Living Wage Aotearoa Brings New Hope to Workers

Lyndy McIntyre Community Organiser, Living Wage Aotearoa Movement NZ

Three years ago, a new movement was launched in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The Living Wage Movement brought together faith groups, community organisations and unions — united in a concern about poverty and inequality and committed to calling for the living wage.

New Zealand is sometimes thought of as a land of plenty, even an economic miracle with a ”rock star“ economy.  The reality is growing inequality and poverty.  During the 1980s the wealth of this country increasingly shifted to the hands of a few and those on low wages became the working poor.

Concern about inequality in New Zealand has become one of the major issues, as an alarming number of working families sleep in cars and rely on foodbanks.  The low wages of cleaners, caregivers and workers in security, retail and other sectors are now at unliveable levels. Health and education outcomes are much lower for the lowest paid, who are likely to be Maori, Pacific or new migrant workers.

The Living Wage Movement in New Zealand was launched because of workers like Peniata Endelmann.  Peniata was 16 years old when he attended the launch of the Living Wage Movement with his mother. A single mum with three kids, she was struggling. Her cleaner’s wage was nowhere near enough to pay the rent, let alone for school sports, clothes and healthy food.  Peniata worked every day cleaning after school to help his mum.

Countless cleaners and other low paid workers in New Zealand simply cannot get by. Many work very long hours, often with one parent doing a day shift and the other working through the night. Many New Zealand workers struggle to survive, let alone participate in society.

Harsh labour laws, implemented in the early 1990s, decimated the union movement and New Zealand is one of the most deregulated countries in the world.

Unions representing some of the lowest paid workers in New Zealand looked for a way to organise differently to lift low wages.  Something that was working was the broad-based organising that led to living wage campaigns in the UK. The outcomes were inspiring.

That concern about the impact of low wages and the inspiration of the UK living wage campaigns, led to the formation of the New Zealand Living Wage Movement.

In 2013 a small group of unionists invited others from the New Zealand union movement and faith groups and community organisations with a common concern about poverty and inequality to join them in the new Living Wage Movement.  Local grass roots movements were launched in the largest city, Auckland, and Wellington, the capital.  Living Wage Movement Aotearoa NZ was born.

Three years later the movement has grown into an exciting, vibrant and strong movement, based on deep relationships and a partnership across the three streams of unions, faith groups and community.

The movement has over 70 member organisations and many supporting organisations.  Since a living wage employer accreditation programme was launched two years ago, over 60 employers have become fully accredited living wage employers, including two cathedrals, printing businesses, a software company, a range of ethical businesses and most unions.

But most importantly, the lives of hundreds of workers and their families have been transformed.

Like the UK Living Wage movement, the New Zealand movement can celebrate success with local authorities. In 2013 Wellington City Council became the first New Zealand council to vote to become a Living Wage Council. Local faith groups, community organisations and unions had repeatedly tuned out in large numbers to demonstrate that the people of Wellington want to live in a fair city and to call on their council to lead the way and pay the living wage to all workers, including those employed by contractors.

Since 2014 hundreds of workers at Wellington City Council have had their pay lifted as direct result of the campaign, including 40 low paid parking wardens who won a $4 an hour pay rise.  One of them said the pay rise meant he could be a “real dad” and reduce his hours from 60 to 40 a week.

In August this year the Living Wage Movement celebrated a major victory when 60 Wellington City Council workers employed via contractors won a 25% pay rise as a direct result of the living wage campaign. Those security guards, noise control officers and council cleaners were some of Wellington’s very lowest paid workers.

Angela Toa, a single mum who lived through the heartbreak of being broke with three teenage girls, has been a cleaner at Wellington City Council for 10 years. She said: “Cleaners can’t have decent lives on very low wages. The increase because of the living wage campaign will transform the lives of struggling workers and their families.”

In September New Zealand had local body elections across the country.  Local Living Wage Movements organised and through people’s assemblies challenged mayoral and council candidates to commit to the living wage should they be elected.

Hundreds and hundreds of local people from the faith groups, community organisations and unions who are part of the Living Wage Movement turned out to churches and community halls to challenge candidates to make a public commitment. Council cleaners and other workers told their stories of lives on poverty wages.  Local school children and other cultural groups performed. Faith leaders joined leaders from trade unions and health advocacy groups, refugee groups and homelessness organisations to call for fairer cities where councils took a lead on decent wages. The would-be politicians were challenged to make specific commitments.

The votes have been counted and the Living Wage Movement has won commitments in councils all around the country, including Auckland and including a commitment to finish of the job in Wellington and seek accreditation as a living wage employer.

Now the New Zealand Living Wage Movement is celebrating. We have a long way to go, but we have a growing number of living wage employers and we are set to call on the promises made by the new mayors and councillors in key local authorities.  Most importantly, we have begun to build a new kind of movement which is broad-based and rich with the diverse contributions of different faiths, mainstream Christian, Quakers, Muslims and others. It is rich with diverse communities, including refugee communities, advocacy groups for social justice and ethic and residents’ groups. And it is rich with a strong backing of the New Zealand trade union movement.

We are grateful for the movements which lead the way, including our friends in the UK, like the Scottish Poverty Alliance who are doing such inspiring work in winning the living wage for Scottish workers.

Greetings from the Living Wage Movement Aotearoa NZ to the Scottish Living Wage Movement. We are proud to be your friends and we look forward to sharing with you as we continue the living wage journey in our two countries at opposite sides of the world.



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