Mayor pushes to give hundreds a pay increase

KATIE CHAPMAN
Last updated 05:00 12/02/2013
Celia Wade-Brown
MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ
Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown.

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As many as 400 Wellington City Council workers would be in for a pay rise if plans for a "living wage" - supported by mayor Celia Wade-Brown - were to go ahead.

The union-led campaign is expected to set its living wage at between $18 and $20 an hour, compared with the minimum wage of $13.50.

Ms Wade-Brown attended a seminar on the subject yesterday and said afterwards that she was was keen to see the council adopt a living wage, and encourage other Wellington businesses to do so.

Up to 400 permanent and casual council employees earn less than $18 an hour, and it is likely that many other staff working for council contractors also earn less.

"I'd very much like to move towards a living wage," Ms Wade-Brown said, though she added that a feasibility study would have to be done first.

There would be "a lot of talking and a lot of listening to see what the best approach is for our capital".

However, not all councillors seemed convinced. Bryan Pepperell questioned the usefulness of a living wage when there was a wider problem of people being unemployed.

He told yesterday's seminar: "I suggest what you're doing is a pretty minor fiddling and I don't think it's going to take us anywhere."

Prime Minister John Key also added his doubts, saying the problem of low-paid workers was not as simple as a "magic number".

The seminar in Wellington was led by international living wage campaigner Deborah Littman, ahead of the announcement of a Kiwi living wage at a symposium in Auckland on Thursday.

Calculated by the Anglican Church's Family Centre in Lower Hutt, the wage was "the minimum amount a person needs to earn to support their family at an adequate standard of living", Ms Littman said.

The campaign would focus on getting major employers, including councils and central government, to adopt a living-wage policy, rather than trying to seek legislative change.

Ms Littman said the campaign had been successful in Britain, where about 100,000 employees now earned a living wage. London Mayor Boris Johnson is among those who have supported the campaign, with a London wage of £8.55 ($15.62) being paid to about 45,000 people.

Service and Food Workers Union spokeswoman Lyndy McIntyre said the minimum wage was not enough for people to live on.

"Our members can't live on $13.50, they can't live on $15, they can't live on $16 . . . the living wage is about not just simply surviving."

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Ms Littman said a living wage would allow people to work just one job to survive, freeing up time to spend with their families and in the community.

There were also benefits to employers, with evidence of lower staff turnover and greater productivity in workplaces where people were paid a living wage, as opposed to a minimum wage, she said.

Prue Hyman, an economist involved in setting the Kiwi wage, said unemployment and pay levels should not be treated exclusively.

"I see them as complementary, not contradictory. I see it as essential that one social justice campaign isn't set against another . . . we have to work on both fronts."

Ms McIntyre said that, after the wage was announced on Thursday, the focus would be on targeting major employers.

"We'll immediately be calling on both central and local government, and other institutions that are funded by public money, to take steps to implement a living wage."

An earlier campaign by the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, for a 5 per cent pay rise for all workers in 2005, resulted in more than 85 per cent of the contracts negotiated by the union giving rises of 5 per cent or more.

Mr Key was sceptical about the practicality of a living wage, and said the minimum wage would not be raised to $18 in the next 12 months.

It was the Government's role to set the minimum wage, and anything above that was up to employers, he said.

"There's always got to be a balance there between, obviously, people needing to pay their bills and meeting their liabilities, but the counter of that of course is making sure they remain employed or get employment . . . I'm not sure it's as simple as ‘This is a magic number, I'll meet it'."

LIVING WAGE DEBATE

The Dominion Post asked major employers whether they would consider adopting the living wage:

Wellington City Council

Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said she was keen to adopt a living wage, but feasibility studies would need to be carried out first. The council has about 400 direct employees who earn less than $18 an hour. The majority are casual pool lifeguards, and some staff in parks and gardens and libraries. Asked if any staff working for contractors would be paid less than $18 an hour, council spokesman Richard MacLean said: "It's likely, but we're not privy to the details."

The Warehouse

A spokeswoman declined to comment, saying: "The minimum wage is a matter of political policy and not something we are in a position to comment on."

McDonald's

Spokesman Simon Kenny said the company had just entered into negotiations with Unite union, and wages and benefits for its members were part of that discussion. He declined to comment further.

Retirement Villages Association

Executive director John Collyns said pay rates for the village managers, administration staff, gardeners and maintenance workers were set by the market. He declined to comment any further.

Massey University

A Massey University spokesman said vice-chancellor Steve Maharey believed the living wage was a "worthwhile debate", but he was speaking as a former Cabinet minister rather than as an employer.

Mr Maharey told Radio NZ yesterday: "I don't think we could do it tomorrow, but I think it's worth having that goal out in front of us."

WHAT IS A LIVING WAGE?

The minimum considered necessary for a family to be supported, while still leaving time for people to spend time with family. It is calculated by taking into account factors including social benefits, such as Working for Families, the cost of using facilities such as libraries and pools, and the cost of food and rent.

If one aspect increases or drops, the living wage would also have to change to compensate. The wage is designed to allow a family to get by, while leaving time to be productive in the community – such as parents having time to participate in school fairs and parent teacher interviews – rather than having to work multiple jobs at a minimum wage to get by.

- The Dominion Post

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