Living wage? Just a dream

Working poor living 'week by week'

ESTHER ASHBY-COVENTRY
Last updated 05:00 15/02/2013
Kirk Watts
JOHN BISSET/Fairfax NZ

POOR FUTURE: Bus driver Kirk Watts finds life a grind working for $15.70 an hour as a bus driver. His wife, a cleaner, earns $14 an hour.

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Timaru bus driver Kirk Watts struggles to survive on his $15.70-an-hour wage; a living wage would make all the difference.

His wife, Sharon, is a cleaner and earns $14 an hour.

Between them they also complete a daily paper run to help offset petrol and telephone costs, but secondary tax counteracts a lot of that gain.

They have not had a proper holiday for about 15 years - they cannot afford one. They are the working poor.

The problem is not that they are starving or do not have a roof over their head, it is just when something unexpected occurs, such as a plumbing malfunction, they cannot afford to get it fixed.

The car's electrics and fuel pump cost $800 recently so Mr Watts had to borrow money from his mother for it and will pay her back at about $10 or $20 a week, as he is able.

The couple also has an outstanding dentist bill and a broken washing machine on top of the regular bills.

With one 18-year-old child, out of four children, still living at home they are not entitled to government support.

Ironically, when they did receive Working for Families last year they were unwittingly overpaid by about $500 and are now trying to pay that back.

Mr Watts borrowed money from Work and Income to buy his glasses, an essential for his job, which he is also repaying.

"We live week by week," he said. "We struggle to pay lump sums."

The average median weekly income for workers in Canterbury for 2012 was $705.00 ($17.62 an hour).

It is unfair Mr Watts said, that his pay rate does not reflect his skills, experience and bus licence.

If the couple earned a living wage of $18.40 an hour Mr Watts said he would be able to save for a holiday and put enough aside to tide them over difficult patches.

Sometimes Mr Watts thinks he has been cursed when it comes to financial matters. He said life is a grind and the future looks dim.

"No matter what we do we never seem to get ahead. We thought we would be better off when most of the children left home but we're not."

In 2007, Mr Watts set up his own taxi business but did not have enough capital to support it and went bankrupt. The family had to sell their home in a mortgagee sale. They now rent a house for $250 a week in central Timaru.

Mr Watts said the only time he feels rich is in his spiritual life, but that doesn't pay the bills.

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- The Timaru Herald

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