The initial response to a call for councils and other big employers to commit to a living wage of at least $18.40 an hour has been dominated by excuses. But what could be more important?
President Barack Obama did the living wage campaign in New Zealand a favour in his State of the Union address yesterday by making a simple declaration. It was wrapped up in his promise to raise the federal minimum wage – something he campaigned on in 2008 but has failed to act upon thus far. But it's something that needs to be put to Prime Minister John Key, amongst others.
Obama called for a boost to the minimum wage set by the federal government from $7.50 an hour to $9 an hour. It is, frankly, not much. Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia already have a higher mandated rate. It amounts to NZ$10.68 given the level of our dollar today, well below our $13.50 minimum.
How does it compares in terms of quality of life? I can't do the complicated sums and analysis, but I'd note how much cheaper groceries, petrol and power are in most American states.
The point however is Obama's telling line:
"Tonight, let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty...''
Is there a commitment from our government, from each of our political parties, from our busines leaders, to say the same thing?
I'm aware of the obvious question: What is poverty? There are different definitions. And National is unwilling to pin its colours to the mast and define one here in New Zealand. I'm also aware of the easy argument that everyone has different living costs and family sizes, so a general living wage makes no sense. But the Anglican Family Centre that came up with the $18.40 figure is clear that it relates to a couple with two children.
Perhaps employers considering rising to the challenge can start from there and get creative. Perhaps we can look at the breakdown of where that money might go and accept that we're talking about a life that, while satisfactory, is hardly filled with bells and whistles and is in line with the least we should expect in this country.
Rather than be bogged down in the details at this stage, we need to come back to the basic needs this research and campaign lay bare. New Zealand is a horribly low wage economy for such an otherwise rich country. While all these things are linked, I would like to see politicians turning their energy and creativity to wage growth ahead of even housing, the dollar or debt reduction.
Because when you think about the idea of a living wage, surely it is the least we can expect of those in power. If a key purpose of government is to provide for the security and well-being of its people, what is more important than those in full-time work, contributing to the demands of our society, being able to meet their most basic needs?
Whatever Len Brown, Celia Wade-Brown, Bill English, Bruce Robertson of the Hospitality Association, Barry Hellberg of the Retailers Association, and Patrick Lee-Lo of Building Service Contractors might offer as reasons why a living wage is too hard to achieve, there is a simple reply: Is it OK for someone doing a full day's work in New Zealand to be unable to make ends meet? No. End of.
What is a more important use of rates (and a better foundation for a 'liveable city')than ensuring people can pay their bills? If a business can't afford to pay staff enough to live on, are they sustainable (or desirable) or are they not charging enough? Whatever the government is doing to help those less well off (and as taxpayers we do a lot), if work doesn't pay its way, then doesn't more need to be done?
And as consumers, if someone providing us goods or services can't raise a family in decent conditions or have the kind of life we'd expect for our kids, friends or neighbours, then we aren't paying enough.
Even those hoary old arguments about higher wages meaning fewer jobs need to be called out as the charlatans they are. If a job doesn't pay enough to live, it's just not a good enough job.
In other words, there's no reason you can give me why someone in this prosperous, developed nation of ours who works full-time shouldn't be able to live on what they earn. There are no excuses.
Obama again today made his case in simple language: "if you work full-time, you shouldn’t be in poverty.”
Surely we can all stand alongside Obama and say in this rich country no-one in full-time work should suffer poverty. Really, what could be more important and more fundamental? Because if we can't commit to that, what kind of country are we?