isn’t working.

It’s trite but it’s true. You have two options: either admit you think women as a group aren’t as good as men as a group, or acknowledge that there are barriers – human-made, inorganic barriers – to women’s advancement on a par with men.

Or as Catherine Delahunty put it:

What do you earn?

Helen Kelly linked to an advice column in the Herald which suggests that while it’s perfectly okay to ask people how much they paid for their house, it’s a no-no to ask about their income.

It’s a great collision between two myths which reinforce a lot of terrible ideas we’re told about people, and value, and solidarity.

Of course you can ask people – with proper etiquette – what they paid for their house. House-buyingness is next to godliness. Buy a house young and you’re an entrepreneur. Own multiple properties and preach the virtues of “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” and you get headlines. There’s no shame in owning one house, five houses, or making millions of dollars literally being subsidized by a state which won’t provide decent housing for people in need.

But there’s plenty of shame in asking people what they earn. That’s private information, after all, and you’re an individual standing on your own two feet and by god, if other people (who aren’t as good and productive as you) find out what you get, they’ll try to steal it!

Or as advice columnist Lee Suckling put it:

Asking somebody about his or her salary is far less permissible. This is purely because it’s none of your business.

The only people that need to know how much you earn are your boss and your spouse.

It’s the gospel of self-interest. You’re an individual. You’re think as an individual. You function as a good little rational economic unit working purely for its own gain.

One of the terrible aspects of our current system is how it unnaturally pits us against each other. You certainly shouldn’t look at the other people working around you and think “we’re in this together. We’re in the same situation! We should be treated fairly and given the same pay for doing the same work.” They’re not comrades. They’re competition!

We’re meant to take it on faith that each of us – the “you” who has to protect your good deal from the avarice of your fellow labourers – is getting the best deal. And we’re meant to see this as a good thing, because the boss wants us to sit at his table in the cafeteria, not them.

We’re meant to trust that the boss is properly sharing his or her profits with the people who created them. Unfortunately, a lot of them aren’t.

That’s what a lot of people working at Google discovered when Erica Baker created a shared spreadsheet of the salaries of people working at the company. Surprise surprise – they found people weren’t being paid equally for their work. And apparently managers at Google didn’t like this. Erica Baker isn’t working there any more.

The defensiveness is kind of understandable, but also shows the benefits of transparency for everyone involved. We know about unconscious bias. Most people don’t twirl their moustaches and announce “I’m going to pay women less because I hate them”. They don’t realise they’re doing it until it’s all laid out in front of them. And if they think of themselves as good people who aren’t sexist or racist, etc, it can be a shock to discover you were being sexist or racist, etc, in practice.

(In the same way, I doubt Lee Suckling sat down at his keyboard and thought “Haha! How can I reinforce a cult of individual self-interest today? Muahahahaha!”)

A final point: if you’re in a unionised workplace with a collective agreement – and I acknowledge they’re the minority – you do see what your coworkers are earning. You know that the same job is paid at the same rate, or that everyone in your team sits in the same pay band. It doesn’t ruin morale.

What do we see when the people in a workplace or industry are in the union? Higher wages, better conditions, and fairer pay for men and women.

the incredibles coincidence

So I’m sorry, but I’m going to keep on being impolite. Because “politeness” is capitalism’s way of tricking us into not comparing notes and realising just how much we’re all getting exploited.

Anne Tolley desperate to screw down beneficiaries even further

So for 18 years, people who have been on stand-down periods from benefits – i.e. forced to stretch whatever savings or credit or charity they can access just in case they’re not really in desperate need of paying the rent or buying food for their kids – have been consistently underpaid.

Radio New Zealand reported Work and Income had underpaid some beneficiaries by a day since 1998, as it had paid people from the day after their “stand-down” period ended.

When people applied for a benefit, they often had to wait two weeks for it to start.

Work and Income was meant to pay a beneficiary from the day after the two week period ended, but instead had been starting payments the following day, RNZ reported.

And the government’s response to this persistent underpaying of poor and vulnerable people, who are already expected to live on less than it actually costs to live?

The Government was now trying to retrospectively change the law dating back to 1998, when the provisions took effect.

Of course they are. As many people have said in response to this article, if WINZ found out you’d been over-claiming for a day’s benefit since 1998, you’d be in jail, castigated as the worst kind of bludging, greedy parasite.

When WINZ has been stiffing beneficiaries for an extra day’s benefit for nearly 20 years? Oops, better make that all go away really quickly, we certainly don’t want people to think they’re entitled for restitution after being simply, wilfully, defrauded by the government.

(Unless they’re Saudi millionaires who totally reckon they were promised cushy trade deals.)

In fact, they’re going to “fix” the law not by making WINZ obey the damn law, but by changing it so everyone has to wait one day more before they can get the government assistance they desperately need.

This matters. We might be tempted to say “oh it was ages ago for some people and it’s not much money per person”. But benefits in this country are already at unsurvivable levels. The New Zealand Council of Christian Services says:

Real net benefit rates compared to the real net average wage have declined steadily and significantly over the past 30 years and are at levels that leave people in poverty. The Working for Families package has helped wage earners but this has further increased the income disparity between the waged and unwaged.

Benefit levels do not allow families to feed, clothe and house themselves adequately. For example, the PIP Update Report found that the disposable income of food bank clients (most of whom are reliant on benefits) is barely sufficient to cover the estimated food costs required to feed a family of two adults and two children.This leaves little or nothing for other household costs.

And that PIP Update Report was completed in 2007. We’ve had a bit of a global financial crisis since then. You reckon things have gotten any easier?

This government, and Anne Tolley in particular, have declared “success” for their punitive welfare reforms because the numbers of people on a benefit are going down. And that’s often what makes the headlines: benefit numbers down! Economy obviously hunky-dory! But when you dig beneath the numbers it’s clear this government hasn’t achieved anything meaningful. Thousands of people are being lost in the system because they haven’t managed to complete the (obscene amount of) paperwork to renew their benefit. Others may be checking out because the system is so – deliberately – difficult to navigate.

This is just wrong. It’s inhumane. It’s cruel and unnecessary. That’s why we have to talk seriously about the role of the state in supporting every person who cannot be in paid work, for whatever reason. We have to challenge the rightwing idea that paid work is the only valuable contribution a person makes to their community and society. We have to get real about new ideas like a universal basic income. We have to stop, absolutely stop, walking into the trap of blaming beneficiaries for broader economic circumstances or pussy-footing around about whether the poor are “deserving” or not.

We have to do better than this.

Midwives deserve equal pay

It’s another one of those less-easy-to-grasp pay equity cases: the College of Midwives has filed a discrimination suit on the basis that midwives aren’t paid as well as equivalently-skilled/trained/responsible workers in male-dominated industries.

The College of Midwives says the midwifery-led system in New Zealand has improved the outcomes for women and their babies to the extent that it is a world leader in maternity care and it has never been safer to be born.

Despite this however the LMC Midwife is paid the equivalent of someone considered unskilled, semi-skilled or junior staff. This is untenable and must be urgently addressed.

The thing is, unless you’ve had a baby yourself, you probably don’t know a huge amount about what they do or how they’re paid.

Thank god for living in the internet age: here’s a fantastic post on the subject from a Kiwi midwife:

Who do you compare the midwifery workforce to?  What group of  mainly men are specialized, medical care providers, with a responsibility for two lives, a 24/7 52 week a year responsibility for care provision, and the responsibility of two lives in every decision they make?  For that, I don’t have an answer.  But I am sure that as a group, we could come up with some ideas.  Leave a message in the comments if you have a job description that compares.  I am thinking maybe electricians?  Or something?

So.  i can’t resolve the “how do we decide who to compare to” question.  But I thought I would try and add a little light to the subject of “what do midwives actually get paid?”

Seriously read the whole thing before posting another snotty tweet about how ~unqualified~ midwives are.

I’m sad to see a bit of sneering and scoffing on this – from people on the left. I expect the “ew, be grateful for your scraps, peasants” attitude from the weirder parts of the right, but come on, people. We knew it was shady when Cameron Slater was trying to smear Ports of Auckland workers over their salaries. We know that capitalism seeks ways to devalue people’s labour in order to exploit them economically. We know that our healthcare system is stretched and our present government doesn’t value the long-term benefits of properly investing in skills and services.

This is part and parcel of the same project, to undermine women’s work, to paint midwifery as “just holding someone’s hand and telling her to breathe”, not “real qualified medicine”. This is one battle in the wider workers’ struggle. So get over the fact that 99% of the workers involved are women and back our midwives.