Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tactics for the living wage

Yesterday, Labour leader David Cunliffe promised a living wage for all public servants. The Greens apparently think this is a bad idea, saying that it "could end up turning workers against one another":

The Greens, staunch supporters of the living wage campaign, say Labour's policy misses out those most in need of a pay rise, but who may not be "core" public sector employees.

"The living wage is most desperately needed by those services that are contracted by the public service. Like for example the cleaners in parliament, they are the ones who have the lowest wages and they need the biggest boost."

Ms Turei says Labour's commitment could also upset workers in the private sector who think they're missing out.

The first is a good point: contracting out has made the government responsible for some of the most exploited workers in the workforce (cleaners, rest-home workers and homecare providers being obvious examples). The government needs to ensure they're covered, by making payment of a living wage a requirement for all government contracts, and appropriating money to cover the cost. The second however is mistaken. The whole point of the government moving first is to leverage its power as a massive employer to drive the marketplace and create competitive pressure for others to offer similar conditions. Employers will grumble. Workers, insofar as they are able, will compete for government jobs. Its not as quick a solution as simply legislating from the beginning, but it gets you there in the end, and in the process builds a firm social consensus behind the policy (look at the early stages of the struggle for pay equity as an example of this). And given that the living wage is explicitly not meant to be legislated, it fits very well with that idea.

(Though obviously, the other end-goal has to be to ensure that the minimum wage is also a living wage. I think Labour can be trusted to make good progress towards that goal).