Founder of family-owned tofu-maker joins delegation urging council to sign up to ethical pay movement

A Henderson tofu maker has become the first Auckland employer to sign up to the living wage campaign, promising to pay its six factory workers at least $18.40 an hour within a year.

Tonzu, a family-owned company, has a current starting wage of $15 an hour and says it would cost $600 a week to lift everyone to $18.40 - a pay rise averaging $100 a week for workers such as 31-year-old mother-of-four Meaalofa Meke.

But brother-and-sister directors Dan and Jesse Chalmers, who took over the business from their parents Lippy and Ricky, believe they will be able to find the money within a year by cutting wastage and other costs.

"You can always find a way to save money," Jesse Chalmers said.


The living wage campaign, launched last month by unions and community groups, says $18.40 an hour before tax would provide a "basic" living standard after tax for two adults and two children, where one adult works 40 hours and the other 20 hours a week.

Campaign organiser Annie Newman said a number of companies wanted to sign up to the living wage, but the campaign had not yet set up a formal accreditation system.

In the meantime, Lippy Chalmers joined a delegation that asked Auckland Mayor Len Brown to adopt the living wage for his council, and Jesse Chalmers said Tonzu had been working towards lifting wages to two-thirds of the average wage anyway.

Dan Chalmers, 35, said the business philosophy was "not only for profit" - a policy dating back to the 1970s, when his parents founded their first business, Harvest Wholefoods in Grey Lynn, because Dan suffered from a dairy allergy as a child and needed a source of non-dairy foods.

They started making tofu at the back of the shop in a business that later became Bean Supreme. Later they established East West Organics in Glen Eden before setting up Tonzu in the late 1990s.

"Obviously when you first start out as an owner-operator you can't pay yourself $18.40 an hour," Dan Chalmers said.

"But once you are earning good money yourself, there's no reason why you can't pay your staff well."

A new lobby group that accredits socially and environmentally responsible cafes, restaurants and bars, Conscious Consumers, said it was looking at adding the living wage on top of its 12 existing standards, which cover areas such as fair trade, free range eggs and recycling.


"We surveyed consumers in the middle of last year about what sort of things they were concerned about and wages was in the top five," said co-founder Ben Gleisner.

"The problem was we didn't have any way of finding out whether they were paying a fair wage. The living wage offers a way of standardising what a fair wage is."

Auckland Council officials told a council committee this week that adopting the living wage would benefit low-paid workers but could have "adverse implications for Auckland's international competitiveness".

Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse said councillors voted 9-7 to ask officials to keep working on the proposal.

They have put the cost at $2.5 million for Auckland Council and most council organisations, but still need to calculate the potential costs for Watercare, Auckland Transport and council contractors.

For more on the living wage