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The Living Wage Movement

The Living Wage Movement

In a land of milk and honey, paradoxically, the ability for families to meet their basic needs is becoming increasingly difficult. The long-held notion that New Zealand is a classless society where if you work hard, you can become anything, is quickly being disassembled. Rogernomics, capitalism and right wing politics have fostered division, contributing to the establishment of an ever-growing class of have-nots. Living Wage Aotearoa co-ordinator Annie Newman says the question that they want to pose to people is, “what kind of a community do they want to live in?” The Living Wage Movement is about changing communities- a healthy community is socially and fiscally beneficial for all.

The Living Wage Movement is an international demonstration which aims to connect community and faith based groups to address poverty and inequality. The Living Wage Movement Aotearoa shares the common goal of achieving a living wage for New Zealanders. This is recognised as a necessary step in reducing poverty and inequality. The minimum living wage of $18.40 per hour before tax was set with reference to a household construct of two adults and two children, where one adult works 20 hours per week and the other works 40 hours. Realistically, this figure varies over the country, and this is a basic minimum for a family to function and participate in their community. This figure is not subject to fluctuations of rent or transport costs, and Newman says that these issues “need to be addressed by the government”.

The effects of low pay, and the intensification of inequality, are intrinsically tied to New Zealand’s poor placement in international statistics on poverty and inequality. Despite one of National’s first term policies in 2011 being to close the income and standard of living gap between New Zealand and Australia, New Zealand ranks 23rd out of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Development. Staggeringly, one in six children are living in poverty. But these are not the children of ‘dole bludgers'; 40% of these children are coming from households where one or more parent is in paid work or is self employed. Newman asks, “Where are the people who are earning below that line getting money to survive? Loan sharks? Family members?”

The struggle of families to make ends meet is being recognised by big businesses, whose acts of generosity tend to distract from the fundamental problem. An example of this is the Fonterra milk-in-school’s programme. Newman says, “feeding kids at school is a bottom of the cliff mentality. We need to challenge the structures that lead to poverty”.

In 2010 alone the richest 150 people grew their wealth by 20% while wages moved by less than 2%. The top 1% of earners have more wealth than the bottom 60%. The distance between the rich and the poor is increasing at one of the fastest rates for countries in the OECD, yet wages are not shifting (and have not shifted in a long time) to meet the increased cost of living.

Beyond the compelling statistical information, Newman says that a catalyst of the Living Wage movement is that in the current economic climate, people are desperate. Even charities are struggling to provide for the growing group of needy, she says “People are desperate. If we don’t think about how we structure wages we are never going to get out of poverty, nor give people a sense of dignity.”

The growth of the ‘working poor’ is fundamentally tied to a lack of access to education. The ability to take on debt via a student loan is becoming a luxury for a privileged few, as the choices young people can make after school are limited to those that can bring in money immediately. Newman says that “there is nothing sitting behind these families.” Therefore, school leavers are more inclined to enter the work force at entry level over continuing education, or enter industries that provide paid training, such as the trades or the police force.

Currently, the middle class bear the brunt of taxes, and are therefore subsidising the damaging effects of low pay on the community. A grassroots response to growing inequality is manifesting itself in businesses adopting a Living Wage policy. These include North East Valley Normal School in Dunedin and Tonzu, a family run Tofu business in Henderson. Tonzu has committed to providing a living wage for all it’s staff, and says it will cost $600 per week to lift everyone to $18.40 per hour. Tonzu says that they will find the money by cutting wastage and other costs.

Research shows that businesses who pay their staff more save money on training and induction processes, as well as notice a reduction of staff turnover, and absenteeism.

Since David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson have declared their support for the Living Wage, the movement is becoming a defining and dividing factor in political discussion.

For more information on the Living Wage NZ movement visit www.livingwagenz.org.nz

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