Dita De Boni 's Opinion

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: Make hard work worth the effort

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Corporate vultures more interested in shareholder profit than living wage

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

There are probably very few people with the same work ethic as Mareta Sinoti, a woman who toils from midnight to 4pm or so the following day, cleaning offices for as little as $13.85 an hour.

As detailed recently in the Herald as part of an investigation into the push for a so-called "living wage", Ms Sinoti spends about $50 a week getting to and from one of her jobs, scouring the offices of politicians, meaning that after tax and other living expenses she barely has enough to support two teenage sons and a recently laid-off husband.

She has an amazing work ethic - not just because she spends half her life bent over a bureaucrat's rubbish bin, and most of the rest on and off public transport, but because in her situation it would presumably be easier to throw the in towel and stand in line for government-subsidised living.

Strangely, the same people who fulminate about the cost of beneficiaries are also the types who implode with frustration at the idea of the living wage.

And yet, from a human perspective, the two seem inextricably linked. As Ms Sinoti herself says: "Look at the rate; $13.85 is almost not worth it." And for many, if not most of us, that is precisely the truth. The difference is that those of us with a qualification or training of some sort can tell the likes of Spotless Services where to stick their paltry pay-packets without resorting to the dole queue.

But even those who rely on this flinty-hearted corporate have tried to get it to pony up with more money. A flick back through the Herald archive reveals frequent public battles between Spotless and its workforce over pay, with lock-outs, penalty rates abolished, employee numbers slashed and its mainly female, largely Pasifika staff working themselves to the bone just to make enough to put food on the table.

And that pattern of behaviour was firmly entrenched even before Spotless Services was brought and de-listed by Australia's biggest private equity firm Pacific Equity Partners for A$720 million (NZ$921 million) in August last year. The company's new CEO Bruce Dixon promised, as his first order of business, to clean out the organisation's "bloated" cost base.

Which was all in a day's work for PEP, if its past activities are any guide. This was the organisation that owned REDGroup Retail, which bought the Whitcoulls and Borders bookstores, then presided over their demise, eventually putting the booksellers into voluntary administration and walking away from the investment with the loss of not just jobs, but $20 million to unsecured local creditors.

But - and it's a big one - PEP's activities are not illegal, and there is a strain of thought that suggests the only obligation of any company is to generate a return to shareholders, something PEP most certainly does. However, the Government should be striving for something more. Perhaps employing locally-owned companies that pay decently. That don't have a history of making large swathes of people redundant. Not vulture capitalists and their lackeys, actively agitating against a "living wage" and locking their workers out when they dare to ask for more.

Certainly, the world won't come crashing down if it costs a bit more to keep John Key's plastic flowers dusted, or his tins of baked beans from piling up dangerously in his kitchenette.

And who knows, if Mareta Sinoti and her co-workers were paid a little better, one of their kids might have a better shot at becoming PM one day.

Dita De Boni

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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