Hard labour

Commercial Cleaner, Te Onera Tamihana makes $500 a week and is among workers around the country struggling to survive.
Commercial Cleaner, Te Onera Tamihana makes $500 a week and is among workers around the country struggling to survive.

She talks of hanging her hands over the side of the bed at night to deal with painful repetitive strain injury.

"We all complain about it," says Te Onera Tamihana, meaning her and her colleagues in the commercial cleaning world. "It's because of the labour intensity in our work."

The vacuuming, dusting, scrubbing - over and over - puts pressure on hands, wrists, arms and shoulders.

Ms Tamihana started cleaning eight years ago. She has an adult son and is contracted to multi- national company OCS (One Complete Solution).

In 2004 she earned $10 an hour; these days it is $13.85 and she works about 36 hours a week, meaning her weekly income before tax is almost $500.

"It's pretty hand to mouth - one week to the next," says Ms Tamihana, a delegate for the Service and Food Workers Union.

She believes there has been a change in the working environment since the introduction of the Employment Relations Act.

"It has gone from bad to worse," she says, referring to wages and conditions.

It's also a slog to get workers to join unions. "In our line of profession our workers aren't the type who will stand up for themselves or they're not prepared to pay the pittance it costs to join."

She says the union deducts less than $6 from her pay packet each week and it is done proportionally, so those who work fewer hours pay less in fees.

Sometimes, it seems like any negotiated pay rises take a while to dribble through, so she understands the reluctance of some workers. Nonetheless, she maintains it is better to band together.

"It's our only strength."

Ms Tamihana has considered other jobs and says she is a trained chef, but that industry is also "diabolical" in terms of poor working conditions.

"At the end of the day I like my work, it's just the unfairness and the battles you have to keep fighting every day."

Sam Jones, of the Service and Food Workers Union, says many people are no longer earning enough in 40 hours to survive and feed a family.

"The old adage of eight hours work, eight hours play, eight hours sleep - that doesn't happen any more."

People work two jobs to survive; others are expected to be flexible all the time with no job security.

Those working in the care industry might lose clients as some move into hospital, get better or die. He cites the case of workers who clock up 12 hours caring for clients in their homes, as well as travelling to and from each place, but only get paid for eight. The travel time and the waiting round between appointments isn't counted as work, yet it is too short a time for a worker to go home.

His union is backing the Living Wage Aotearaoa campaign, supported by 100 organisations, ranging from established churches to unions to ethnic organisations to social groups like budgeting and the problem gambling foundation. Launched on August 30 this year, the campaign has been run overseas.

Mr Jones says $15 an hour would not be a living wage, but it would be the bare minimum. Campaign advocates say it would still only be 55 per cent of the average wage of $27 an hour. He says working with the elderly and disabled people is a social service.

"Some in the industry are private companies or organisations, but all are reliant on government funding to survive . . . the taxpayer is paying for them."

The country relies on the goodwill of these workers and should pay them a fair amount. Without them many services would fall over.

"Employers want these workers to be a tap that they turn on and off when it suits. That's not fair."

Local woman Fiona (who didn't want to give her real name) is in the business of caring for people at home. They range from the disabled to those recovering from surgery. She does everything from housework to personal care and helping with meals.

"The range is quite wide. It's not about wiping people's bums, which is a label I find offensive. These are very special people."

A former healthcare assistant, she says this job far exceeds the work she did while at the hospital. That is because she works on her own, with no registered nurse to call upon for expert advice.

"They [clients] might be falling apart in one way or another and you have to deal with it on your own. There's not a RN you can talk to. Those situations are rare and I've not had an occasion where I've felt out of my depth, but I have felt uncomfortable."

She says her contract does not list a minimum number of hours. Sometimes there is relief work available, but that is hit and miss. Over a fortnight she is rostered on for up to 72 hours at just over $14 an hour. That compares with $18.47 at the hospital. "If we were hired for 20 to 25 rostered hours a week then you could go and get a another job."

She talks of the difficulty of having gaps between clients - not long enough to make out of work appointments or "have a life".

Sometimes she feels like a courier driver, rushing between one place and the next. On average she sees five clients over six hours.

Dr Nigel Christie heads up New Plymouth-based Te Hauora Pou Heretanga, which provides services to the elderly and disabled. Margins are very tight, he says.

Workers received a small increase in early October, "but it was minimal".

Its funding from the District Health Board increased by between 1 and 1.49 per cent, and this small rise limits what it can pass on to its support workers. (Other funders include ACC and the Ministry of Social Development.)

He describes support workers as kind to the organisation, because "they know we are limited in terms of what we receive".

Fortnightly the charitable trust pays between 75 and 80 workers and has about 100 on its books, while it supports more than 200 clients in Taranaki. He describes the work as complex and says workers in the industry are undervalued and underpaid.

"They go above and beyond the call of duty and we try to acknowledge them rather than be seen to be taking advantage of their commitment."

Green Party MP Jan Logie speaks in New Plymouth on Thursday night with colleague Denise Roche.

They are touring the country, addressing the topic "The high cost of a low wage economy".

New Zealand is seeing a massive shift in the proportion of people living in poverty, she says.

"The Government is creating this perception that people don't want to work and they need to be incentivised. But actually people are trying to get work and there's a real psychological impact when they're trying hard, and being told the problem rests with them."

It's hard to negotiate for better pay rates and conditions when "there's so many people standing in line behind you".

Ms Logie says communities are trying to find solutions. In Gisborne, for example, a community animator is employed to strengthen neighbourhoods and find solutions - linking people, with skills, to each other, for example.

She says the trickle-down effect doesn't work: the idea that higher wages at the top and booming business will filter down; it's better to lift wages at the bottom and see benefits flow up.

Her party acknowledges small and medium businesses may struggle to meet increased labour costs, but suggests an increase in income tax, brought about by higher wages, will create more money.

In turn that could feed into a business subsidy to tide companies over.

Taranaki Daily News