The slow path to wage justice


Writing ironically, Anatole France said there’s a ‘majestic equality’ in the law that prohibits both the rich and the poor equally from sleeping under bridges, begging in the street and stealing bread. The law is neutral in theory, but in practice, affects one party more than the other.  The rich have no need to sleep under bridges, so are ‘above the law’, which places an unfair distributive and compliance burden on those who do need to sleep under bridges or beg or steal to survive.

It was the same ‘majestic equality’ that had disproportionate effects when Auckland Council agreed that some staff would take temporary pay cuts during Covid-19. Mayor Phil Goff said it was a big ask of staff, that those earning between $100,000 and $175,000 per annum consider a temporary 5 percent pay cut and those earning up to $275,000 take a 7.5 percent hit. Goff himself took a temporary 20% pay cut to $266,400 a year. If the Watercare boss at the time took a 20% pay cut, his salary would have been reduced to around $620,000 a year. Even though other staff weren’t necessarily expected to face wage reductions, Council cleaner’s wages apparently reduced, so they earned only $15.12 an hour, equating to $31,616 a year.

This year though, despite Auckland Council’s austerity / ‘recovery’ budget, and after an eight-year campaign by unions and supporters, finally, cleaners contracted to Auckland Council, will be paid the Living Wage. Finally, the people contracted to work through the night, through public holidays and weekends, cleaning our public toilets, venues and facilities, will be paid enough to live on. Campaigners and the cleaners, with Councillors, even those who had initially vetoed the Living Wage, shared the cheer and celebrated this hard-fought pay rise, at an event in the Auckland Town Hall in past weeks.

The contract cleaners will now be paid $22.10 an hour, up from the minimum wage of $18.20, which from April 1 has also been raised to $20 an hour. Perversely, the minimum wage still isn’t enough to live on, so the Council commitment to the Living Wage for contract cleaners will make a material difference to their lives, their work-life balance and the quality of their lives. When the baseline is low, any change can be significant. One long time campaigner and cleaner, Josephine Wiredu says “now she’ll be on the Living Wage, she plans to cut back her 55-hour, seven-day-a-week work schedule, so that she can finally spend Saturdays and Sundays with her children – something that wasn’t possible before”. Josephine says she is grateful to Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, who campaigned at the 2019 elections with a promise to the Living Wage for these contracted staff.

However meaningful the wage rise is for the cleaners, it’s a small gesture from the Mayor. The cleaners would need to work over 13,000 hours a year at $22.10 an hour to receive the same pay as Phil Goff. They’d need to work over five thousand hours to earn the same rate as the lowest paid Councillor, whose pay rates range from $113,175 to $165,552 a year. From their positions of wealth and power, the Mayor and Councillors have finally decided to be magnanimous. They have thrown more crumbs to the poor who keep the region going.

The new Watercare Chief Executive has taken a pay cut from his predecessor’s whopping $775,000, though he may also struggle to cope, on just $585,000 a year. That’s a hundred thousand dollars more than the Prime Minister, herself the seventh highest paid premier in the world.

Eight years of campaigning for incremental gains to achieve the Living Wage, is still a victory for these invisible, essential, workers and their union representatives. It is to be welcomed and celebrated, as it’s the real minimum, humane wage that’s due. But mandating the Living Wage is only a small step in the slow journey towards wage justice. It would take a very long time, if ever, at this rate, for there to be greater parity or equality between those earning the most in the public sector, and those earning the least, if that was even a goal. High cost of living and low minimum wage rises are expected in the future which affect those on the low baseline the worst, the people like contracted cleaners. When the highest paid staff in the Council earn 12 times more than the lowest, the public sector itself fuels inequality on majestic scale.


  1. Christine, you are forgetting that cleaners do not have the capacity to fuck-up everything they touch and orchestrate the widespread impoverishment of the people, along with promotion of Meltdown of the Planet, that senior council officers and the head of Watercare have.

    Those poor sods in the higher ranks of council structures probably cannot sleep at all at night, and are probably suffering severe headaches and continuous abdominal pain, coping with the cognitive dissonance that holding mutually-exclusive concepts in their minds generates. Not.

  2. Nicely done. Expertly illustrates the kind of wilful ignorance required to support our style of economics.

  3. It continually amazes me how these over paid fish-heads make $775k p.a and yet this water situation in Auckland is his responsibilty? WTF is he doing? We are repeatedly told that we have to pay these rediculous salaries to get top people. Horseshit. This guy is an obvious idiot who could be better replaced by 1000’s of other people and do a far better job for far less money. And that applies to most other occupations and industries. Insane by very normal.

    • I always regard the times we live in as ‘loot-the-till’ times. It’s as if the looter knows the systems are failing and that the opportunities for loot and declining, and he/she knows no one is looking most of the time, so he/she can take whatever they like -and there will be no accountability whatsoever.

      The other aspect is that it is essentially a gang, and the gang members decide how much they should be rewarded, irrespective of performance or consequences. They are basically all pissing in one another’s pockets, and having a great time at everyone else’s expense.

  4. Too late, Christine, NZ is now dominated by a cash and gig economy where the minimum wages and conditions are meaningless.

    Sadly the left have allowed it to happen and actually unions seem more interested in supporting cash workers who are rich and people who do not even live in NZ, than waged workers who are struggling or busting increasing scams to avoid paying people, aka orchestrated liquidations and company misuse (often by recidivist offenders who keep getting away with it).

    • Another sad fact – minimum wage increases do not automatically lift the wages of peers who were on a dollar or two more, not even for a bracket such as healthcare worker rates set by MOH. Those wage increases will all have to be fought for by an already exhausted workforce

      • Was shocked to discover nurses in hospitals in Auckland were often paid circa $25 p/h!

        Weirdly, support workers who were not qualified were often paid the similar amounts to the registered nurses aka $25 p/h.

        Does not make any sense.

        Try to get a cleaner (who is not in on a visa scam) under $30 p/h in Auckland.

        Was shocked to find a local registered builder on $37 p/h who had 20 years experience – not sure what the call out rate was to the clients but I’m guessing at least double…..

        Something is wrong and bringing in a million low paid workers and their expanded families to be supported by NZ taxpayer top up’s and need housing, schooling, roads, and health care themselves, ain’t helping the poor or the state.

        But it is helping the top 100 companies in NZ and their executive teams and mostly foreign shareholders, get a lot more money on the backs of our increasingly destroyed and dysfunctional society!

  5. This is the term where workers push for Living Wage, not Minimum Wage from councils/government/employers – while the government moves on Fair Wage Awards and Industry Awards (conditions not just pay).

    • The issue being scum landlords and scum businesses will up prices immediately out of pure greed, thus rendering wage increases meaningless. And the cycle continues. It’s neoliberalism at its best.

  6. Their union(s) should fund the cleaners a month for a strike! Let those who rely on the cleaners do the public housework, do it themselves. A month should make a stink of their own making be enough for them to complain.

  7. Anatole France! My Great Aunt (in law) had a full set, her a railway worker’s daughter, but or because, a devotee of established hierarchy. Strange how the Victorian heritage encompassed radicals like Shelley, Byron and France.

  8. 20 second purview of your article, all this shit is down to not having a real social democratic govt. Years, decades to address the neediests’ … needs. Poverty, housing ‘waits’. Cos ‘the winter of discontent’ by the rich(!) scared Labour permanently shitless. Grant and Jacinda are Helen’s mentally disabled children. That Helen got that UN job and tried for the secretary-generalship says emptiness.

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