Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A living wage in Auckland

Auckland mayor Len Brown has finally piped up for his core voters in South Auckland and said he is proposing that Council staff are paid a 'living wage'. According to the Council's draft budget, the estimated cost of this is about $3.75 million, phased in over three years. The Mayor of Having a Buck Each Way has explained that he was supportive of moves to pay people a decent wage "provided it doesn't impact on ratepayers." This qualifier wasn't enough to stop the usual suspects working themselves into a lather at the prospect of the low-paid receiving more take-home pay.

The Chamber of Commerce's Michael Barnett stated: “What the Mayor is saying is that he will fix inefficiencies that should have been addressed long ago and use the savings to increase the pay of a favoured few – its [sic] populist politics...” Observe how those on the lowest wages are described as "the favoured few" without so much as a blush. The word populist is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people." Yet used here it becomes a term to belittle anything that challenges the prevailing pro-business, economic ideology promoted by organisations such as the Chamber of Commerce.

Singing a different version of the same song was the Employers and Manufacturers Association's Kim Campbell who blustered on Radio New Zealand that the Council needed to find "substantial efficiencies and reduce staff numbers" if it was even going to contemplate paying some workers more money. It is another odd use of language that a noun meaning something has the quality or property of being efficient is now, apparently, an actual thing you can find under the desk just by looking hard enough.

In reality, this is just the politics of hoping people don't look hard at the numbers and start questioning which pork-barrel projects lobbyists such as the Chamber of Commerce and the EMA support. The draft budget estimates the living wage proposal will costs $3.75 million over three years. But a quick look over the page shows the Council spending $461 million for the City Rail Link, and $184 million on AMETI (both over three years). Both of these projects are supported by the Chamber of Commerce and the EMA. The EMA and Chamber of Commerce have also welcomed government promises to help fund the East-West link. If this project goes ahead ratepayers will stump up half of the estimated $1 billion (yes, you read that correctly) cost. So while these Guardians of the Public Purse are shedding crocodile tears because ratepayers will pay $4 million to low-paid staff, they have no qualms about spending many, many millions more of ratepayers cash on a project for which there is as yet no business case or any assessment of economic, social or environmental impacts (prove me wrong, Auckland Transport, and put them on your website).

The living wage is not a perfect solution to low income (for example, it doesn't address the meagre incomes of the underemployed or unemployed) but it is an understandable response to working poverty and our growing income gap. The Mayor's move is more symbolic than meaningful, and the response from Auckland's real big spenders is equally lacking in substance.