Living wage policies show National’s true face
In the confetti of promises showered down on us in campaign 2017, National has tried to water down a mean streak about social issues. The grudging addition of four more weeks to take paid parental leave (PPL) to 22 weeks is a classic. Last year when he was Finance Minister, Bill English used his financial veto to kill off Labour’s bill to extend PPL to 26 weeks. He said then that the price was too high, even if he got his maths wrong and overinflated the costs of change by more than double.
His welcome conversion to the need for action on child poverty, after persistent denial by former Prime Minister John Key that we should even try to measure it, is another encouraging example of National’s new compassion on significant social concerns.
But in important socio-economic areas such as fair pay and work, it’s the same old National delivering the same old employment relations and hanging on to paltry minimum wage rates while promising income tax relief.
Former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger recently said that neoliberal policies, including labour market deregulation, had absolutely failed to cure economic inequalities and trade unions needed to have a greater voice. But Steven Joyce loves a bogeyman and the latest is Labour’s Fair Pay Agreements.
Ironically, only National, to date, has agreed to a Fair Pay Agreement with its settlement for 55,000 workers in aged and disability residential care and home and community support.
Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said at the time that care workers were widely seen as among the most deserving of recognition and lauded a historic moment for the Government. There was not a voice of disagreement. The Government was widely praised by unions, employers, the media, women’s groups, Grey Power and the public for moving to a negotiated settlement, even if it took four years of litigation to move the political mountain. The settlement was the result of the very collaboration Joyce now finds threatening.
In a debate with Labour’s Grant Robertson he said employers were very, very concerned at the idea that they would have to go to Wellington and sit down with the Council of Trade Unions and the Government and hammer out minimum wage rates for their sector.
So what he clearly prefers is the old style of industrial relations kick-boxing.
Labour’s PPL policy is 26 weeks PPL, while National offers 22 weeks. Labour offers a minimum wage increase to $16.50 in its first 100 days, while National refers to a “sustainable rate”.
A Gisborne packhouse worker tackled English about the minimum wage, stating she couldn’t understand how people lived on it. She asked how would he like it if his hourly rate had gone up only $3.75 over nine years. She was unimpressed by his response that it would be a challenge and “that’s why we keep these consistent. Moderate increases flowing through . . . that’s how the floor rises.”
The mood of the workforce is unequivocal. The minimum hourly wage is not a living wage and has become a sinking lid, not a rising floor. How we achieve fair pay and move on income inequality after the election will be a measure of political maturity.