Thursday, February 14, 2013

A living wage and the sin of cheapness

The Living Wage Aotearoa New Zealand campaign has released its Report of an Investigation Into Defining A Living Wage For New Zealand [PDF], finding that a wage of at least $18.40 / hour is required to live with dignity in New Zealand. Note that that's not living well; its just the basics of a dignified life: food, shelter, and time with family. Employers who pay less than this are demanding that their employees sacrifice some of those things, that they go without basic human necessities such as food or sleep or family time - effectively that they subsidise their employer by burning their life. And that is simply wrong.

Naturally, John Key opposes a living wage. I guess things look just fine when you're sitting on a pile of $50 million in a Parnell mansion. Meanwhile, at the other end of our society, we have people scrambling to do two minimum wage jobs, at the cost of never seeing their family, just to get by.

Deborah at Telling It Left presents this as a matter of pride for employers: they should reject government subsidies, stand on their own two feet, and pay their workers enough to get by. Except that the scary thing is that the living wage computations explicitly include government subsidies such as Working For Families. Without them, it would be even higher. Its an example of how ingrained the culture of low pay has become in our society: it is now seen as a core duty of government to effectively subsidise corporate profits (and hence the incomes of the wealthy) by compensating for their substandard wages. We spend over a billion dollars a year doing this; meanwhile the idea of government regulating for decent wages (or even paying them itself) is apparently now politically unthinkable for the major parties.

Way back in 1888, a man called Rutherford Waddell preached a sermon on "the sin of cheapness". While couched in religious language, its key point was decidedly secular: that low wages were damaging our society, causing people to live degrading lives. Waddell would have called it "ungodly"; nowdays we would call it indecent. But either way, that sin remains, and it is pervasive amongst our employers. And they are not going to stop it themselves, out of the kindness of their hearts. If we want to eliminate cheapness, if we want everyone in our society to be able to lead a dignified life, then we need action by government to make them do it. Which, in turn, means voting for parties who will take or support that action, rather than stand on the sidelines and wring their hands and say that nothing can be done.