So, unless you’ve been living under a rock, or are from outside our fine country of Aotearoa New Zealand, you’ve probably heard a lot about the Living Wage recently, given some pretty exciting advocacy that’s going on for it, especially in the context of a measly 25c raise to the minimum wage in a country where productivity has still risen higher than wages have. (ie. we are getting underpaid for the same amount of work, when compared to our parents and grandparents at our ages) And that’s not even mentioning the government’s stone-hearted ambitions for a low-wage economy, with an anemic minimum wage.
A lot of the media coverage has focused on the difficulties of implementing a living wage for businesses that currently pay near the minimum wage for some workers. While it is reasonable to feature the challenges for employers, these complaints should not recieve the amount of coverage they have, as they’re really not relevant as the short-term challenges will go away when the stimulative effect of higher wages hits the economy as a whole in the form of increased purchases and tax revenues. (again and again, economists that study real data as opposed to models have shown us that putting money into the pockets of people with low wages is the best way to grow the economy, because they will actually spend that money because they have a lot of unmet needs and wants) There has been roughly equal coverage on these difficulties and the novel (to the press, and to people working in service industries, by and large) concept of being paid enough to take time off for family, or to be able to afford say, library fees, on top of rent and food for yourself and your family, if you support one.
Like many people probably will, I had a pang of insecurity about this news- I’m not paid that much more than the living wage myself, and I’m working in a very high-stress environment where I’m held accountable if I make any errors and yet still expected to deliver to a high standard on both quality and volume. But that doesn’t mean that people who are paid less than me now don’t deserve a raise- it probably just means I deserve one too, but that the market is broken and not set up to pay fair wages to people like me or more especially to people on the minimum wage.
We’re so eminently class-conscious, so afraid of this right-wing boogeyman of class war against the wealthy, (and by extension: those less-worthy people catching up to US, putting US on the bottom of the heap- as if the people on the bottom don’t deserve a fair go, too) that the people campaigning for higher wages aren’t talking about owning anything significant, about the equity in earning enough that you can reasonably afford the sorts of services you provide to other people, but rather that we’re merely talking about access to basic services, food, and rent. Granted, some trolls will think that say, internet is not a “basic service”, but that’s getting into the territory of saying that you don’t deserve a microwave, or a freezer, because you’re a labourer rather than, say, a computer programmer or insurance analyst. Some of these services sound fancy when you consider the high-end uses of them, but we’re literally talking about entry-level internet here. Dialup if you’re in a city, or internet at all if you’re out in a relatively rural area. Being able to email your parents, or actually check wikipedia if you don’t understand something, or look up an obscure word quickly using an online dictionary, being able to request government forms online instead of waiting on hold.
We are setting our sights so low that the actual pushback against people who support the trends in our society of the median wage being more than twice the average wage1, 10% of the population owning a majority of the wealth in our country is literally as meagre and eminently reasonable as “please pay us enough that we can both have kids and afford to read or surf the net in our miniscule spare time”. Some elements of corporate culture have gotten so ridiculous that we ought to be pushing back against things like highly vertical workplace hierarchies, (which are a machine for bullying people, even if that bullying is only restricted to accepting unfairly low wages) executives getting paid more than their actual value to the organisation, and a demotivatingly high amount compared to on-the-ground workers, and we should be saying that we should get paid enough to save for a house, to pay off our student loans within a decade, to be able to save to travel. Those are actually ambitious goals for wages where there is some room to debate about the reasonability of everyone being able to afford those things. It’s ridiculous that to even get coverage about low wages we have to point out that some people are literally not paid enough to live a decent life.
While I’m anything but a labour activist, this quite clearly makes the case for unions in my mind- there needs to be an independent force that can exert some further upwards pressure for ordinary people’s wages, once we get everyone paying a living wage. This campaign is excessively reasonable, and there’s no way to argue against it without sounding like a buffoon or a heartless Scrooge. I want more than a living wage, and I think any skilled worker should be earning dollars more.
1For reference, in a society with roughly even wealth distribution, these numbers should be roughly the same, and this figure actually excludes about 10% of the population whose annual incomes are over $350,000.00, so it’s probably low compared to the actual figure if we had complete data. New Zealand is actually doing quite well on this front, but we’re still far behind countries like Japan, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Germany, with Japan having about 35%-50% of the inequality we do, depending on how you measure. These countries are not exactly punching below their weight.