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  • Added November 5th, 2013
  • Filed under 'All Sorts'
  • Viewed 1507 times

A living wage-some thoughts

By George Davis in All Sorts

where does the Methodist church stand on social action today?

Recently, I saw the last part of a panel interview in which the commentator Rod Oram was arguing for the basic minimum wage for workers to be raised from $14 per hour to $18 per hour. He holds, as I do, that raising the minimum wage is an investment in our business future. In fact, the minimum rate that is given to employees who are 16 years or over is $13.75/ hour ($11/hour for starting out workers) ; $110 ($88) for an 8 hour day or $550 ($440) for a 40 hour week. As shown, the rates are lower for starting out workers, particularly 16-19 year olds who are undergoing training - as shown in brackets above.
These figures make for a bleak outlook for many workers, especially the young and those with family responsibilities in looking after young children. In February Oram featured in "Business Day" arguing the case for more investment by business leaders in the support through larger pay packets for the obviously poorer workers. As an example the case of a Pacifica family was given where the two adults in their 40s or 50s were looking after 4 grandchildren all under 6 years old. This is not an extraordinary case, even here in Dunedin. Most families in this situation are too poor to afford homes so live in ever more expensive rental accommodation. With rental for a basic house with 3 or 4 bedrooms costing $250 to $400 per week, and with a car to run the children around, food becomes an option rather than a given.
Most unfortunately, in many households where these conditions prevail violence occurs, and arguments are frequently precipitated over the distribution of money. Add to this mix two other dangerous vectors - alcohol and gambling then we can see that tragedy is a likely outcome. For the poor, recourse to alcohol is a much used way of softening the daily hardships that are faced. [I hope not to hear any of you tut-tutting when you read this]. As well, gambling, with its attractions of excitement and joyous possibility of winning the big one seem to go hand in hand with hardship and alcohol abuse. A question of concern for the many poor is whether giving more money for work would allow investment in food, savings and food or merely go into more gambling and alcohol consumption. Stumbling over this question should not be a barrier to positive action such as might be provided by more basic pay from employers and appropriate support services by the State.
The central problem for business leaders is whether greater basic pay for workers will result in greater product output or that happier workers will be less inclined to opt out of work or go on strike. Rod Oram points to the Costco-Walmart study from the US in 2006 which can be read in full in http://bit.ly/WJSh8O. This study argues clearly that in the instance of low paid employees, that an increased hourly payment equalled happier employees who related better to customers and thereby improved turnover to a significant measure. Now many NZ business leaders argue the opposite case based on the model that business can only thrive within its financial constraints if employee costs are kept low, and that will be the most effective way to grow the business. It is the sort of Chinese market model of a cheap labour force helping drive financial success adopted into the NZ environment. However, with the growing middle class in China, business leaders and the Beijing Government are beginning to realise that chronically low wages have an impact on the successful outputs of production, particularly in this age of widespread and influential mass media.
Historically New Zealand has been seen as a haven of care for those at the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. One of the most important social roles of the government has been to provide a cushion against the privations of economic hardship. Over the past 20 years this role has been attacked and diminished. Much of the social responsibility for those needing food, clothes and shelter seems to be falling on community aid agencies. Second-hand clothes and bric-a-brac shops seem to proliferate in the city and are visible indicators of need. One the other hand they also point to a positive trend - that of not discarding useful items to the waste collectors but taking them down to the Sallies or other agencies to be recycled; a sort of charity by proxy for those disposing of once-valued commodities. However, the Government is hampered in its ability to develop policy or strongly suggest that minimum wages be improved, particularly to the level suggested by Oram and other commentators. The government wants to be seen to be fostering business, and while the accepted business model is for cheap labour to provide services and products for the rest of the population, then little change can be expected.
Where does this leave the Methodist Church and other Christian groups. Well, we are one of the community service agencies providing succour for the poor through the food basket collections on Sundays; the provision of training for young starter or out of work people; protesting intermittently to the local and national government offices about the need for action on this issue; making representations to the media, particularly at election time of the need for helpful policies on the question and providing support for our own Mission initiatives led by the indomitable and inimitable Laura Black. But don't you get the feeling that we are not doing enough? The Methodist Church was founded for exactly this sort of cause - fighting in the corner of the oppressed and the poor. We need to regain our direction and put energies into the things which matter. In fact, one might argue that the existence of the Methodist Mission proves that we are active in the matter.
Well yes, and no. The Mission is locally supported by the church, but that is not enough. Once, the twin planks of the Methodist church were spiritual guidance and social action. It is hard to see that happening today to any extent when the Mission is not a central feature of all Methodist Churches. Perhaps this is a time for review. Along with saving buildings we need to save the people. Rather a case of saving the people, and putting them in a situation where they can save (for) themselves, actually.
GF Davis 14 October 2013.