I’m a huge fan of minimum wage laws, which were introduced in NZ before any other nation-state, in 1894. Along with a good welfare safety net (remember when we had one of those? I don’t), they ensure employers can’t take advantage of prospective workers’ desperation to exploit their labour while paying them barely enough to survive, like upper classes have done for most of history and most of the world. They also put more money in the pockets of lower-income earners, which means more money circulating in the local economy, rather than the ‘trickle-down’ approach that directs more money to Swiss banks and Hawaiian holiday homes. All this is good for all workers, and good for society. As a Christian, I can’t help but agree that minimum wage laws as a necessary (though not sufficient) response to James 5:4-5, and enactment of Luke 6:20-21.
Employers and right-wingers often respond to the minimum wage (or proposed increases to it) in the same way they did to the abolition of slavery: countering that minimum wage laws end up hurting the people they mean to help, by making jobs unaffordable for employers, and therefore increasing unemployment. However, as the Sydney Morning Herald reports, most economists now agree that reasonable increases in the minimum wage don’t increase unemployment, and may even decrease it. They’ve found room in their theories to explain this, by observing that reality is more complex than their older models.
The SMH also offers plenty of real-life examples of minimum wage increases not increasing unemployment. New Zealand’s history, Treasury and Department of Labour corroborate this, as does recent US experience, various other research and this very rich man. The Living Wage movement adds evidence of employers actually getting more value for each wage dollar by paying employees better, as their staff are healthier, less likely to need long hours or second jobs, more loyal to their workplaces, better-motivated and often more productive. New Zealand has notoriously low productivity, so higher wages may help improve this.
If the old, baseless myths of minimum wages harming workers and employers are cast aside, there remains no economic or ethical justification for a minimum wage below a living wage, “the income necessary to provide workers and their families with the basic necessities of life” and “enable workers to live with dignity and to participate as active citizens in society.” The living wage is currently calculated at $18.80 per hour.
I thought it would be useful to survey the various political parties’ policies and past records on the minimum wage and/or Living Wage, to see what each of them may do if in power after September the 20th.
There’s some quite significant differences, which I’ve roughly quantified in scores out of ten for the sake of TL;DR readers who probably haven’t read this far anyway.
The parties on minimum wage
Alongside the below, please note that Bryan Bruce recently asked all parties “whether they would or would not support in principle the introduction of a living wage rather than a minimum wage.” “The Green Party, Labour, Mana, Maori Party. Alliance and Internet Party said Yes they would. ACT, United Future, Conservative Party, Democrats For Social Credit said No. NZ First gave no answer, while Bill English for National refused to answer saying the question was hypothetical.”
Policy: National typically don’t campaign on policy, and they have barely have any policy on their website compared to every other party – including nothing on the minimum wage. We can assume current trends will continue.
Past record: The 1990s National-led government was famously committed to lowering, not raising wages, due to similar beliefs to the minimum wage myths discussed above. They let it stagnate except when NZ First forced them to increase it in 1997 (nice graph here), and left it in 1999 at about 40% of the average wage. The current National-led government have done better; they’ve maintained it basically where Labour left it in 2008 – around 50% of average wage. They’ve increased it gradually, though much slower than the last Labour-led government – 18.75% in six years (just above inflation) compared to 71.43% in nine years (considerably above inflation; they also introduced Working for Families – see below). Their latest increase has been the highest – 50c to $14.25. They promote this a lot in their media releases. If their ‘status quo’ policy continues, it will further increase inequality, because it’s well out of step with economic growth.
National also re-introduced lower minimum wages for young and new employees, because of the minimum wage myth that it would increase youth employment. This bill passed with the support of ACT and United Future, with all other parties opposing.
Policy: Labour have a clear policy to “Increase the minimum wage by $2 an hour in our first year,to $15 an hour in our first hundred days in government, and increased [sic] again to $16.25 an hour in early 2015.” They will also “Set a target of returning the minimum wage to two-thirds of the average wage by the end of our second term, as economic conditions allow,” noting that the minimum wage “averaged around two-thirds of the average wage in the post-War period until the policies of Muldoon, followed by the neoliberal period, slashed it to just 40% of the average wage by 1999. The sixth Labour government brought it up to half of the average wage, but it has flat-lined since then.”
They also intend to reform employment law to be more in the interests of workers, and support the Living Wage movement in a number of ways: they’ll “Ensure that all core public service workers are paid at least the Living Wage, and extend this as fiscal conditions permit,” favour private sector firms who pay living wages, and “progressively address inequities in the pay of the publicly-funded aged care and disability care workforce and non-teaching staff in … schools.” The latter would be great for our huge numbers of hard-working, poorly-paid aged-care workers. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that government subsidies are currently not enough for rest homes to pay their staff a living wage.
Past record: While the fourth Labour government kick-started “the neoliberal period” they mention in their policy, the last (Clark) Labour-led government raised the minimum wage much faster than inflation, and much faster than the current National-led government, as mentioned. They also introduced Working for Families to top up sub-living wages with government subsidies – John Key called this “communism by stealth” at the time but now supports maintaining it rather than making employers pay more. They also passed a diluted version of Sue Bradford’s bill for youth to receive the same minimum wage as older adults, which National have essentially reversed (see above).
Policy: The Greens’ policy is to “increase the minimum wage and ensure it cannot fall below 66% of the average wage.” 66% of the average would translate to $17.16 as of a year ago, but as a friend pointed out, raising the minimum wage would also raise the average, so the final figure would be higher than that – it would take a smarter statistical mind than mine to give you a firm figure. The advantage of a relative measure is it deals with the material, absolute effects of inequality, as well as the material effects of poverty. Superannuation is indexed to average wages, and I think it’s a good idea for the minimum wage to be also. The Greens also say they are “committed to full employment with dignity and a living income, and reject the idea that economic stability requires either a significant level of unemployment or a low level of protection for those in the paid workforce.”
Past record: Former Green MP Sue Bradford led the charge for youth to receive the same minimum wage as adults, and the Labour-led government passed a version of this. Contrary to what right-wing bloggers and politicians say, it didn’t cause any adverse affect to youth employment; in fact it decreased youth inactivity.
Policy: Their policy is to raise the minimum wage to $16 “in the first instance.” It’s not clear what would happen next; Winston Peters has previously said that after an initial raise they will “then add margins for skill and good service,” which isn’t particularly clear either. This lack of clarity means I’ve given them a score below Labour’s, despite their increase being higher until April 2015. They’ll also make employment law better for workers, and reverse National’s policy of lower minimum wages for young workers, preferring a more constructive policy of “subsidizing wages for employers who take on young, unemployed people for trade training and skills programmes.”
Past record: In their confidence and supply agreement with Labour in 2005, NZ First asked Labour to “continue the practice of annually increasing the minimum wage, with a view to it being set at $12.00 per hour by the end of 2008,” which happened. Also, the only significant increase to the minimum wage in the 1990s National-led government was prompted by NZ First. All their media releases on the minimum wage advocate for raising it (or oppose reintroducing the youth rate), and in a speech to the Combined Trade Unions Peters boasts that “New Zealand First has supported every increase in the minimum wage.”
Policy: The policy section of their website hasn’t been updated for this election, and suggests raising the minimum wage to $16 as of 2011. More recently, they announced a policy of raising the minimum wage to the calculated living wage of $18.80. The Living Wage movement’s figure, which is updated each year, is based mostly on absolute measures. The advantage of this is that it deals with the material necessities of living a full life in society, can’t be written off as “merely relative” – though of course this writing-off misses the point spectacularly.
Past record: They haven’t let their role in National-led government blunt their criticism of its slow increases in the minimum wage, saying “The Government should be ashamed of themselves” for raising it a mere 25c to $13.75 in 2013. In the same release, they described “the increase in income inequality over the last 25 years as a major threat to our economic well-being and social cohesion,” and said “The Government should focus on reducing wage inequality by targeting high wages of excessively high income earners” as well as increasing the minimum wage.
Policy: Mana’s policy is to “Increase the minimum wage to $18.80 per hour (a living wage) and index it at 66% of the average wage to ensure it remains a living wage.” This combines the advantages of the Māori party policy (combating material deprivation by adopting a living wage) and the Green Party policy (combating the material affects of inequality and relative poverty by ensuring the minimum wage never goes below 66% of the average wage). Their economic justice, livelihoods and social wellbeing policies also include many other ways to “Raise the incomes of low-income earners,” including better protection for workers, working towards full employment by creating community service jobs for the unemployed, reversing National’s lower minimum wages for youth, finally increasing welfare support from the poverty-level it’s been at since 1991, abolishing GST which disproportionately impacts on the poor, and working towards a Universal Basic Income, as recommended by Gareth Morgan.
Past record: Mana is only three years old as a party, so their main past record has been advocating for the last three years for a higher minimum wage, and opposing the reduction of the minimum wage for young and new workers.
Policy: If ACT had their way, minimum wage laws would be “gone by lunchtime” (to quote their former leader on NZ’s nuclear-free stance). This is part of their welfare [or lack thereof] policy, which they note would be a continuation of the current government’s approach to welfare. It’s interesting that even though the minimum wage is not about benefits, but work, ACT lump it under welfare policy – presumably because it goes to poor people, not rich people.
Past record: All their releases on the minimum wage advocate for lowering it, oppose raising it, or oppose it altogether. They successfully lobbied National to have it lowered for young and new workers. They frequently repeat the minimum wage myths discussed above; that minimum wages are a “barrier to unemployment,” and that a “myth that minimum wages protect the poor.”
2/10: Seems to support the status quo, whatever that might be
Policy: The policy section of their website is in progress, and mostly still lists 2011 policy. I can’t find anything on their 2011 policy or even their media releases on minimum wage, except for saying they’d require “foreign charter vessels … compl[y] with New Zealand minimum wage laws and labour conditions,” which is a good and much-needed policy.
Past record: United Future have been confidence and supply partners of both the last National government and the last Labour government, and from what I can tell, they’ve supported what both their big sisters have done, despite the contradictions. This news report clarifies what I couldn’t find in their 2011 policy: they didn’t support a higher minimum wage last election (not sure about since). Last year, Peter Dunne’s one vote allowed National’s lower minimum wage for young and new workers to pass.
Policy: Their policies are still in progress, and I can find barely anything even being discussed on their policy forum and/or policy incubator – I found a few comments here, which aren’t too encouraging. Ironically, their media releases lack the basic internet feature of a search function, so I’m finding it hard to see if they’ve even mentioned the minimum wage anywhere (except for this release from Hone Harawira on behalf of Internet Mana). Perhaps the most solid statements they’ve made are one-off responses to questions: their affirmative response to Bryan Bruce’s Living Wage question above, Bruce’s other questions and #3-ranked candidate (#6 in Internet Mana) Miriam Pierard’s strong response to bFM on inequality.
Past record: Since they don’t even have policy yet, they certainly don’t have a past record. I suppose Kim Dotcom’s past record is worth mentioning; though here’s another perspective on it. In any case, while Dotcom does have a largely undefined “oversight” role, there are plenty of others involved in shaping policy: candidates, members and even to some extent the Mana party.
Policy: I only found one thing about the minimum wage on their website; it’s an undated response from Colin Craig to a reader’s question about the living wage and unions. Craig’s answer shows he believes in minimum wage myths as much as “tough on crime” myths, but it also clarifies his policy, which is to “increase the [non-existent] tax free threshold to $25,000” [now $20,000, and with an undefined flat tax after that] instead of raising the minimum wage.
A tax-free threshold would be great for low-income earners (and is one of the few policies the Conservatives have in common with Mana), but isn’t really a substitute for fairer wages. Quick calculations show if there was flat tax of 20% above $20,000, a minimum wage worker would end up with the equivalent of about $15.50 per hour on current tax rates (though presumably less public services). If it was 30% flat tax, they’d end up with the equivalent of $15/hr on current tax rates. If it was 40% (unlikely, given their low tax rhetoric), they’d end up with basically the same net wages as now.
Past record: I can’t find anything apart from the above.
Scores/10 according to me:
NZ First: 6.5
United Future: 2
EDIT (August 2015)
I’ve made a table showing how quickly the last three governments have raised the minimum wage.
Grant writes off Max Rashbooke’s book, and indeed all concern about inequality, as “the zero-sum fallacy; the idea that there is a set amount of cash in the economy.”
This is one of the worst straw man attacks I’ve seen in a while.
In fact, Rashbrooke et al understand better than our government that money is a relative measure, only meaningful insofar as it represents access to wealth/resources. It doesn’t matter how much total cash there is in the economy… what matters is:
a) how much resources/wealth there are in the economy, because that’s what determines how big the pie is.
b) how much cash you have in relation to others, because that’s what determines how big or small your slice of the pie is.
Total cash doesn’t affect the pie at all (if it did, Zimbabwe would be the richest country in the world).
Total cash and total resources are not ‘zero-sum’ phenomena. But percentage of access to cash and resources is (that’s the whole point of a percentage – it always sums to 100).
Rashbrooke (and, like, actual evidence and stuff) are concerned with inequality because when one person’s percentage of cash goes up, someone else’s ability to access available resources necessarily decreases. And when that’s too unequal (even when the pie’s huge) it causes numerous health and social problems across the whole society.
Grant is the one guilty of a fallacy: the idea that money is an absolute, not just a relative measure; so if there’s more total money in an economy, that automatically means there’s more wealth/resources available to people. This is more than just a fallacy, it’s a properly religious phenomenon – idolisation of money.
Post-script – extra responses to a few of Grant’s stupidest comments
“There’s no evidence that rising social and health problems are a result of income disparities.”
I’m actually astonished to see this much wilful blindness, even in corporate media. Huge amounts of research – very widely available – offer compelling evidence that inequality causes many social/health problems – from murder to community breakdown to high teen pregnancy rates. A journalist doing their job would acknowledge this evidence even if they disagree with its analysis. Grant doesn’t indicate whether he disagrees, whether he’s ignoring it, or whether he doesn’t know it exists … he simply says there’s “no evidence.”
The fact that the next sentence peddles an evidence-free stereotype (“Poor people get diabetes because they eat junk food, not because Sir Peter Jackson is rich.”) is the icing on the bullshit cake.
“Key to the inequality fantasy is that New Zealand is a neo-liberal rich-man’s paradise but the facts do not support this. Bill English said… [bla bla bla] Half the population are net beneficiaries.”
He goes on to uncritically parrot Bill English’s dishonest press release that I addressed a couple of blogs ago. If Grant was doing his job as a journalist and applying some critical thinking, he’d realise English’s figures show the opposite of what he claims.
Grant thinks workers should be grateful for being “net beneficiaries” of state assistance… grateful for a situation where their subhuman wages mean they don’t contribute much to the tax coffers, let alone to their own families, and Working for Families subsidises their employers to keep paying these sub-human wages. How much more grateful should the rich be for being “net beneficiaries” of a system that facilitates and supports such grossly unequal wealth?
“Economic growth is driven by innovative entrepreneurs adding to the total economy. They sometimes become rich by retaining some of the extra wealth they created.”
I don’t even know where to start with this statement, except to note that it’s pure ideology. He equates economic growth with ‘wealth,’ ignoring the fact that economic (GDP) growth doesn’t just include productive, wealth-producing activities, but destructive ones like crime, pollution and credit card debt. And he simplistically suggests ‘wealth’ is created by “innovative entrepreneurs,” rather than by the contributions of all workers; those who’re given the opportunity to utilise their creative/innovative skills, and those who aren’t.
The next sentence, where he uses a doctor as his archetypical example of a rich wealth-creating entrepreneur, reveals his ideological assumption that the rich become rich by doing good for the world. A better example of the very highest income earners would be a currency trader who makes much more than a doctor by producing nothing, just manipulating pieces of paper and numbers on computer screens.
Later in the article he again waxes lyrical about how much wealth the rich create, and how grateful we should be for their work. He also mentions how hard-working they are – predictably failing to provide any statistics linking hard work to high income. In fact, income and wealth distributions are way out of proportion to how hard people work… (unless the richest 1% percent work 10-16 times as hard as the average NZer).
“Poverty has many causes, welfare dependency amongst them, but blaming the hard-working for the failings of the indigent is not a solution.”
Grant is doing even worse – blaming the hard-working poor (like people working two jobs cleaning toilets on minimum wage to feed their families) for their own poverty. Despicable.
I thought this Sunday Star-Times article was quite interesting.
Three economists (from Infometrics, the NZ Institute of Economic Research and the University of Auckland) all agree that although the middle classes in the United States have been hit hard since the global financial crisis, it’s not accurate to say that the same is true here.
Despite the myth of the “middle class squeeze” and politicians’ attempts to appeal to the embattled middle classes, in New Zealand it’s the poor who have been hit hardest by the recession (and by government responses to it). The middle classes, on the other hand, have “never had it so good”. While the economists disagree about whether the rich are doing better or worse, all agree about “the growing level of inequality in New Zealand – it’s this chasm between our poorest and richest that’s probably the real issue“.
The article also provides eight stories from middle-class people about how they’ve been coping financially in recent years. Karol at The Standard points out that this undercuts the above points somewhat, because they don’t give any stories of the people actually struggling. Also, the stories are foreshadowed by this rather peculiar statement:
“Of course, this is about statistics – the average. This isn’t you, living from pay cheque to pay cheque, scraping together the school donation, the football subs, the car repayment, the Sky bill, the rent for the bach this Christmas.”
This might be an odd expression of post-modern skepticism about attempts at pure objectivity, and/or it might be ordinary garden-variety dumb reporting. It seems to be saying: never mind the facts, we know that you’re struggling, and an evocative description of your hypothetical woes can substitute for an argument. But maybe they just meant that you may be struggling even though on average the middle class aren’t.
Some of the stories do represent these exceptions… Those who have lost or quit jobs in manufacturing and the public service, or lost houses in the earthquakes, have indeed found things getting tougher, as you might expect. However, they’re all pretty philosophical about it, and even their complaints are about first-world, nice-side-of-the-tracks problems:
“An expensive holiday is shelved and Mr Barton is holding onto his ageing television and car.”
“We were lucky to have steak at all. Sky was going to get the chuck. Any slight luxuries were gone.”
“they hid their financial struggles from their son and refused to withdraw him from private school”
So what’s behind the myth of the “middle class squeeze”? Is it just lazy importing of American complaints, or is there more to it than that?
I think the best way to understand it is to see it as an ideology, in a critical or Marxist sense: it’s a worldview that functions to justify and support the present economic system and current unequal power distributions.
People from all levels almost always feel like they’re struggling to make ends meet, because their expectations rise with their incomes (usually staying just ahead). That’s how market capitalism works; dissatisfaction and desire is what keeps the wheels turning. If people were content with what they have, capitalism wouldn’t work, or at least not the way we know it (maybe it could work in a nicer, more sustainable way).
This malaise is always there; we’re born into it, and too often we let ourselves remain in it. And I guess when we’re constantly hearing about tough financial times and how our class is supposedly suffering, it’s more socially acceptable for middle class people to express it openly.
The ‘Returning Kiwi’, Emily Swan, gives voice to this plight:
Does Swan appreciate that with that income and a house, many Kiwis would see her as well-off?
“Yes! The average household income is what, $30,000? Crazy. But then a lot of people are sending their kids to school without breakfast. We are grateful for what we’ve got.”
And yet . . . “I look at my age and think, I’m nearly 40 and I’m still living from pay-cheque to pay-cheque. What do I pass on to the next generation? Will I ever pay my mortgage off? I do feel like I’ve f—ed up somewhere along the way.
If she’s “f—ed up somewhere”, it’s not in not having enough money; she and her partner earn $130,000 between them, but people earning twice as much probably feel the same way (and some people earning half as much have learned not to feel that way).
Perhaps situations like this can serve as a reminder not only that perceptions don’t also match reality, but also of just how mouldable our perceptions, desires and expectations are. Hopefully we can learn to mould them ourselves to what we think they should be, rather than letting them be moulded by advertising, conformity and the pressures of a consumer capitalist society.
When I wrote my last blog on child poverty, I was planning to follow it up with a critique of ousted ACT leader Rodney Hide’s Herald column where he made the bold claim that there is no child poverty in New Zealand.
I was going to make all sorts of jolly yet incisive points about how I’m actually quite fond of Rodney (something I can’t say about more recent ACT leaders), but that he’s revealed an embarrassingly out-of-touch and simplistic understanding of poverty as a mere lack of money (“All kids are poor. Children typically don’t own much beyond a few toys”, “Poverty can’t be the cause … Liver … costs 70c a serve”).
I was going to point out that not everyone has grown up in the Protestant-work-ethic-Northern-European-stockpiling-rationalising-individualising tradition that he and I have, but that the economic system that’s been imposed here is set up to favour people with these values and shaft everyone (and everything) else.
I was even going to say that, despite all that, I’m considering trying out his suggestion of boiling up bones and getting a stew going for my lunches. Anyway, I didn’t get around to writing this blog, and now Hide’s “let them eat liver” column is old news.
Still, I think it’s worthwhile to address the most important point – the idea that poverty in New Zealand is ‘only’ ‘relative’ poverty and therefore isn’t ‘real’ poverty. Hide points to one common measure of poverty: living on less than 60% of the median wage. In Hide’s mind, all child poverty statistics can be summarily ignored, because this measure doesn’t measure what (supposedly) really matters: how much money the country has overall.
I suppose this poo-pooing of statistics is what enables Hide to state with a straight face that it’s the welfare state’s fault that kids go hungry, despite the fact that the child poverty figures began to skyrocket precisely when his friend Roger Douglas began to roll back the welfare state in the 1980s.
But this idea isn’t just touted by extremists living in a libertarian fantasy world; deputy prime minister Bill English used this very notion as an excuse to dismiss the Child Poverty Expert Advisory Group’s recommendation to set child poverty reduction targets, claiming that “such a relative poverty measure made no sense as it did not show how rich or poor people were in absolute terms”.
But hold on a second. Even if we go along with Hide and English and ignore the Advisory Group’s other poverty measures such as material deprivation or access to GDP growth, there’s something pretty fishy about such an easy dismissal of relative poverty, a.k.a. inequality.
This ignores a whole host of research showing that ‘relative’ inequality absolutely does matter. The book The Spirit Level compiles some of this research to show that unequal societies with high ‘relative poverty’ like New Zealand have significantly worse statistics for life expectancy, literacy and numeracy, infant mortality, homicide, imprisonment, teenage births, obesity, mental illness and social mobility than more equal societies – across the whole society, not just for the ‘relatively’ poor. Even though inequality or relative poverty is relative, it causes real, solid, objective, material, absolute damage.
The truth is that we’re relational beings, so it shouldn’t be surprising that how we’re doing relative to each other affects us – but neo-liberals indoctrinated into the “no such thing as society” philosophy seem to forget this.
Hide and English assume that what really matters is the ‘absolute’ matter of how much money people have. But since when was money ‘absolute’? Money only has meaning insofar as we give it meaning to represent the value of goods and services, and to say that this person can access this much goods and services, while that person can only access that much. In other words, it’s only meaningful as a relative measure; relative to real stuff and real power in the real world, and relative to how much stuff and power others have.
So, when Rodney Hide licks his lips about a “windfall that doubled all incomes” but “wouldn’t budge the child “poverty” figure”, that’s exactly the point. Doubling all incomes wouldn’t change what those incomes are relative to; it wouldn’t create any more resources. Inflation would soon ensure that each dollar was only worth half as much, so nothing would have changed at all. Poverty and affluence would be exactly the same as before.
Of course, if this ‘windfall’ was localised in New Zealand, it would give us relatively more access to resources than other countries; and that’s what National mouthpiece David Farrar, who endorsed Hide’s column, says we should be aiming for: “In these times of huge global economic uncertainty, the focus needs to be on economic growth, not [equality, which Farrar conflates with] increasing tax and welfare.”
But The Spirit Level shows that internal economic equality is far more important than economic growth for improving conditions in developed societies. Perhaps it’s because we care more about how we’re doing relative to people around us than about being even more relatively rich on a global scale than we already are.
So the fatal flaw of this spurious neo-liberal argument is that it absolutises the relative; money, while relativising the absolute; inequality.
Bill English and his government are repeating this error with devastating consequences by calling the real suffering of real children ‘merely relative’ while treating economic growth as the absolute to which all else must be sacrificed (and it isn’t even working).