Friday, 25 January 2013

Living Wage opinion piece, and the responses

Last Friday the Herald published an opinion piece I had submitted arguing for a living wage.  It was my 2012 aim to submit an op ed and I finally managed it, albeit two days into 2013 ;-)

TLDR; the main point of my argument is surely no one's labour is worth less than it costs them to produce that labour (i.e. to live).  In the many comments on the article and conversations I've had with people online and off on this matter I have never encountered a proper refutation to this; indeed it's almost always ignored.  Take for example this opposing opinion piece published in the Herald three days after mine. 

It's been an interesting experience, writing for a different audience from The Hand Mirror and watching how the response has been almost completely divorced from the blogosphere.  Not a single murmur on any blog that I've seen about the living wage discussion which has taken place quite heatedly on the Herald website across two opinion pieces now.  I've had people take the effort to ferret out my council email address and send me their thoughts, and contact from people I haven't seen for years except vaguely online telling me their mother told them about it.  Quite a different experience from the often hyper-critical environment online. 

Finally, I want to give a big thank you to Deborah Russell of A Bee of a Certain Age and The Lady Garden, who inspired me to do this.  I will be trying to do it again. 


Anonymous said...

Both Herald links are the same, to your piece. (feel free to delete tis comment)

weka said...

Your Herald article is very good.

I didn't quite follow what you said here about the blogosphere. Would you consider guest posting the article at The Standard? The living wage issue comes up there in both posts and comments, and your article would get a good debate going.

Julie said...

Thanks commenter the first, it's fixed now :)

Thanks weka, I need to think a bit more about what I mean about the blogosphere and articulate it better. I guess it's how I had thought that a significant opinion piece (in terms of length and prominence in the print and online versions) on an issue such as the living wage would get picked up by the political blogs, left and right, either to support or attack, but it hasn't. And thinking more about it, it's quite rare to see political blogs go outside of the standard political commentators in the MSM for that kind of stuff; Armstrong, Hooton, O'Sullivan, Edwards (who is part-blogger too of course), Gaynor, Garner, Espiner, Gower. Blog reaction to opinion pieces by those without significant profiles already seems rare?

Deborah said...

Thank you! I think it's more a case of me being inspired by you, and what you achieve. And I've been a bit slack on the op-ed front of late, for various reasons, mostly to do with my paid employment workload. Must get cracking again...

Moz said...

Juile, I think the real refutation to living wage laws is that there will always be another starving worker to replace the one that died. But even a naive commerce student can see that that argument would go down poorly.

A quick look at wikipedia suggests the wage situation in American Samoa is more complex than portrayed, with communal land ownership and an induced dependence on imported food (etc) being the most obvious factors. But corporate toy-tossing is rarely nuanced, especially when they're discussing the withdrawal of corporate welfare programs.

I can see the economist point of view that labour is worth what it can be sold for, and as a result there are some things that are not worth paying to have someone do for you. I suspect many people agree with that, even people for whom money is not the only value (or perhaps especially for those people). GMI is one solution to that - pay everyone a living wage and let "the market" decide how to motivate people to do the shitty jobs.

The argument about a living wage can also be seen as an argument about the distribution of work. People need to feel useful and valued, which we call work (loosely, and explicitly including unpaid work). I'm inclined to the view that we have a surplus of leisure/shortage of work, and we distribute the available work poorly. But in that situation, how do we deal with those for whom no work is available? Raising the minimum wage might well make the situation worse, further concentrating the available work into the hands of the more skilled/already advantaged. That leaves more low-skilled people out of work and on the dole (in NZ, not so much in American Samoa).

Might we be better off with some form of state-provided work, either through state-owned companies (traditionally in natural monopolies like the postal service) or the more modern "work for the dole" programs. But politically those seem to be out of favour, especially the former (except in the case of administration staff, but they are skilled workers).

An alternative is greater subsidies for people who employ low-wage employees, helping bridge the gap between low value output and a high minimum wage. We do this to some extent already, through direct subsidies as well as indirect ones (from progressive taxation through the import barriers and "industry assistance" (which is not a subsidy, cough)).


Anonymous said...

Just saying:

Hi Julie,

I think I heard about your article somewhere in the blogosphere. I went to the Herald and looked it up.
Though I enjoyed it and found it well argued, I didn't comment and link to it (as I often do to particular items from the media, particularly at the Standard).

The reason is simply that you gave no indication about what you believed a "living wage" to be.

The concept of a living wage is a popular one for the left. So are improved health and other public services, better quality and more affordable housing etc. However, if you are not bold enough to give some substance to the sort of change you'd like to see, such writing can come across as yet another nice-sounding platitude.

You didn't need to put a definite figure, but a ballpark one such as $25-$30 per hour, as just an example of where I would see such a figure would have garnered a much more positive response from me. As it was I suspected that you were thinking about a much more modest sum. Either way, I for one would have linked and argued for or against had there been something of greater substance to get my teeth into.

Maybe the political blogosphere is a bit more jaded about such non-specific political pitches. .

Julie said...

Quickly, on the issue of how much a living wage is, in the NZ context; that research is part of the Living Wage campaign already underway. The Family Policy Social Research Unit is undertaking this and I think we will probably be hearing some results in the next few months.

In a lot of ways the amount is not as relevant as the concept. We either agree with the idea that everyone deserves to be paid enough to live or we don't. If we don't then let's be honest about that and let's discuss how we pick who doesn't get paid enough.

James said...

For Julie

James said...

And again.....Julie.....think about it.

Anonymous said...

James, i watched these videos and wonder if they are perhaps a tad too simplistic? Although I rather enjoyed the one where the uniformed female pulled out her gun... A feminazi I presume?? Anyways, I know that when I watch videos that are not cartoons about places that do not have minimum wage laws, some of the things I notice are that 1) unemployment is still an enormous issue; 2) poverty even while working is still an issue; 3) the promise of minimal wage and marginal working conditions eventually leading to better wages and working conditions only seems to happen for a very small minority. I'm thinking particularly of a documentary I watched a while ago called China Blue... A great watch, even though it is not a cartoon.

I am an employer, and so I find this debate interesting. You must be aware, James, that unlike your first cartoon suggests, it is virtually impossible in most organisations to work out how much profit each employee makes. Profits are not always instantly realised, and are rarely the product of one persons labour. Julie, I like the idea of a living wage, but I am concerned that if this were set at a rate that my organisation could not sustain, it would happen at the cost of hours worked, at least initially. Then we may not be able to get done what we need to get done.

What I believe would make a real difference would be a maximum earnings limit... A point at which our country said 'actually, nobody needs more than this amount to live comfortably in this country'. We'd probably see higher turnover at the upper levels of organisations (as people took off to Australia) but with so many university grads and highly skilled younger people out of work, this would probably be a good thing. Anyways, thanks for your original post Julie, which really made me think about this.


James said...

Rebecca....if you can't identify your productive employees me suggests you are on a crash course for some serious business problems.

And just who has the right to tell anyone else just how much they can earn in free trade with consenting others using their own talents and abilities to create a profit after all the dealings done?...What arrogance...and blanteant envy writ large.

You get rich in a free market by serving others.If you aren't earning what others are in the market then its because you aren't as useful a servant to people as they are....time to look in the mirror and change your game..Life and everyone else doesn't owe you squat just because you got born...

Anonymous said...

Some of what you are arguing is more or less right James. If a painter provides a service by painting a house, she can make a profit from this and her service is directly linked to the cash she ends up with in her hand.

However, if we look at the store where she brought her paint from it becomes a touch harder to figure out where the profits are made. Is it the checkout operator? She provides a constant service with a smile and works largely non-stop. But no, the profits are not determined by how many people each checkout operator serves, in spite of the fact that they need to be there. What about the people who stock the shelves? A vital service! But no, not directly linked to profits. In fact, the profits at the paint store are mostly related - not to service, but to mark-up (the difference between what the paint is brought or produced for, and what it is sold for). Markup minus costs of service etc. equals profit. So, in this situation, the less service that the store can provide, the more wealth is created at the top. Service doesn't get people really rich in our system, owning shit does.

Your point though, that life and everyone else doesn't owe me a living, made me ponder. Does society owe me a living? And I think the answer is yes, James, it does. Society needs people to exist. People need food and water to exist. In our system, food and water cost money. Therefore, society (because you and I make it exist) owes us a living. I guess I think that because we can't live without each other, we actually do owe each other a living. The question we should be asking ourselves is not 'does society owe me a living?' but 'how can we ensure a society where everyone has a decent living?' A living wage sounds like an excellent start.


Simond said...

Interesting technocratic opinion opposing your view.