In our ongoing series, made possible by MYOB, we turn to the issue of the Living Wage and the difference it can make to workers.

It's not just food being cooked up at Kai Pasifika, an upmarket eatery on Auckland's Mt Eden Rd. This is a restaurant serving up a brand new business ethos.

Kai Pasifika is one of the first restaurants in the city to embrace the living wage. At $20.55 per hour, it's defined as what a worker needs to "pay for the necessities of life and participate in the community".

At $4.05 cents higher than New Zealand's minimum wage of $16.50 an hour it raises the question. How are New Zealand's lowest earners, making ends meet?


That's a topic Kai Pasifika's co-founder and internationally renowned chef Richard Hall holds dear. Hall returned to New Zealand after 30 years cooking as far afield as London, Shanghai and New York.

"We have built an internal culture around Pacific values. So we've paid living wage from the beginning." says Hall.

A Mangere native, Hall hired young chef Teraitua Cuthers and his partner Lesza. The pair had emigrated to New Zealand from the Cook Islands and up until meeting Hall, were working minimum wage within the hospitality industry.

"It was really rough. It was literally living pay cheque to pay cheque and it was like, what do we go without?." says Cuthers.

The reason Kai Pasifika's story is pertinent to equality in New Zealand is because of all ethnic groups to have benefited from the past decade's economic growth, the Pacific Island community have essentially been left behind.

Between the 2006 and 2013 Census, the Pacific Island community was the only ethnicity in the entire country to see their average wage decrease. Wages dropped from $20,500 in 2006 to $19,700 in 2013. Maori saw just a $1600 rise to $22,500, while European and Asian New Zealanders all saw a raise of more than $5000.

Even with a new 'socially conscious' government, this year's salary negotiations at the forefront of our minds are those of teachers, nurses and corrections workers. Not that these causes are any less worthy, but it fortifies the adage, "the squeaky wheel gets the oil".

In preparation for this piece we heard from Suleman, a cleaner who emigrated from Eritrea who was pulling 80 hour weeks to support his family on the minimum wage. Then there was Natea, who stocks shelves at a retailer in Manukau and sleeps in her car, showering at a local 24-hour gym. This, after her family was forced out of Auckland as a result of what too many of us have glamorised as "hard-work", but is in reality an equity surge in an unbridled, out of control housing market.

There was a brief reprieve for low wage workers in April when the coalition elevated the minimum wage 75 cents to $16.50 per hour. Despite barely moving the needle in terms of livability, it was enough to wolf-whistle much of NZ business and the country's media commentariat.

Among the many hot takes, some expressed concerns about how increased wages could lead to a flat white famine as prices increased to counter.

Other attacks hit a personal nerve, criticising the supposed lifestyles of communities most in need.

"There's a lot of stigma, kind of like everything's corned beef, coconut cream, KFC, that kind of thing." says Teraitua. "For some reason because we've come over here and things have happened, we get put in that basket, which I don't think is fair."

Given the recent upbeat sentiment for industrial action led by the nurses and teachers, you do have to wonder what would happen if the army of low-wage workers simply pulled up stumps. Would we be more vocal advocates of their cause once the entire nation became awash with uncollected garbage, or the work toilets looked just as we left them the night before... For days?

The reality for thousands on the minimum wage is that a single day of industrial action could see them out on the street. So they will probably soldier on, without complaint. Lucky for us, I suppose.

Hall fortunately has a more optimistic outlook. He hopes to turn living wage momentum into a movement where employers who sign up to Living Wage Aotearoa, will also source their goods and services from other ethical businesses.

"If we can get big corporates spending their expense accounts in restaurants that have got the living wage, for example, that will tick the box for other restaurateurs."

There's also hope on the horizon from big business. While a quick browse of Living Wage Aotearoa's accredited employers list is a litany of NGOs like Greenpeace and Oxfam. Some big names like AMP and Vector have signed up. Bunnings also signed a deal with FIRST Union in August to pay much of their workforce the living wage.

Hall says as consumers, we can do our bit too.

"We can educate people more about conscious consumerism and we can say, 'when you're looking at dining at a place, why don't you figure out who's living wage," he says.

Teraitua says he is living proof of what some compassion in commerce can do.

"This is definitely the happiest I've been in New Zealand. I'm going to a happy workspace. I'm making enough money where I can live and I'm also growing as a chef. That's all three in one." says Teraitua.

If this is the outcome of trading cheap coffee for compassion, then I'm all in.