Written By: Helen Kelly - Date published: 2:21 pm, February 24th, 2013 - 117 comments
Categories: john key - Tags: christchurch rebuilding, collective bargaining, contact energy, living wage, pike river, the hobbit, workers' rights
The thing I like about the Living Wage campaign is the branding represents strongly both the problem and the solution. Even the Prime Minister fell into its trap the other day when he said that the Living Wage was not a priority for his Government. What a load he got off there! The statement says it all really. Full Stop. The Government don’t want you to work for a living, they just want you to work.
The thing is there is no mechanism in NZ to develop fair wages. Collective bargaining brings a margin for workers that can access it, but even then, the outcomes are often wages below a living wage for workers in the service, hospitality, retail and care sectors for example (about 700,000 workers actually).
For most workers the employer sets the wages. In Christchurch a major consortium of 5 construction companies (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team – SCIRT) has a recruitment website that says it all really. While urging people to come and undertake a state provided training in construction, on the pay issue it says:
Each employer sets their own pay rates and will decide what your wages will be .
Well that’s clear enough! Many of these employers are reported to be paying the minimum wage for semi -skilled work (labouring, traffic control etc). Thank goodness they don’t get to completely decide – the minimum wage is at least a bottom! The complaints they can’t recruit and want to increase migration to Christchurch needs to be challenged. The market works both ways boys!
So instead of unions claiming the 2-3% settlements of wages being achieved from time to time in collective bargaining as a victory (which on low wages they clearly aren’t in the context of a living wage), they are changing the context and fighting the dominant narrative about work. The campaign highlights that that the deal about work is broken and needs to be restored. That in exchange to the obligations and duties owed by workers to their employer – honesty, loyalty, diligence – wages should be paid that afford a decent life. Rest, time with family, a modest family holiday etc. It is remarkable that we have to have this debate.
The narrative pushed by business and government is that work is a charity. The business is the benefactor providing jobs as a community service – to be honoured and recognised. That workers are the beneficiaries – the recipients of the charity – for which they should be grateful and deferential and not bite the hand that feeds them. They are lucky to have a job!
Pike River was the classic example – the PM rushing to the companies side to ensure the risk that the dark side of business would be exposed was minimised. The CEO was given a key place in the state memorial service to talk about how the miners were drawn to Pike because of its safety culture (safety culture – my next blog!). The media were stigmatised if they were ‘mean’ to him in his hour of grief by asking insensitive questions like did he know what the hell he was doing in the aftermath of the explosion. He was nominated for New Zealander of the year a few weeks after the explosion –he was described in the media as “god inspired”. He promotes the narrative beautifully in an interview everyone should now re-watch.
The Hobbit was another – those ungrateful actors spitting in the face of the generous charity of Warners who were the ultimate charitable giver – 2000 jobs. But also in every day dealings the narrative is tripped out. The recent Business NZ new year party – Phil O’Reilly praised his membership on the basis that they worked every day to create jobs for our community (like at Contact Energy).
The Living Wage seeks to change the narrative. While in the first instance it is relying on employers agreeing to pay a wage higher than the market demands them too, it raises the issue of what the exchange of work entails and who really pays for low wages. The campaign sends a message broader than the actual employers that will buy into it. It says the market is failing and needs to be fixed. It makes the space for courageous politicians to step up and promote legislation that supports collective bargaining and industry wide agreements on the basis that the current law is failing to do that and the community is paying the difference (by way of health costs, family subsidies, crime costs, educational failure etc). It changes the narrative of “be grateful and take what you can get”, to “the market is failing and business are taking advantage of it and its victims –workers – to pay wages that are destroying our community”
Sure the union movement as part of the strategy will recognise those employers that come on board and encourage communities to do the same. We will highlight these employers as the good ones – juxtaposed against those that don’t. But always within the story that the system is broken and needs fixing (because there will be employers that don’t). We do a bit of this now – highlight Progressive Supermarkets for paying higher wages than others etc. But the campaign painfully highlights that the things that humans, citizens, children, families, communities need to survive are not built into our economic model – they have to be shamed out – and then the model has to be changed.
I support the Living Wage campaign – it will bring about real change for many low paid workers, and highlight the inadequacy of the model – and it will lead to the bigger debate – we need fair laws, a balanced economy and a commitment to truly recognise that work is part of a deal – and that deal includes an exchange of time, skill, sweat and honesty for a wage that people can live on.