At the panel on sustainable work, at the hui in October 2018 on What an Alternative and Progressive Trade Strategy for New Zealand, Annie Newman pressed the case for the living wage as a central principle for New Zealand’s future trade policy.
Annie is the National Director of Campaigns E Tu, National Convenor of the Living Wage Movement and Trustee for a new broad-based Auckland alliance.
The living wage movement came about because of a failure of regulation to support in any way the lowest paid workers in the country. Workers that E Tu represents who are cleaners or security guards are not workers for whom you can raise the wages through the normal negotiating process, because the funding for those workers’ wages comes from another source and that source is not at the bargaining table. For instance, local or central government hold the purse strings to a lot of those workers’ wages. But the union negotiates with Armourguard or with Spotless or whoever the company is who directly employs those people.
The idea behind the living wage movement was that we would bring together the forces from beyond unions and beyond the bargaining table, forces from across civil society, to create sufficient voice and sufficient influence to bring about a change to the way that governments address questions of low pay and growing poverty and inequality in NZ. So the living wage movement needed to target more than a labour relations regulatory environment. It needed to look for things like public policy around procurement and how governments would do something about the way they entered into the contracts for services that they do with a lot of the companies that drive wages down, or are forced down because of the competitive tendering process.
The way that we dealt with that and targeted central and local government has proven to be really successful. There’s a lot of possibilities. There’s the wonderful example of what’s happening with the Southern Initiative that Tanya Pouwhare talked about. We have also got the first city council over the line as a living wage employer, that’s the Wellington City Council. And the workers’ stories from that council where their lives have been transformed are truly remarkable. Sometimes it’s maybe only a 30% increase in their income. And for many people, maybe even for some people in this room, that amount of $20.55 isn’t that much. But for these workers it gives them a hope, and they suddenly start to plan, dream of doing things like taking families on holiday, being able to do things like tangi where they need to get proper transport to, going home to the Islands. There’s so many things which in many ways are essentials that families juggle and suddenly it’s possible for them to pay for some of them. The stories are very transformative. But getting Wellington City Council over the line was not without a legal challenge by the Chambers of Commerce because they didn’t believe that the Council could set terms for their procurement of services. In fact there’s an objection to the idea that anything but the lowest possible price should apply.
We now have a central government that is committed to moving its core public contracted workers to a living wage by the end of this electoral term. So again, for the first time, procurement is in the spotlight. The biggest challenge around that stuff is you are dealing with completely different people. We are trying through the living wage movement to close the gap between public officials and citizens so people can organise in all the ways we like to in order to influence public officials to make commitments and then to stick to them. That’s what we hope democracy will deliver.
So we try to do that, but then a procurement process takes place which is highly commercial. The interests of citizens are very much not in the front of their minds. It will be interesting to see how, in a much higher profile way, central government start to change their procurement policies so those companies don’t pay the lowest amount of money. When you are looking at the types companies, these are enormously wealthy companies, like Armourguard. They are big multinational firms that can afford to pay more.
The risk is that, in that space that we are trying to close between citizens and government, there are the trade agreements that set new terms. So in the end we lose hope that it is possible to organise something different. We lose hope that in fact we can collectively create a voice to bring about the sort of changes that we want. In some ways it’s not just about union power, and our ability to influence government – it’s about the weight that governments put on the enabling of civil society organisations to do the work that they have to do to balance the power of the market. Those things are incredibly important if we want to protect democracy for the future and give the people in our constituency some hope that they can bring about change.
Michael Whaites: If the union movement or civil society move is not strong enough, and they have to come together, the rhetorical question is what does the new social movement look like if we are to change the way deals are done?
- We heard earlier that global structures are in crisis because the multinationals break and/or ignore our rules for their own purposes. So should workers and communities in defence of our livelihoods argue for a return to the old world order and a seat at that table, or should we also break existing bad laws in order to establish community focused new world order?
Annie – It’s very hard to break rules if you don’t have collective power. Otherwise you are making random attempts. It’s hard to organise against the kind of forces that exist out there now and we have to be very smart and organised to do that. From my point of view, we can only operate in the world as it is, and that’s complex but it requires a lot of collective voice from many diverse organisations if we are going to win.
- In view of the earlier conversation about the Googles and Facebooks, how do you get the movement and mobilise people when basically so much of what’s happening with trade and multinationals the agenda is set way outside anything we have control of.
Annie – the concept behind a new Auckland Community Alliance, which is called Te Ohu Whakawhanaunga, is that we build the relationships across diverse groups that want to see a reduction in poverty, and want to see flourishing communities. It’s not actually formed. It will form in about 2-3 years, because when we form we want to bring on board all the organisations that want to have a collective civil society voice. Then having formed those relationships we develop a programme of work that we are all committed to. And we try to step away from some of the issue-based politics that sometimes divide groups where we need the strength of as many as possible. It may mean that some issues don’t ever see the light of day because there isn’t a consensus around it. But there are really positive examples where quite big structural and system changes have been made by building that kind of consensus across diversity.