A living wage – time to shift the boundaries and think global

by Daphna Whitmore

One of the first announcements of the new Labour-led government was that the minimum wage will rise from $15.75 to $16.50 an hour in April 2018. It will then increase each year, reaching $20 an hour by 2021. While this news got some over-excited responses (from the left and the right) most people understand this is not a seismic shift.

The minimum wage has risen every year for over a decade, mostly pushed by union and community campaigns for a living wage. Despite talk of the new coalition being a ‘change government’, the Labour-led team will have boosted the lowest-paid workers a mere 25 cents an hour more than the National government likely would have. The living wage remains, as ever, postponed.

There are some other measures such as Labour’s Best Start package which will add around $60 a week to families with young children. There will also be an increase to the accommodation supplement, and free health care will be extended to children an extra year from 13 to 14 year olds. Again, a very modest increase on the programme of the previous government.

Labour and their coalition partners have promised to be ‘fiscally responsible’ and the business community is already saying they are happy to work with the new government. That the Labour-led government is not unlike National is not surprising. The two main parties have a long history of running the capitalist state seamlessly.  For instance, National kept in place the previous Labour government’s Working for Families tax subsidy for low-income workers. In practical terms this subsidises employers who pay low wages, so National decided to increase it.

Poverty levels have hovered at between 20 to 30 percent of the population over the past two decades. With skyrocketing house prices in Auckland the poverty issue became a hot election topic. Jacinda Ardern has vowed to reduce child poverty, even becoming the newly-minted Minister for Child Poverty Reduction. So far there has been no mention of raising benefits – where the deepest levels of poverty are – suggesting Ardern’s ministry is unlikely to do more than tinker.

The name of the ministry  and the term ‘child poverty’ gives a clue to the approach. Don Franks in an article here argues the ‘child’ poverty approach “covers over the fact that thousands of workers don’t get paid enough with the notion that kids suffer because their parents are too shiftless or selfish to provide for their families.” He notes “the other advantage of reducing poverty to Child Poverty is that the setting is not about creating social equity but entirely about helping children – the most vulnerable.”

Social equity is not  just about reduction in poverty, it is a fundamental shift from an unequal society and it  needs to reach beyond national borders.  

If by 2021 the minimum wage is $20 an hour, it is unlikely to be a living wage with costs rising in the interim. A living wage is defined as the income necessary to  provide workers and their families the basic necessities. Many of our basic needs are provided by goods produced in other countries, particularly in the low-wage third world. Commodities produced in low-wage countries are consumed mostly in imperialist countries, of which New Zealand is a member.

Should a living wage in New Zealand be a separate issue from the need for workers globally to have a living wage?

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50,000 Bangladeshi garment workers took strike action against inhumane wages in 2013

Linking a living wage in New Zealand to a global living wage campaign would be a real step towards working class unity. In fact, to limit the fight for decent conditions to one country makes no sense in a globalised world. When the clothes we wear are made by Bangladeshi garment workers being paid 30 cents an hour is the grinding poverty in that country an issue we can ignore?  When the computers and phones we use are made by Chinese workers earning $2 an hour in high-tech sweatshops can we deny this is super-exploitation?

A globalised living wage campaign in a world of globalised production makes real sense. We will be discussing this in future articles, and we’d like to hear your thoughts on the idea of a global living wage.  


  1. In terms of New Zealand, this points to a problem with the wage system, ie with capitalism. Employers have the power to just raise prices to compensate for having to raise wages. Wages are always left struggling to keep up with prices.

    The second important point is that class politics doesn’t begin within national borders, especially within the imperialist world. It begins with the working class as a *global class*. If you just start with the working class in an imperialist country like NZ, you’re just promoting sectionalism.

    Unfortunately, this is the approach of not just the liberal-left in NZ but much of the far-left too. They see the NZ working class as a discrete class, rather than as one detachment of a global class. So their ‘vision’ is to put a few dollars more in the pockets of the NZ detachment of the working class, a detachment which is far from the most oppressed section of the global class. And that’s it. Well, that and some Sunday speechifying about socialism (to use a term Trotsky used about reformists/opportunists).

    But the majority of the working class is in the Third World. Their labour-power creates a massive amount of value, much of which weirdly *appears* in GDP accounts as if it was created in the First World. Because the working class is a global class *real working class politics* in the imperialist world have to start from the global interests of the working class.

    And it’s pretty clear that Labour and their friends in government are very much opposed to the interests of workers globally.


  2. I’m very interested in the idea of a global living wage. It’s a welcome mind shift to real international solidarity.
    How about a bench mark rate of $493,655 per worker per year?

    • I’m not sure if Redline people are familiar with Loren Goldner – sort of a populariser of some of the ideas of the ‘communist left’ in English. One of his pieces was jokingly called the “lego communism” article. In it he suggests that socialists rarely have an idea of a “programme” in the event that we actually won some kind of revolutionary wave in key economic centres. So he invited people to make suggestions, his own included a global minimum threshold of income as one of the first points if we were imagining a “first 100 days”. The rest of it is at the bottom of this piece http://insurgentnotes.com/2010/06/historical_moment/

      • I hadn’t come across Goldner before. I like the first 100 days idea – it puts forward some really contemporary demands.

      • Daphna – I actually had the pleasure of meeting him recently when he was in NZ on a Holiday, we had a fairly informal meeting with the canterbury socialist society. It was definitely informative. Goldner is interesting – of all the fairly out-there groups to be involved with I think his much younger political days were with the LaRouchites. After that I’m not sure about involvement in specific groups, though seems to have had an ’embattled marxist academic during the era of post-modernist ascension’ period where he went pretty hard against particularism and some of the most egregious kinds of identity politics.

        Has done some good work on the working class in South Korea too.

      • Thanks for this Thomas. Actually, at our last Imperialism discussion John asked us to think about what we’d put in the Communist Manifesto if we were writing it in 2018 rather than 1848.

  3. “Linking a living wage in New Zealand to a global living wage campaign would be a real step towards working class unity.” This is about generalising trades union activity into the international arena.Is the function of revolutionaries to act like militant international trades unionists or to question why people have to work for wages in the first place – that they do not benefit from accepting a relation between Labour and Capital in ANY way?

    • It needn’t be a narrow trade union focussed campaign. It would preferably be one that challenges imperialism and national borders, and fosters internationalism. The old concept of the working class as a class-for-itself (Goldner mentions this) is surely a great way to prepare people to challenge the wages system.

    • Good question and one we’re aware of.

      Hopefully other people will comment on this, because there is always that tension between *opposing* the wages system and fighting for improvements *within* the wages system.

      I think the answer is indeed questioning why people have to work for wages.

      But this can be done while also campaigning around a global wage.

      I can see why you suggest there is a danger of just internationalising militant trade unionism – ie from a national to international scale. Especially with your experiences of the British union movement and the way so much of the Brtish left equates militant sectoral trade unionism with revolutionary politics.

      But I think what is involved re a global living wage is not a quantitative change but a *qualitative* change. It goes against all the narrow sectionalism of trade unionism in the imperialist centres, raises issues like the free movement of workers and opens up the process of challenging working class embrace of imperialist nationalism.

      The idea of such a campaign isn’t actually ours – John raised it at the last discussion/study session. Getting workers where *we* live, countries like Britain and NZ, to think as part of a global class, would be a big step forward in my view. I also think the context would be one of expanded struggle in the Third World, so we can point to the greater combativity of workers there.

      An example – here in Dunedin, we have had three large industrial workplace closures in the past few years and pretty much no resistance. Indeed, with the most recent closure, the workers actually turned out to an incredibly patronising “Goodbye, fuck off, thanks for making us profits for decades, here are some chocolates” event.

      In Argentina when bosses decide to close a workplace, workers will often occupy and take over the place.


  4. Hey Thomas, would you like to write something about Loren Goldner’s meeting in Christchurch? Colin was just telling me he was disappointed that Loren didn’t make it to Dunedin and that Malcolm was disappointed too, as he (Malcolm) was keen to try to arrange either a public talk or an informal meeting.

  5. Phil: For workers, wages can never be enough! Militant trades unionism – nationally or internationally – are not qualitatively different. Marx showed that production – the root relation between man/man because of survival – currently hides behind our relationship with the things we produce, or our economic activity depends on us making things; his critique was that reducing our labour to things was not all our activity should be – economic activity should free us from scarcity. Bourgeois society, the form of society that produces only things from our activity stands in the way of that development. Extremes of wealth and poverty, or humans who are wealthy and those who are not, show us the reality rather than the ideal; hard work leads to a bit more stuff, but never enough.

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