A worker on Lambton Quay, Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
A worker on Lambton Quay, Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyApril 7, 2020

Why danger pay is not OK

A worker on Lambton Quay, Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
A worker on Lambton Quay, Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Our essential workers deserve more than a round of applause, but danger pay is not the answer, writes Kerry Davies from the Public Service Association.

Did you shower this morning? Is the kitchen clean? Have you changed your sheets since we went into lockdown? Have you vacuumed? Are you taking that rubbish out?

For most of us, this reads like nagging or normal domestic banter. But for a lot of New Zealanders this important work gets done only with the help of a paid care and support worker.

And right now, the people who help care for and support tens of thousands of New Zealanders are under extreme pressure. Perhaps they’re caring for their own children, or they’re immunocompromised. Perhaps they’re over 70 themselves. Perhaps they’re at odds with their employer about safe travel, or being paid for the hours they work, or are simply too scared to leave their homes at all.

In recent weeks, my union colleagues and I have spent a lot of time trying to improve safety for the workers facing those kinds of risks.

Many employers have responded by providing flexible working conditions and special leave entitlements. Unions have worked alongside their members to secure access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and with government on the need for greater leave support.

But essential workers are having their heads turned by talk of bonus payments that acknowledge the extremities of the Covid-19 working environment.

The idea that risky work ought to be recognised seems reasonable. Why shouldn’t our essential workers get paid extra for leaving the house at a time like this?

There is a very good reason: employers have a responsibility to acknowledge and act on risk in workplaces, not trade it away. Unions have a responsibility to ensure workers don’t have to settle for sub-standard conditions.

It’s not that danger pay comes from a bad place, it’s that it sets a dangerous precedent.

It can encourage risk-taking and tolerance toward unsafe situations rather than incentivising employers to eliminate, minimise or isolate these unsafe situations.

Danger payments, or hazard payments, play on the desperation of low-paid workers to increase their pay at the expense of their health and safety.

Unions have fought hard against the practice of paying people extra for unsafe or dangerous work for decades. In the 1980s I started as an organiser for the Cleaners Union. At the time, cleaners in schools got an extra allowance if they were exposed to things like used sanitary pads, blood and faeces. It was called an “obnoxious substance” payment.

In 2020, we’re not taking that anymore.

The protection of our workers’ health and safety stands on its own and can’t be sold for higher wages.

It’s fine to have a conversation about increasing people’s base pay – but let’s not muddy the waters by conflating two vital conversations.

For me, at least some good will come out of this lockdown if society ends up placing increased value on essential work.

This crisis is showing us just how skewed our value of work can be if our only measure is the market. The sexism, racism and ageism within our society all get reflected in that market, where power and influence trump actual public value.

Let’s move past those constructs based on societal discrimination. This week, as we gather on driveways applauding essential workers, or whatever the next craze is, let’s also talk about paying people what they’re worth.

Instead of bonuses and allowances that placate and entice people to put up with unsafe, unhealthy environments and abusive behaviours, we should focus on eliminating, minimising or isolating work hazards and compensating people for the true importance of their work.

I would note, however, that Foodstuffs’ decision this week to pay a 10% bonus to workers as a gesture of appreciation to essential staff in our supermarkets should not be confused with danger or hazard pay.

This extra pay acknowledges the very low wages of supermarket workers, less than home support workers, and the higher-than-normal work intensity and greater income and profits by these large companies.

It is only right that those supermarkets give back some of their extra income to those who enabled it to get on the shelves and out the doors.

This is not danger money.

Keep going!