SPEECH TO LIVING WAGE FUNDRAISER
9 MAY 2015, MILL COTTAGE, HENDERSON
Kia ora koutou. Talofa lava. Malo e leilei.
Welcome and thanks for coming to celebrate mothers in all our different forms. And we’re also celebrating the power of women working together.
The Living Wage campaign is a fantastic campaign and shows really clearly what women can do working together. Congratulations to Annie, Diana, Fala, Alicia and everyone else who has been working together to make this vital campaign a success. It’s impressive what has been achieved already and we look forward to more and more employers signing up in the near future.
We’ve got a proud history in Aotearoa of women leading the way to bring about positive change. We remember that we were the first country in the world to give women the vote in 1893. It was women who led that fight, battling ignorance, hostility and outright threats and physical intimidation. Since that time we have been lucky in Aotearoa to have many stellar Maori, Samoan, pakeha, Tuvaluan, and women leaders of other ethnic groups who have worked hard for social change. Working together, women have achieved a lot.
But, in our city which aspires to be the most liveable city in the world, there is much more to be done. In some ways, we fear that progress for women has stalled or is going backwards. Women have been working for decades to reduce and then eliminate violence against women – both sexual violence and domestic violence. But the horrors of the Livingstone inquest and the Blessie Gotingco murder trial tell us starkly that little has changed. And we have all seen the publicity in the media over several years now about the sexual abuse of teenage girls in West Auckland by boys – and the failure by police to take action.
In 2015, women still don’t have sovereignty over our own bodies. And we’re still subject to harassment in the workplace. And we are still paid far less than men. In global terms, it will take 70 years – 70 YEARS – for the gender pay gap to close if progress continues at the current slow pace.
So what can we do in our own city of Auckland ? Wellington City Council voted in June 2013 to support in principle a Living Wage Council and a Living Wage Capital. Our own council has still not done this.
We’re told it would be too expensive. That’s not true. In February and again in April, the Albert-Eden Local Board resolved that a new contractor at Mt Albert Aquatic Centre should be required to pay all staff at least the living wage. But Auckland Council chief executive Stephen Town overruled the board and said paying the living wage would be inconsistent with the governing body’s policy position. Mr Town said the implications of requiring a living wage would “have untenable consequences for me as the employer of council staff.” What he means is: he’s afraid that if one part of the council starts paying a living wage, other parts will want to as well. And Stephen Town, the man who is saying this, is himself earning $630,000.
Let’s look at the figures and see if we can tell Mr Town how the council could pay the living wage. Auckland Council has 1780 employees earning over $100,000. That was at June 2014 and was up 280 people on the 1500 employees earning over $100,000 in June 2013.
At the same time, the council has 1544 staff earning less than the living wage.
Most of those earning over $100,000 are men and most of those earning less than the living wage are women. 1780 and 1544. The figures almost match up.
The council itself worked out in 2013 that all it would cost for the council council to pay a living wage to staff is between $2.5 and $3.7 million. On 2013 figures, if we took $1600 a year from each person earning over $100,000 and gave it to someone on a low income, all council staff could receive the living wage.
Why can’t we do this ? It’s not hard. Maybe we can start this off by finding one person earning over $100,000 who will agree to give up $1600 (– or whatever the figure is now, adjusted for 2015 figures.)
Another way to do it would be by reducing the pay of the very highest earners at the council. In 2013, 113 employees earned over $200,000. By 2014, that had risen to 141 employees. In 2013, 23 staff earned over $300,000. By 2014 that had climbed to 35.
Waterfront chief executive John Dalzell’s pay rose 30.8 per cent in two years from between 380,000 and $390,000 to between $500,000 and $510,000. By contrast, the average salary increase for council staff was 1.9 per cent in 2013 and 2.13 per cent in 2014.
Auckland Transport chief executive David Warburton is paid between $640,000 and $660,000. Former Watercare chief executive Mark Ford was earning between $840,000 and $850,000.
Auckland Council’s current chief executive earns $630,000 – which is actually more than $150,000 less than his predecessor but is still a massive amount of money. His predecessor Doug McKay was paid $782,887.
If we look just at John Dalzell’s pay rising by $120,000 in two years. If he hadn’t received that pay rise, the council would have had enough money to pay 75 low-paid council workers, the living wage (based on the average 2013 figure of each low-paid worker needing $1600 extra to achieve the living wage. These figures do not include paying the living wage to contractors. They are for employees only).
Something’s very, very wrong here. Why do we think it’s all right to pay people who are already well off so much, while refusing to pay workers – most of them women – enough to actually live on ? What this is, is a double standard.
In Aotearoa and in other countries in recent years, employers have started paying full-time workers less than enough to live on. Governments are now paying the difference to try and give people enough to survive. This used to be the employer’s responsibility. Now, in this country, the Government is paying Working for Families tax credits. In the United States, the Government spends US$153 billion a year on food stamps and other assistance for low-paid workers. In the United Kingdom 5.2 million low-paid workers receive 11 billion pounds in top-ups from the Government because their wages are not enough to live on.
This means some of the largest and most profitable retailers in the United Kingdom pay low wages that are boosted by in-work benefits paid for by the taxpayer. The total amount of benefits paid to staff at some companies - including major supermarkets - exceeds what the firms pay in tax each year.
There has been a giant con trick pulled on all of us in recent years. In the past, workers used to be paid enough that they could provide for their families and buy a house, and that could often be done on one income.
Now, people can’t provide for their families on one income, many have no hope of ever being able to buy a house and taxpayers are subsidising employers who pay low wages.
Things have to change.
Let’s look at New York City. In New York, the mayor’s office each year prepares a Poverty Measure report. This is required by the city’s charter. The report contains an estimate of the poverty rate in the city. In 2013, the city’s poverty rate was 21.5 per cent, meaning 1.8 million residents were living in poverty.
The current mayor Bill de Blasio outlined his goals for reducing poverty in a document called OneNYC which was released on 24 April 2015. The mayor aims to lift 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty and near poverty over the next decade.
This will require acceptance of the mayor’s plan of increasing New York City’s minimum wage from the current $8.75 an hour to $15 an hour by 2019. That would lift 748,000 New Yorkers out of poverty. The plan also proposes workforce development initiatives; universal pre-kindergarten; improved transport and an affordable housing plan put forward by the mayor. Affordable housing initiatives such as rent regulation and public and other programmes would move 6.5 per cent of residents out of poverty. The mayor has pledged to provide 200,000 housing units by 2024. That will not only create construction jobs, but also reduce skyrocketing housing costs.
Auckland’s aspirational title of the world’s most liveable city is going to slip further and further out of our grasp unless we can tackle issues like unliveable wages and lack of healthy, affordable housing.
There’s also another issue I want to mention. I’ve been doing some work this year on mobile shop trucks. They prowl around low income areas and sell goods at inflated prices to families who don’t have cash to go to shops and can’t access credit from banks.
The trucks used to be pretty much in South Auckland and Porirua. But now they’ve expanded to West Auckland, East Cape, Napier, Kaikohe, Kaitaia, Kawerau, Rotorua, Whangarei and Whakatane. You might have seen them in Ranui and Swanson.
The trucks used to be called “clothes trucks” because they mainly sold clothes. But they now sell clothes, appliances, bedding, electronic goods and furniture. Recently, some trucks in South Auckland have started selling food, which I find completely despicable.
They charge $20 for a can of corned beef; $35 for a packet of noodles; and $66 for powdered milk. One contract I saw charged $23.99 for a packet of biscuits, $49.99 for a packet of rubbish bags, $39.95 for a packet of cereal, $14.99 for a packet of potato chips, and $14.99 for a can of fruit salad.
The reason people pay these outrageous prices is the trucks come to their homes, and they offer credit. People who don’t have a car or who don’t have money for petrol or bus fare to go to the supermarket or shops can buy at their front door. The trucks also offer credit to people who can’t get loans from banks, who have bad credit histories or who are bankrupt.
I knocked on four doors in Mangere one day. People answered the door at three of the homes. All three people had debts to the trucks, including a man with a young son. He’s on a benefit and has debts to around 10 mobile truck companies and pawn shops. He’s supposed to be repaying about $200 a week but he doesn’t have it, so each week he’s getting more and more into debt.
One of the women I spoke to has a 17-year-old and a 35-year-old son with hereditary conditions meaning they will need dialysis for the rest of their lives. The 17-year-old has 4 hours of dialysis three times a week. His mum bought him clothes and a mobile phone from the trucks because she didn’t have to pay money up front. And, of course, if you had a son with a serious illness, you’d want him to have a mobile phone so he could get help in an emergency.
The trucks usually tell people how much they will repay each week, rather than the total amount they’ll owe if they buy goods. There are also often really high fees for all sorts of things. One company has the following fees –
The law and regulatory agencies have been pretty useless about controlling the trucks.
The companies often obtain multiple signed direct debit forms from people. So if a buyer cancels one direct debit, the company activates another.
I’d like to see our Auckland Council, other councils around the country and the Government taking steps to stop these trucks from ripping families off.
We should ban multiple direct debit forms; register and license trucks; ban them from selling food; stop their misleading advertising; abolish all the fees; and look at other ways to provide low income families with the items we need.
Obviously, raising wages and benefits is the most important step we can take to prevent people having to buy from trucks. Affordable and healthy housing is also important.
Access to vehicles is also crucial in Auckland. Poor families are more likely to live in cold, damp, overcrowded houses. Children suffer more illnesses. A car is vital for families needing to transport children to doctors and to Starship, as well as for getting to work and other family needs.
When I bought my car, I went to a car fair, and a friend checked over the car I found to make sure it was mechanically sound. I paid $3900 for the vehicle and it’s been going well for ten years. Total cost of car purchase: $3900.
That’s completely different from the typical car-buying experience for my clients. They get ripped off, both when they buy the car, and with the loan they take out to finance the vehicle. I’ve dealt with many cases where people have been sold unreliable cars for $15,000 to $20,000, when the vehicles might actually be worth $3000 to $5000. Then, as my clients can’t pay cash, they need to borrow to pay for the car.
They won’t be able to get a loan from a bank, meaning they are driven into the clutches of lenders charging extremely high interest rates and fees. A family might end up paying a total of $30,000, for a car worth only $5000. Sometimes, the cars break down within a week or a month of purchase. However, in law, the car purchase and the loan contract are two completely separate legal transactions. Even if the family now has a car which doesn’t go, and is worthless, they still have to repay the entire loan.
Microfinance schemes have evolved to provide affordable finance to low income families, who can’t obtain loans from banks. The projects charge low or no interest. As soon as the money is repaid by one family, it is lent to others.
These schemes have been operating for more than 30 years in Australia, with Good Shepherd helping to initiate over 700 of them across the Tasman.
The projects are in their infancy in New Zealand, but it’s pleasing to see politicians finally taking their merits on board. The Government announced in last year’s Budget it would make some funding available for affordable loans schemes. Good Shepherd, the BNZ and the Salvation Army are partnering with the Government to provide the loans. Similarly, Kiwibank came on board to help set up Nga Tangata Microfinance Trust several years ago - which I was involved in.
But, the missing part of the equation is that there is still nowhere people can buy cheap, reliable cars. Low income families need to be able to access cars like mine – affordable and which keep going for years.
There is no reason that a government could not set up car yards, selling reliable secondhand cars which had been thoroughly checked over before being placed on the market. Families would then be able to access funding through a low or no-interest loans scheme to buy the car.
This would in, one go, deal both to loan sharks and to rip-off car yards which exploit purchasers. But, unfortunately, there appears to be no enthusiasm from politicians of any party for such a car yard scheme. However, there is no reason why it couldn’t be initiated as a community venture.
A group of women in Timaru runs a low interest loans scheme. They’ve partnered with a local car yard. The owner has a garage attached to his vehicle sales business. He finds cheap cars, does repairs and ensures they are mechanically sound. He then makes them available to the women running the loans scheme. They provide funding so low income people can buy the cars. In particular, vehicles and finance are provided to women seeking to re-enter the workforce.
That scheme needs to be replicated all round New Zealand. We could do it as a community project. Car enthusiasts who like nothing better than spending weekends at car fairs could find cheap, reliable cars. They could be checked over and any repairs done by volunteers, and then the cars could be sold to low income families. The purchases would be funded through low or no-interest loans schemes.
Loan sharks and unscrupulous car dealers would be put out of business overnight. Many of the crippling debts which are a millstone around the necks of low income families would be avoided.
Everyone can do something. Even if you only have two minutes, you can do something that will help. Email the Auckland mayor and tell him you want the council to give its workers and contractors a living wage. Email your councillors and board members and let them know your views. Ask to meet with them to tell them your views, or go to local meetings and speak to them or ask questions about the issues that are important to you.
Remember, it’s the local body elections next year, so you will also have your chance to make your views known at the ballot box. Because politicians know they will be up for re-election, they will be more likely to listen to your views. So email or Facebook or tweet them. And ask five or 10 of your friends and family to do the same. By weight of numbers we achieve change.
We women have a lot of purchasing power. We can use our consumer influence as another way of achieving change. We know there’s a huge problem worldwide with multinationals not paying tax. They are cheating governments – and us – of billions and billions of dollars that could be used to end poverty, give children a good start in life and provide better services to victims of domestic and sexual violence.
I don’t have New Zealand statistics about this. But let’s talk about Australia. Since 2002, Australians have spent A$27 billion on Apple products. So you’d think the Australian Government would be getting a fair whack of tax from Apple. But Apples has paid tax of only $193 million or 0.7 per cent of its turnover. Apple has shifted $8.9 billion of untaxed profits from its Australian operation to a tax haven structure in Ireland in the past decade.
And Google in 2013 reported its Australian tax at 15 per cent of profits – or $7 million on a $46 million profit. But what those figures don’t reveal is what Google has done about its other Australian income. It invoices through Ireland for the income it earns through advertising in Australia on its search engine. That has earned it $2 billion but taxes are not paid on that amount.
So, when you and your family are shopping, think about supporting businesses that pay taxes and living wages and boycotting those that don’t. If enough people do that, businesses will change their practices.
Also, remember that we don’t always know at the time what impact our actions have. When I was at law school, we were having lectures on evidence law. We were dealing with similar fact evidence. That’s when someone repeatedly commits the same offence or uses the same modus operandi. There was a case about a man who advertised for a housekeeper. He asked women to come to his home. When they arrived, he forced them to have a bath and then raped them. The lecturer made a joke that the man must have had a really high hot water bill.
I went up to speak to him afterwards and say that rape wasn’t funny and that I didn’t think his joke was appropriate. I assumed at the time that saying that to him would be a complete waste of time and probably the only impact would be he would give me a lower mark in the exam. But years later I found out that he actually thought about what I said. And he also followed what I did after I left law school.
And I also remember a woman I acted for. Her son was living with his father and she was trying to get more access to him. At the end of the case, in legal terms, I had been a complete failure. The woman was not spending any more time with her child. But a little while later she sent me a bunch of flowers and a card saying thanks for helping her through some of the toughest times in her life. My experience of what happened was a failure. But her perspective was totally different. She thought I had listened to her, and that was really important.
So, we can often become discouraged or think it is a waste of time to doing anything or we don’t have time to be involved. But we can just use tiny amounts of time we have here and there – two minutes or five minutes – and if enough women work together and ask others to work with us, we can achieve change. Never think that the problem is too big and you as an individual can’t do anything. Women can always do something.
So, have a great day tomorrow with your mothers, sisters, cousins, friends and family celebrating mums and womenpower. And, if you have a spare two minutes tomorrow or some other day, send an email to the mayor, a councillor or a board member about what changes you want in Auckland. Or email the Prime Minister, your MP or other politicians about what you want to see nationally.