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.

QOTD: Saziah Bashir on playing at poverty

A great read at Pantograph Punch, on the problems with how we talk about poverty.

Poverty doesn’t take breaks on the weekends, or holidays over Christmas, or a week in Bali to escape the winter. Poverty is relentless.  Poverty is a daily humiliation. Poverty makes you especially vulnerable to substance abuse, violence and crime, which in turn keep you locked into that cycle. Poverty is hopelessness. Poverty takes away your agency and your power, and your voice. Poverty instills shame and parades your circumstances for judgment by strangers at dinner table chit-chat and late night talkback radio for those who have never met you. Poverty hangs over your entire life like a dark cloud that stretches to your furthest horizons, casting a dark shadow over every aspect of your personhood. Poverty is also reductive: you may be a complex creature, a full human being with loves and hates and particular tastes and preferences, but firstly you’re poor.

Poverty is not being given credit for carrying on, in the face of all of this, against all odds, in spite of naysayers and without the guarantee of change or liberation or even a platform.

Hat-tip to Morgan Godfery on Twitter.

10 things you could do instead of a sugar tax

It’s sugar tax season again, when leftwing politicians hem and haw about increasing the costs of food they don’t like in order to coerce people to be healthier. Are you excited? I’m excited.

jafar-ecstatic

But I wonder if there’s maybe another way to do things. A way which isn’t punitive, judgemental, or unsubtly sending a message to fat people that their lives are worthless. Maybe it might look something like this.

10 things you could campaign on instead of a sugar tax

Raising wages. Guess what the major obstacle to eating a varied diet high in fruit, vegetables, and tasty protein is? Food costs money! People don’t have much money! Make sure they have more money! Rocket science.

Community gardens, school gardens, and fruit trees on berms. Just put the fresh food out there. Give kids and adults the tools and space to develop skills, provide for themselves, and develop a stronger relationship with where their food comes from.

Good school lunches. Give kids access to a wide range of fresh locally-made food and let them figure out what makes them feel good and full of energy. Bonus: local jobs and opportunities for young/unemployed people to learn skills and contribute to their communities.

Make school sports free. Like, really? I’m not even a parent and I’m hearing about schools charging up to hundreds of dollars, per kid, per team they’re on, per term.

Pools, playgrounds, skate parks, basketball courts. Outside of school, create safe local places for kids and adults to get out and be active.

Raising wages. You know what else makes people reach for convenient pre-packaged highly-processed “junk” foods? Working two or three jobs because they can’t afford to pay the rent, much less be at home every evening to cook a meal from scratch, or go out to the park to play frisbee.

Break up the supermarket duopoly. Two companies control most of our supermarkets, which pushes prices up. Encourage local farmers’ markets especially in urban centres, make it easier for small grocers to get started, crack down on price-fixing and supplier bullying.

Reverse the government’s $1.7 billion cuts to health and then some. Build a health system focused on prevention (of actual diseases, not existence-of-fat-people-itis)

Adopt a Health at Every Size approach. It may sound terrifying, but trufax – when you stop focusing entirely on people’s weight and promote actual physical and mental health, you get happier healthier people. End sizeist policies which exclude fat people from healthcare, and get medical staff looking beyond body size.

RAISING WAGES. Like, seriously. You know what causes a hell of a lot more damage to people’s health than having a fat ass? Stress. Not all the kale in the world is going to save your life if you’re barely sleeping from worry and overwork, never getting any natural light, or constantly fretting about unexpected costs or keeping up appearances despite being skint.

The ironic thing is, many of these policies are already in the political picture. But time and again we get distracted by the policy equivalent of the South Beach Diet- it’s quick! It’s easy! It might damage your health in the long term but you’ll do it anyway because there’s literally nothing worse than being fat!

Our distaste for the huge corporations who sell the packaged/processed/unrecognisable/cheap/nasty food we label as “junk” distracts us from the reality that they are only able to profit because far too many people do not have the luxury of picking and choosing a perfect organic macronutrient-balanced meal plan every week.

I get it. Those guys suck. But ultimately, a sugar tax does nothing but make the cheapest food available more expensive, in an environment where many people cannot make ends meet anyway. Those people won’t find magical quinoa salad under the mattress in the boot of their car if a bag of potato chips costs 50c more.

There are so many other things we can do – so many things that would improve people’s lives without marching into their homes and telling them what’s good for them. A more positive, supportive approach which says people have free will and good hearts, which trusts them to make the right choices for themselves and their whānau. Which is what we’re meant to be about, isn’t it?

Defending social services and fighting the real enemy

A really interesting article on the government’s proposed changes to child protection legislation at Re-Imagining Social Work, looking specifically at the political context and the especially damaging impacts they could have on Māori families:

The current new and more sophisticated push for public sector privatisation (pushing the market onward to fresh feeding grounds) is premised upon the logic of independent reports, such as Better Public Services, which are, in fact, saturated with political bias.

There is an undertone that public services are failing – particularly for the most vulnerable among us (how particularly sad). In part, this is a spin on one of the oldest privatisation gambits – if you run public services down enough, predictions of failure become self-fulfilling.  Alleged failure is linked to the assertion that we don’t know enough about the drivers of poor outcomes. I wonder what it is that we don’t know, but I am guessing the fact that poverty is directly related to the unfair distribution of wealth and opportunity in our society is something which the Commission would prefer us not to think about. The argument is that social services are expected to solve social problems. If they don’t, social services are at fault.  So … disadvantaged New Zealanders are disadvantaged because of under-performing social services. Are you with me so far?  The answer lies, of course, in innovative flexible capitalism.

There’s been some recent comment on the left about the people who work in this environment. And like I said in Don’t despair, I get the temptation to go for the soft targets – in this case, the people who work on the frontlines. It’s easier to swear at the person on the other end of the phone, giving you the bad news about your allowance or demanding more pointless paperwork, than the convoluted system of politicians and processes and decision-making which got you and them here.

But they aren’t formulating these brutal policies, they aren’t deciding where the funding is spent or cut, they aren’t setting the narratives which enable and encourage a punitive culture instead of a supportive one.

In fact, all we do when we attack the public servants at the coalface is play into the government’s hands and make it only easier for them to review, restructure and privatise our important social services into nonexistence.

Again, like I said in that previous post:

We have to remember that a defining part of being on the left and being progressive and believing in social justice is that we have faith in people. We know people are fundamentally good. We know humans are social animals who form communities and friendships and look out for each other, when they’re not being hammered every day with rightwing narratives about bludgers and self-interest and YOUR taxpayer dollars being wasted on those parasites.

I know that the people working in our public services want to do a good job. They want to ensure people get the support they need. Of course they want kids to eat, of course they want families to have homes.

But when this government decides people needing support don’t have consistent case managers who know their background, they deliberately made it harder for people with complex needs to get all their entitlements. When this government chooses to load people up with debt because they need emergency housing and the only thing available is a hotel – because a previous version of this government decided to sell off our state houses – they make it impossible for people to ever get out of a shitty situation. When this government decides to classify solo parents and people with chronic illnesses as “Jobseekers” regardless of their circumstances, they deliberately prop the door open to errors and mishandling and ridiculous amounts of paperwork.

When this government cuts and cuts and cuts and applies “sinking lid” policies to staff numbers even when there’s an economic crisis going on and more people than ever need to access public services, there is only so much the people on the frontline can do. They are working damned hard often for bloody low pay and they’ve got all the worries about rent and the power bill and school “donations” and getting through the week, same as the rest of us.

Let’s focus our anger where it needs to be: on the government which sets the course, and on the rightwing propaganda which justifies it.

~

No apologies for this one – I was a teen of the 90s and a WWE Smackdown fan during the glorious Vicki Guerrero/LayCool era.

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.