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A living wage: living with dignity edition

Written By: - Date published: 7:00 pm, February 12th, 2013 - 49 comments
Categories: class war, cost of living, poverty, quality of life - Tags:

The concept of a living wage is one that just makes good sense to me.  A wage should be enough to live on, right?  Because it’s a wage?  Because what’s the point if it doesn’t?  Because … because we have to work to support ourselves and our families and if the wage isn’t enough to live on surely it makes no sense?

(As I ask these questions, my expression gets progressively more and more confused.  I assure you it’s very cute.)

But I realise I am not everyone, and so when a group of very knowledgeable people put together some estimates of what a “living wage” would really be (covered by Eddie here and Ben here), I go “sounds fair to me” and other people go, “But I could live on far less than that, these numbers are too high!!!”

What I’ve come to realise is that “living wage” means vastly different things to different people.

To some people, it means enough to tread water.  Enough to fulfil basic caloric requirements and pay for rent on the smallest place you can find (probably in Kawerau, or Gore, because if you claim you can’t afford rent and you live in Auckland, where all the jobs are, you’re just being demanding), wearing underwear from a $2 shop and using minimal power because you don’t need a television if you’re really struggling.

Honestly, I’m surprised I haven’t yet seen a comment saying “but you don’t need to go out even once a month if you really can’t afford to!!!”  And I will thank you not to link me to it if you see it.

To me, there’s an unspoken “with dignity” that sits after “living”.  It means more than the bare bones, more than scraping by, more than just making ends meet.

It means being able to save, so you have a safety net when things go wrong.  It means not shifting from flat to flat when the landlord raises the rent, moving the kids from school to school, and certainly never having the temerity to aspire to home ownership.  It means having treats – a day at the zoo, a movie, a bottle of wine, opportunities to bond and socialise and enjoy the company of your family and other people.

It means being able to hold your head up at the school gate because your kid can have a new pair of shoes (which aren’t shitty plastic that’s going to hurt their feet) to wear to school.

Sure, the kid could wear jandals, and nobody’s going to die without a glass of $10 sav, and takeaways are going to kill us all … but seriously.  What complete sociopathic lack of empathy do you have if you can’t even allow that human beings deserve lives which include enjoyment and reassurance and dignity?

And if you really are a middle class bastard motivated purely by self-interest, you know what else letting people live with dignity means?

People not becoming totally disillusioned with our society.  People not doing everything they’re told they have to do, only to feel like they’re never going to get ahead.  People not turning into criminals, breaking into your home, stealing your shit, and burning your fucking house down because they have been browbeaten and shat on and starved and shuffled from low-paying temporary job to low-paying temporary job until they have fucking snapped and said “fuck it, why the fuck not go eat the rich?”

People don’t have bread and you’re sitting back saying “Let them NOT eat cake, cake’s a luxury item!” and you don’t expect this shit to bite you in the ass?

A living wage is a wage that lets people live with dignity.  Is that so much to fucking ask?


49 comments on “A living wage: living with dignity edition”

  1. KJT 1

    Exactly right. Less than a living wage is a subsidy from the employee, and often the rest of the tax paying public, to the employer.

    We all know what good capitalists say about firms that cannot meet the true costs of the resources they use, don’t we!

  2. But what is ‘dignity’ under capitalism?
    Even a good wage that buys most of the things we need, still leaves us as wage slaves.
    Where is the dignity in that?
    Because who defines needs under capitalism?
    When you look at it, our needs are defined as what is necessary to make us fit to to be exploited.
    Fighting for a ‘living wage’ is a good step to prove that unless you make a profit for the boss your need to live is not a right.
    Because unless you are making a profit the bosses don’t need you alive you are cheaper dead.
    A step along the way in realising that for us to live capitalism must die.

    • karol 2.1

      wage slaves may need to stifle their dignity at work. however, if they get some leisure time, and have enough money to make it possible, they can get some dignity from those activities.

      People getting only enough to physically survive, don’t even have those moments when dignity is possible.

    • QoT 2.2

      Fighting for a ‘living wage’ is a good step to prove that unless you make a profit for the boss your need to live is not a right.

      Bullshit. Fighting for increased wages clearly has fuck-all to do with “making a profit for the boss”. The “boss” can happily make profits by churning through an underemployed class of starving workers, especially with Paula Bennett at the helm of our welfare system. (That is, until the aforementioned burning-down-of-fucking-houses).

      There are some good conversations to be had about the inherent inequities of all capitalist wage-labour relationships. I’m sure they’re really fun and engaging for people who aren’t struggling just to feed their kids three meals a day.

      You want a revolution? You better make sure people have the basic headspace for a revolution. When they’re being trodden into the dirt they might just be a little more focused on the dirt.

      • Olwyn 2.2.1

        Excellent post QoT. It is disgraceful to insist that the best the non-middle class should expect is a subhuman existence, and to whinge about the extravagance of their $10 bottle of wine through cosmetically enhanced teeth. I am deeply grateful to the people who have actually worked out what a living wage is at the moment, since it shows us how bad things have become, and also gives us a goal to work toward if we are to be citizens rather than denizens.

      • red rattler 2.2.2

        “You want a revolution? You better make sure people have the basic headspace for a revolution. When they’re being trodden into the dirt they might just be a little more focused on the dirt.”

        Qot: you havnt noticed that the struggle for survival wages is met by repression which becomes a motivator to question the need to get rid of the wage system? eg Marikana.
        Nothing to do with ‘headspace’ or ‘fun’. But in every sense being ‘focused on the dirt’.

        Karol: capitalism does not allow ‘dignity’ in leisure. You should know that. Dignity is won by fighting capitalism at work and when leisure becomes time for organising its overthrow.

        • Colonial Viper

          Karol: capitalism does not allow ‘dignity’ in leisure. You should know that. Dignity is won by fighting capitalism at work and when leisure becomes time for organising its overthrow.

          That’s exactly right.

  3. Blue 3

    wearing underwear from a $2 shop

    Geez, you have high standards, QOT. The poor should never buy anything new. If they can afford underwear from the $2 shop they need their wages/benefits cut.

    Used underwear is the only way to go.

    • felixviper 3.1

      Why are they wearing underwear at all?

      I mean are we talking about a living wage or an exotic luxury lingere wage?

      • QoT 3.1.1

        Shit, you’re both right. My extravagant indulgence will destroy New Zealand’s whole economy. *weeps for our nation*

  4. Mel 4

    Yesterday during a discussion on the living wage I heard national radio commentator on ‘The Panel’ state…” If we give them more how will we know they’ll spend it wisely?” (or similar comment).

    Felt vomit in my throat and my chest constricting.

    Since when was employers paying workers for work undertaken a charity? Employers don’t GIVE workers money for goodness sake. Workers work for it!

    How on earth has the language of work been hijacked by such crap?

    And how have we come to be a country where the rich Prime Minister can publicly utter that a living wage is a not a priority for Government with no subsequent media nor public outrage??

    • QoT 4.1

      Well, I think you’ve answered your own question, Mel. There’s no outrage because the narrative of “poor people just make bad choices / spend it all on booze and the TAB” is so strong.

    • Colonial Weka 4.2

      The Panel will be the first against the wall.

    • Olwyn 4.3

      “If we give them more how will we know they’ll spend it wisely?” It’s amazing that some people cannot even hear themselves saying such things. Haven’t they noticed people who behave like that are not depicted in literature as urban sophisticates, but as cruel, vulgar upstarts?

      • RedLogix 4.3.1

        Well the logic in their heads tells them that being poor or on a low income is a result of their bad life choices already … and that giving them more money is just throwing good after bad.

        It’s a snobbery thing really.

        • Olwyn

          Yes, it’s snobbery, but dissociative, self-defeating snobbery. They would not go and see some Jane Austen or Dickens movie and think that the people who behave as they do are the good guys.

          • RedLogix

            I think maybe we’re all guilty of that to some degree or another. We all we tend to judge others by their actions …. and ourselves by our intentions.

            It’s late and the next thing eludes me right now …. but it’s worth remembering that almost no-one thinks of themselves as a bad person, let alone setting out to be a ‘cruel, vulgar upstart’. Yet we are almost always blind to exactly that sin in ourselves.

            • Olwyn

              True, but thoughts that would comfortably condemn others to privation do need to be challenged, wherever they come from.

            • Mike

              Sadly, it has come to pass that many don’t “judge others by their actions”. They judge them by the perceptions they have which is brainwashed into them by politicians and the mainstream media, some commentators in particular. How else could it be perceived so widely that people unlucky enough to find themselves on an unemployment benefit are on it for the lifestyle, living the high life with booze, drugs, gambling and sky TV. Not to mention nice cars, state houses and so on and so on. Amazingly, people never stop to think critically about this perception, else they would come to the realization that this isn’t possible at all on $200 a week (plus accommodation sup, max $100 per week). Yet still this belief persists, because the mainstream media never ever comes out and declares constantly that $200 to $300 a week is fuck all.

              Just today there was a letter in the Herald talking about full time employed people getting less than what they would on the unemployment benefit. This simply is not true. The max you get on the unemployment benefit is around $200 per week plus accommodation supplement. But anyone on low wages (less than around $700 per week) can also claim the accommodation supplement. Yet people I know still blindly believe this shit. Maybe if the unemployment benefit was much higher, employers would be forced to raise wages. Imagine if wages had risen in line with productivity increases over the last 40 years, instead of profits from productivity increases all being gobbled up by executives and shareholders.

              Then again, imagine if we had free mobility of labour but no mobility of capital (instead of the opposite which is what we currently have). Corporations would be forced to compete to attract workers by providing high wages and other benefits.

              • fatty

                well said mike…can you (or someone) clarify this – I don’t understand – Then again, imagine if we had free mobility of labour but no mobility of capital (instead of the opposite which is what we currently have).

                • karol

                  Then again, imagine if we had free mobility of labour but no mobility of capital (instead of the opposite which is what we currently have).

                  Capital can take their jobs to any country – and many do offshore their factories to lower paying countries. Workers do not have so much choice to follow the jobs internationally.

                  The quotation suggests that, if workers had global choice of where to work, and employers/corporates couldn’t move globally, the employers would have to raise their game in providing jobs with living wages.

                  • fatty

                    thanks…I get it now.

                    • Colonial Viper

                      karol’s comment also explains a lot of what you see happening today on borders between countries and the hoopla around boat people.

                      A lot of countries welcome and in flow of foreign capital, but would shoot at, sink or detain an inflow of unwanted foreigners.

              • Colonial Viper

                Maybe if the unemployment benefit was much higher, employers would be forced to raise wages.

                Universal Basic Income mate 🙂

  5. Draco T Bastard 5

    I, and many others, can survive on the unemployment benefit but we can’t actually do anything (and if we could there’d be people complaining that we had too much income) and that’s not living. A person with a job has much higher expenses than someone just surviving on the UB and thus their income needs to be significantly higher again. The minimum wage is high enough to allow a worker to survive but, again, not actually do anything and the same people are complaining about raising their income.

    Why is it, do you think, that a large portion of our society isn’t allowed to do anything and are, in fact, prevented from doing anything?

    • QoT 5.1

      Because then some other people couldn’t have houses so large it’s difficult for the Diplomatic Protection Squad to protect them.

    • Colonial Weka 5.2

      “A person with a job has much higher expenses than someone just surviving on the UB and thus their income needs to be significantly higher again”

      how do you figure that?

      • QoT 5.2.1

        I don’t know what Draco specifically means, but a person in paid employment probably has additional transport and clothing costs for the commute and to maintain the expected “standard” of work attire (or even uniforms.)

        Or you could work for Overland.

        • Colonial Weka

          That would be true for some workers and not others.

          I was thinking transport particularly. Not sure that it qualifies as ‘much higher’ as a generalisation, I guess it would depend on where and the circumstances.

          • felixviper

            Generally true. Apart from transport, clothing, food (yeah many people need more food when they’re working than when they’re not) there are a whole lot of things that are hard to find time for with a full time job that save a lot of money. Vege gardening is one example.

            • just saying

              Once you are set up with all the gears and materials, preferably in a congenial climate with good soil… sometimes vege gardens save money . But saving a lot of money?….. Nah
              And often the costs outweigh any savings.

              It’s a hobby for most people.

              • RedLogix

                True js … but it’s only one example. The trap we’ve fallen into is the idea that everything has to be monetised …when in fact for most of human existence we got by just fine on a gift economy combined with bartering whenever we had a surplus.

                Actually trading with money was pretty much reserved for special items like luxury status goods, or those shipped long distances from other countries.

                One of the reasons why capitalism has been so dominant is that it has usurped this normal gifting/bartering economy of ordinary everyday life, in order that the profits could be captured by the owners of capital.

                Being unemployed would be a whole lot less of a bastard if we made it a lot easier for them to participate in this sort of ‘off the grid’ economy. Instead we penalise them if they do.

                • just saying

                  You’re quite right RL.

                  I was going to say that the only way that domestic gardening really “works” economically is when harvests (and also preferably, time and resources) are shared because fruit and vege gardens are feast or famine most of the time. It’s what I’m involved in, and it feels great.

                  I don’t even think it was what Felix was talking about, but I tend to bristle at any suggestion that the poor just need to dig a garden (presumably with their kitchen cutlery or their bare hands) and they will magically be able to feed themselves. It tends to go with the meme that the poor are just lazy.

                  Community gardens, transition towns and time-banking are working on changing communities in just these ways, but progress is slow because so much has been lost, in the past thirty years particularly.

                  But I believe that this kind of community-building should never replace political action for social justice, the two movements must go together.

                  • felixviper

                    Yes js that’s very true, it’s in co-operation and trade with others and over longer timeframes that growing your own food makes a real monetary difference.

                    But the same applies: It’s a lot harder to find the time to network and co-operate and trade food and garden at a community level when you’re working 40 hours.

          • Mike

            Yep, especially if they are self employed or contractors where they can claim back pretty much all their expenses in tax rebates. I’ve always wondered why we allow such an unfair system. For example, a self employed person has to drive themselves to work and back each day. They can claim back the expense of doing work (cost of doing business) in their taxes. A person on salary or wages has to drive themselves to work and back each day, but they cannot claim back the expense of this. Why the fuck is that? Am I missing something? They’re both having to pay money to get to work, yet one of them can get that money back whilst the other can’t. Small things like this never seem to see the light of day in any public arenas.

            • Draco T Bastard

              Yeah, that’s something I’ve been wondering about for the last few years as well. A worker on PAYE is as much in business as the self-employed contractor. As far as I can make out the reason why we treat them differently is because it costs the IRD too much to treat everyone the same. This could be changed with modern technology but no one seems willing to change it. Probably because it would mean trashing a few private businesses.

      • Draco T Bastard 5.2.2

        Transport, clothing, food – it all adds up. Hell, the job I applied for the other day comes with $5000 per year in transport costs. It’s not a minimum wage job but it’s not an average wage job either. Yes, I’d be better off than on the dole but not that much better off.

  6. djp 6

    Well lets assume that everyone should have a living income (whatever that number is determined to be).

    That does not mean that it needs to be 100% supplied by a wage. Better to have a universal benefit or some such and abolish wage floors so that price signals can still communicate what work actually provides utility.

    • felixviper 6.1

      What makes you think price signals reflect utility in pay now?

    • Mike 6.2

      Great, more rent seeking. You’re suggesting more subsidies for business instead of companies paying people a fair and decent wage as compensation for their labour. Why should taxpayers subsidize companies which are making good profits? It used to be that as profits increased often through gains in productivity that the wealth was “shared” with executives, shareholders and workers all getting income increases. Since the 80’s, all of the additional profits from increased productivity have been kept by those at the top, on of the reasons for the drastically increasing income inequality between those at the top and everyone else. Yet you want taxpayers to pay out even more money to the rent seekers, rather than sharing the wealth.

      And no, I’m not a communist and I don’t want everyone to be equal and receive equal pay and so on. I just believe in fairness. Yes, executives should get more pay than their workers (not that their input to society is greater though) but having an income 40 times that of their workers should be enough, not 400 times.

      • Colonial Viper 6.2.1

        Don’t fuss, just increase taxes on corporates, asset wealth and top tier incomes.

        but having an income 40 times that of their workers should be enough, not 400 times.

        I reckon 10x to 15x is more than enough a differentiator. That’s a very common ratio in Japan. In the Mandragon co-operative Corporation a more usual ratio is 7x.

      • Draco T Bastard 6.2.2

        You’re suggesting more subsidies for business instead of companies paying people a fair and decent wage as compensation for their labour.

        Nope, suggesting that taxes be high enough to ensure that everyone has a decent living standard.


        The point is that there must be enough produced to support that living standard and thus the universal income which informs us the minimum that needs to be produced. If we also work with penal rates to ensure that everyone has a job then that work gets spread around effectively so that we don’t get people whinging about bludgers on the dole.

        What effectively happens with a universal income is that we start working together rather than competing with each other.

    • McFlock 6.3

      The current government is working towards universal implementation of at least half of your solution.

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    GreensBy Jan Logie
    2 weeks ago
  • Domestic Violence – some advice for the media
    For the purpose of this piece, I’m going to use Domestic Violence (DV) as a proxy for intimate partner violence. DV is not isolated to physical abuse in a relationship between people with the same power. DV is a pattern of ...
    GreensBy Jan Logie
    3 weeks ago
  • Leroy’s New Paw Prints
    Leroy, an Auckland great dane recently received a new 3D printed bionic leg after cancer was discovered. I think this is a fantastic story and highlights the real potential of additive manufacturing, or 3D printing Leroy’s prosthetic was printed in titanium and was ...
    GreensBy Gareth Hughes
    3 weeks ago