Council staff in Bay have good wage

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The "living wage" debate is irrelevant to Hawke's Bay councils as their staff already receive the pay required to live comfortably, according to local mayors.

Auckland and Wellington councils have agreed to investigate the feasibility of adopting a "living wage" of $18.40 an hour - proposed by a coalition of union and community groups. Calls for fairer pay are also growing nationwide.

Napier's Mayor Barbara Arnott said she would be "very surprised" if any council employees were not receiving a "living wage" in Hawke's Bay. But she admitted she did not know how many Napier City Council workers were paid less than $18.40 an hour.

"We have about 500 staff, [and] we do a lot of our contracting ourself.

"I know that our managers put an arm around their staff here. Perhaps it's different in Auckland, where it's larger and people are at arm's length, but here we know all our staff."

The cost of living was much lower in Hawke's Bay than in larger cities, and housing prices were also significantly cheaper. Napier City Council would offer assistance to workers who were sick or in difficulty.

"I would be very surprised if any of our workers weren't okay."

The "living wage" debate had not been considered by the council as the issue had never arisen, Ms Arnott said.

Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule said the "living wage" debate was not a high priority.

While he was not aware of what all council staff were paid, "I'm advised that most of them are on that, if not more".

"I'm conscious that while that might be talking about our staff, at the other side of that somebody has to pay those costs, and they're the ratepayers.

"I'm pretty comfortable with where we currently sit."

Council staff were offered a competitive package, were "justifiably rewarded" and most enjoyed their work as a consequence, he said.

Mr Yule said he would not dictate contractors pay their staff the "living wage" as that was up to them to work around their own margins. "What I've found with contractors is that they do everything they can to keep their staff employed and to keep them winning contracts.

"I don't think it would be appropriate for us to say as part of terms and conditions that a contractor has to pay a number of dollars per hour."

Both Hastings and Napier councils failed to respond to requests for details around the council's annual wage bill prior to publication.

Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said she "would very much like to move towards a living wage".

But any changes would be gradual, subject to a feasibility study and after consulting ratepayers.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown said his council would consider a report by Lower Hutt's Anglican Family Centre calculating the wage required for a couple with two children to "live with dignity and to participate as active citizens in society".

Initial Auckland council figures show it would cost $2.5 million a year to raise the wages of 1544 people paid under $18.40 an hour as direct employees of the council and all except two other council-controlled organisations (CCOs).

Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly said the organisation welcomed the study into wages and living conditions, but wanted a broader focus than just wages.

Subsidising transport and childcare for low-wage workers were ways businesses could support their employees without hiking up wages, he said.

The living wage concept was fraught as living costs differed region to region and with individuals' circumstances. "To just say it's about wages is not correct."

The Family Centre report said the $18.40 figure was based on the cost of Otago University's "basic" food diet for a couple with two children ($226 a week), the national lower-quartile rent for a three-bedroom house of $275 a week, and other costs totalling $537 a week based on the average spending by families earning below the median household income.

The living wage campaign is backed by 126 union, community and religious groups. However, AUT University economist Dr Gail Pacheco, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the minimum wage, said the single $18.40 figure ignored the reality that different households had widely differing living costs.

"What about a youth worker who is just trying to get some experience in the labour market and build skills?"

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei believed central and local government and profitable employers should be the first to sign up to the living wage.

"Many chief executives in the public sector earn salaries of more than $300,000, while those that clean and maintain their buildings subsist on the minimum wage. We can pay decent wages when we choose to."

However, she conceded a rise could not be overnight.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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