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Chris Ford: A living wage is the only way to go!

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

 A living wage is the only way to go!

This week, a coalition of unions and researchers will unveil what they believe to be a living wage for Kiwi workers. The campaign will follow those mounted in the United Kingdom and Australia which are designed to pressure employers and contractors to pay their workers a living wage.

It's likely the ideal wage will be set at around $20 per hour - just enough to give workers sufficient to pay for decent food, housing, power and other essentials plus go out to a movie once-in-a-while and/or buy a computer and decent internet connection.

After all everyone, including the lowest paid workers, has the right to a decent life.

However, since the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, wages and conditions have been severely attacked in New Zealand. The end of national collective bargaining and the rise of enterprise and individual contracts saw average pay rates plummet while company profits soared. Consequently, income and social inequality have risen in New Zealand during the last two decades. This has seen us go from being one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet to one of the least in a comparatively short space of time.

Growing income inequality has sparked both domestic and international concern. Social service agencies and unions here have been at the forefront of calls for inequality to be lessened. They have pointed out that income inequality ultimately hurts society as a whole in terms of depressing spending power and also in producing poorer health, educational and housing outcomes, an increased incidence of violent crime and domestic violence within society and higher worker turnover.

All of these negatives cost society dearly in terms of increased hospitalisations, prison incarcerations, justice system costs and lost learning opportunities.

That's why it's time for the capitalist business community to see sense!

Yes, low wages have always been the underpinning of huge profits. Karl Marx was the first to make this connection through his surplus value of labour theory. 

But during the Keynesian Social Democratic era business, both big and small, made accomodations with unions. They knew that the alternative to ignoring their workers was that the dreadful Soviets might back a worker's takeover in the West. That was all bunk but this implicit underlying fear made employers respectful (if still hostile) towards unions.

In the new age of globalisation where capital is free to roam (while labour is comparatively not) and with the Soviet menace gone (and the Communist Chinese now all capitalist roaders), a race to the bottom has emerged in terms of wages and conditions.

The Living Wage campaign is one of a number of ways in which unions and civil society groups are seeking to arrest that trend, especially in the developed world. The campaign first began in Britain where even such Communist-flunkies as London's Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson have backed it. Positive outcomes from the British campaign have included a committment from many councils and some private companies to pay their workers a living wage - all this achieved in the midst of a serious economic downturn. The campaign has sparked a genuine debate (aided by the 2011 Occupy Movement) about social inequality as well. Prestigious publications including that well-known Marxist rag The Economist have joined the debate by publishing articles calling for action on income inequality.

Will the campaign have a similar effect here?

Going from what I heard on Duncan Garner's Radio Live drivetime show this afternoon, I think it might be a hit. I even heard Garner (a Young Nat back in his student days) proclaim his support for the campaign. He even cited the numerous texts and emails he was receiving on the issue from a listenership which would largely be in the income group being targeted for a boost from this campaign. And talk radio is regarded as the parliament of the street, albeit, one usually predisposed towards right-wing wedge politics which aims to divide working and non-working New Zealanders against each other. On this campaign, though, this tactic won't work.

While restoring full, legal collective bargaining and union rights would do a lot to restore income and worker security, the living wage campaign is a start in the right (left) direction. This campaign will hopefully take more New Zealanders out of poverty and drive home the message that inequality doesn't work - for anybody.




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