The Living Wage is a fluid figure, and because inflation and the cost of living only ever go upwards, the living wage has to adjust and follow the same trajectory, theoretically. It is not a figure arrived at arbitrarily, but one carefully calculated with the cost of living taken into account. At the moment it stands at $21.15 per hour, $3.45 more than the minimum wage set by the Government. The Living Wage is a voluntary standard adopted by very few employers.
For many, The Living Wage is a dream, their struggle on what the current system gives them, or allows them to earn, testimony to the need for a decent take-home pay, one which allows freedom to live free from want, and the ability to put a little aside.
Employers who pay the minimum wage, the lowest legal requirement, currently at $17.70 an hour, are abiding by the law and, as far as many are concerned, that should be an end of it. But the difference between the minimum wage and a living wage is a measure of value, respect and need, and bestows dignity.
Therefore, to see well-heeled members of the Whanganui District Council [Whanganui Chronicle, June 1, page 1] deny their lowest paid workers a living wage is disappointing, and illustrates the economic divide that grows wider every day.
Our society has an odd appreciation of value, paying top money to those recognised as more important, while doling out crumbs to those with "lesser" jobs. Really, it's about perception.
Cleaners are paid very little, but if they stopped doing their job we would notice almost immediately. The same applies to a vast range of "undervalued" positions, all of which are essential for the smooth operation of a community. If people stopped caring for the elderly, sick or unlucky, would we notice? Of course we would. If the streets went unswept, the rubbish left to accumulate, supermarket and shop counters left unattended, would we notice? Straight away. If our teachers decided one strike was not enough and they stopped work completely, how would we respond?
All of those people, by the very nature of their jobs, prove their value every single day. Is their remuneration commensurate with the importance of their work? Of course it's not.
On the other hand, we reward soft-handed chief executives and board room suits with money far beyond their actual worth, knowing full well if they stopped work we wouldn't notice any difference whatsoever.
How did we get so back-to-front, where a worker's worth is not measured by the real value of the job?
Whanganui District Council pays its managerial staff very well and it's no secret the mayoral salary is something most of us can only equate with winning Lotto, but they baulk at allowing the lowest paid of their staff to earn a living wage. Does that mean they regard the work done by those people as unimportant and unnecessary? Are those workers not an essential part of the municipal machinery? The problem might be that they are invisible and too easily disregarded.
It's OK to elevate the town clerk to a new status and pay them big money, and it's also OK to dismiss their lower paid workers as unworthy of respect. That's not a council I could be happy with. And it's election year.
There are organisations and companies that do pay a living wage. They are making a difference to the lives of their employees and creating a work environment they can be proud of.
It's too easy to lose sight of the importance of people when we insist on building hierarchies based on misguided perception. No matter how many people populate the upper echelons, the actual work still has to get done. That work is on the factory floor or in the big open-plan office where employees labour like battery hens, producing the product that pays for the rest of the company structure.
Every worker deserves to be paid properly: An amount that recognises the value they add to the business and to society in general. Anything less, especially if ordained by those extremely well-off, reeks of feudal economy and undoes almost everything achieved by civilisation in the 20th century.
A living wage may not be a right, but it should be, and if more businesses recognise that their people are their greatest asset and treat them accordingly, the sooner that will happen.
The Living Wage is not a Leftist conspiracy, no matter what some half-informed political critics may say, but a reaction to the widening gap between rich and poor, a divide measured not by value of work done, but by an elitist perception of worth. Nor is the Living Wage Movement — because there most definitely is one — aligned with any political party. In today's parliamentary parlance, it's a conscience vote, and entitles companies and organisations to be accredited as Living Wage Employers. Something to aspire to.