Low paid workers: between a rock and a soft place

By Don Franks 

I have no idea what business writer Heather du Plessis-Allan’s income is, but feel all workers are entitled to know it. Today, Thursday 16th December, on Newstalk ZB, she proclaimed:
“Apparently, the government is considering another hike in the minimum wage … We’re told MBIE has been out consulting and now the government is considering another three-year cycle of increases, starting with the first of more than a dollar. Frankly, they need to kill this idea”.

The business writer continued: “I do feel for people struggling to make ends at the moment with the rising cost of living: rents have gone up in a massive way, the cost of food is up, petrol’s up. Inflation is running at an unacceptably high 5.1% and it’s only going to get worse; HYEFU figures today predict it will climb to 5.6% in the next quarter. But as much as I feel for struggling workers, I also feel for struggling businesses. They can’t afford this.” She went on to argue strenuously for consideration of “businesses” – undifferentiated – as though Fonterra and the tiny small town corner dairy are all of a piece. There was no more mention of struggling workers, apart from the comment “I don’t think… the unions calling for more pay increases – truly understand yet how bad it is for businesses.” Heather du Plessis-Allan ended: “This is the government’s problem to fix. So, they should get creative. Shift tax brackets, give tax breaks, do whatever they can to fix their problem”.

A little more feeling for struggling workers can be seen from union quarters, like the latest release from NZ Council of Trade Unions’ economist Craig Renney.

“Statistics New Zealand today has released figures showing a 6% annual increase in rents across the country, and a 4% annual increase in food prices. Both of these are running well ahead of wages at 2.4%.

“Rental price increases are no longer constrained to urban centres – with the highest percentage increases for new rental agreements taking place in the North Island outside of Auckland and Wellington at 10.3%. Prices also lifted in Canterbury, with an increase of 10.1% for new rental agreements. This data is also supported by information from a Massey University Rental Report which showed a near 10% fall in rental affordability last year.

“Food prices increased even when adjusted for seasonal variation. Basic foods like fruits and vegetables rose nearly 6% annually after seasonal adjustment. The cost of grocery items also increased by more than 4%. Given how important these are to low-income household budgets it is essential that wages keep up with these changes.“ Craig Renney concluded: “One of the best ways in which the Government could provide an early Christmas present for essential workers would be to support the CTUs call for the Minimum Wage to be set at the Living Wage level of $22.75. This would both lift the incomes of some of the poorest in the country, and make sure that we can all celebrate a more inclusive New Zealand in the New Year”.

A more inclusive New Zealand, what does that really mean? “Inclusive” is an empty bullshit expression, beloved by politicians because it sounds caring while meaning nothing. Justice for the growing number of badly deprived workers demands a new mindset. The country’s minimum wage, which thousands of workers are on, or close to, only went up this year from $18.90 to $20. What is the point of a fractional movement to $22.75? Of course, it is better than $20, but why should workers be forever confined to horizons of slightly increasing a pittance? What is the point of describing $22.75 as a “living wage”? Can you, at the same time, eat properly, pay market rent, save for a house, buy and maintain a reliable vehicle, decently educate your kids, budget for emergencies, travel for holidays and save for your old age on $22.75? No, you can’t. It’s not like there’s not enough wealth in the country. Not while corporate executives receive millions of dollars and 120 members of New Zealand’s parliament own 248 properties.

What’s needed today is a radical change in our conception of what’s fair and right. In the meantime, Heather du Plessis-Allan need not worry overmuch about unions calling for more pay increases. Apart from the efforts of a few dedicated individuals, the union movement is compliant, its central body politely asking the government to give the poor a few extra cents, as a Christmas present. I can’t recall a previous time during my life when the dispossessed were so poorly represented by those claiming to be their voice. Low-paid workers will have to create their own new forms of organisation if they are not to sink to truly third world levels of destitution.