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‘Every day they are essential’: the living wage movement marches on

With the Covid-19 lockdown casting a light on the value of essential workers, the movement to pay them the living wage is gathering momentum.

Every night at corporate and government buildings across the country, long after most of the day workers have gone home, a largely unseen labour force of cleaners and security guards arrives to begin their shifts.

Done discreetly in the quiet hours, they’re often jobs that go without praise, and usually demand many hours a week at minimum wage. While it’s work that has existed long before Covid-19, the past few months have illuminated just how “essential” it really is for businesses, and society, to function.

In the wake of the lockdown, the national campaign to pay these workers the living wage is charging ahead, encouraging more organisations to become accredited living wage employers.

The movement is making considerable progress, with the likes of Kiwibank becoming an accredited employer in May this year. While it was already paying its direct employees the living wage, the accreditation means the cleaners, security guards and maintenance people who work for the bank through contractors are now paid at least $22.10 an hour – a rate sufficient for a worker to afford life’s necessities and participate in their community.

According to Etevise Ioane, campaign organiser at E tū, the most significant effect of the increased wage is the freedom it allows these workers to reduce their working hours and enjoy time with their families.

“With the living wage, it’s extra money to have some time, because it’s mainly supporting families to have a quality life. Now they feel they have a choice; they can either have a day off or cut down their hours to stay with their kids, especially the young children.”

For a worker earning minimum wage ($18.90), 40 hours a week is often not enough to pay for bills and support a family. They are therefore compelled to take on far more hours in order to make ends meet, says Ioane, often having to sacrifice important time with loved ones.

“Some of them were working 76 hours a week and still can’t feed their families. It’s like not having a choice; if a child is sick, it’s really hard to take time off work because that would take away money.”

E tū campaign organiser Etevise Ioane. (Photo: RNZ/Dan Cook)

Having spent a lot of time engaging and representing these workers to get a better deal, she’s heard how the excessive working hours leaves little time for community events. “These workers are often left with no time to participate in their cultural, faith or sports groups,” she says. “I’ve talked with a mother with tears in her eyes who says she never goes to her kids sports on Saturdays because she’s working. Someone has to go instead of her.”

“We try to get their employers to understand that these workers have another life – they’re not just cleaners or security guards. And we are very grateful for Kiwibank for accepting the challenge; it’s creating a lot of changes.”

While there is still an ongoing struggle to encourage other large entities to start paying contracted workers the living wage, Kiwibank’s accreditation represents how the business community is increasingly embracing social responsibility. Joe Gallagher, negotiation specialist at E tū says convincing companies to come on board can take a long time, and Kiwibank’s decision was a massive win.

“From our perspective and the worker’s perspective it’s really good to see them setting an example of what it means to be a good corporate citizen. That needs to be celebrated.”

Because of Covid-19 and its devastating economic impacts, advocates argue now is the perfect time to start paying the living wage with its potential to stimulate economic activity and support small businesses. Annie Newman, convener of Living Wage Movement Aotearoa, says increasing the hourly wage of those on the lowest pay has never been more important.

“There’s a tendency for people to think about belt tightening because we’re in a crisis and businesses are in a lot of pain with Covid-19. But this is the very time we need to have money put in worker’s pockets because that money goes straight into the communities and ultimately that supports businesses to survive and flourish.”

“As soon as these workers get an opportunity to add some more money, what they do is reduce the number of hours they work so they can spend more time with their families, and more time in their communities.”

Because many of these workers were designated as essential and continued working throughout the lockdown, the true value of their services has been brought into the public gaze, elevating the living wage movement to a new level of significance and urgency. With big entities like Kiwibank becoming accredited, Newman believes now is the time to propel the movement forward.

“I think a lot of people have suddenly discovered the importance of these workers and yet they don’t earn enough to make ends meet. That reality has become more apparent to many people and it’s important that we don’t just see them as essential workers in a crisis, but every day they are essential.”

This content was created in paid partnership with Kiwibank. Learn more about our partnerships here



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