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May 15, 2017 | by  | in Interview |
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Interview with Lyndy McIntyre

Lyndy McIntyre is the Living Wage Movement’s coordinator at VUW. On the eve of the Living Wage Day that took place on May 10 in the Hub, Lyndy sat down with Salient and discussed why the university should implement the wage and what it would mean for low-paid staff and students.

 

To start off, could you give a bit of an overview of the Living Wage Movement, in regards to the distinction between minimum wage and living wage?

The living wage is a concept that’s quite established in different parts of the world, largely in the UK — it’s a much more recent concept for New Zealand. The living wage is generally defined as the wage that you need not just to survive, but to lead a decent life. […]

We know in New Zealand the minimum wage is not even a survival rate, it’s not actually enough. We’ve got people on minimum wage who are sleeping in cars, who are at food banks increasingly. The minimum wage is a very low rate. It’s the lowest an employer can pay by law. Currently the minimum wage is $15.75 an hour before tax. The living wage is a completely different concept. It’s voluntary, so it’s not part of a statute. The living wage is currently $19.80 an hour, but on the July 1 the rate will be upped to $20.20 an hour.

 

How do you calculate that?

[…] It’s calculated by independent experts. The thinking behind it is that the living wage needs to be at least enough to support a family, but it’s from modelling that’s done by researching expenses, and the income necessary to provide the goods and services they need. The living wage is a universal figure, just like the minimum wage which is the same throughout New Zealand — there’s actually no methodology that supports the minimum wage, it’s just whatever the government at the time feels like plucking out of the air. […] We do know that in places like Auckland (with the cost of housing) the living wage is not enough, so $20.20 an hour is still not enough for many people to have a decent life — and arguably there are challenges in Wellington as well. But it’s a stake in the ground; a rate that is more able to provide a decent standard of living, rather than just a cold house, an empty fridge, a pile of bills that are unpaid, and workers working very long hours.

 

I understand there a number of Wellington institutions and businesses that support the living wage?

Yes. The Living Wage Movement is an alliance of faith groups, community organisations, and unions, who came together in 2012 driven by a concern around poverty and inequality in New Zealand, and who wanted to call upon employers — employers who could most afford to do so — to pay the living wage and set an example and to lift wages in New Zealand. The Living Wage Movement brings together groups that want to support it and work together to achieve it. One of those organisations, VUWSA, is a member organisation of the Living Wage Movement. That means that VUWSA supports the call for the living wage, and supports that goal of moving away from the minimum wage culture and mentality in New Zealand.  St Andrews on the Terrace is a faith group that’s part of the Living Wage Movement, so is St Peters on Willis Street. The Council of Trade Unions, the unions that are on site here at VUW, the Tertiary Education Union — they’re part of the Living Wage Movement, as well as E tū, the union that represents the cleaners. So there are lots and lots of organisations who are part of the movement.  

Just to complicate things, there’s also a program where businesses or organisations who employ staff can also become a fully certificated living wage employer. That’s separate. So there are two ways of getting involved in the Living Wage Movement: one is to become a supporting organisation, the other is to become a living wage employer. Some of the living wage employers like La Boca Loca, Nice Blocks, or Good Fortune Coffee, aren’t the kind of social justice-y organisations that are part of the Living Wage Movement, but they’ve become a living wage employer. They’ve got the right to put a sticker on their door, or have a certificate which says,  “yes, big tick, you’ve fulfilled the requirements to become a living wage employer.” That’s what the campaign at VUW is about. It is about supporting and encouraging and calling on VUW, not overnight, but to commit to becoming New Zealand’s first living wage university. We’re lucky that we live in a city like Wellington, because Wellington City Council (WCC) has made the commitment to become New Zealand’s first living wage council.

 

Could you explain how Wellington City Council (WCC) became a living wage employer?

The campaign for WCC to become a living wage council has been going on for over four years. It’s been a brilliant community campaign. Groups like St Andrews on the Terrace, VUWSA, St Peters, various unions in Wellington, Changemakers Refugee Forum — a whole range of organisations with thousands and thousands of people behind them — said, “actually, we want to live in a fair city, and we want our council to take the lead.” Those groups, together, are called Living Wage Wellington. So Living Wage Wellington has been calling on WCC to make that commitment and be the first council in New Zealand to become a fully accredited living wage council, since around 2013. In 2013 WCC was the first city council in New Zealand to vote to in principal to become a living wage council. At the beginning of 2014 they took the first step, which was to extend what was then the living wage to all their directly employed workers. Since then, they have taken steps forward, but it is in the most recent annual plan process that the Mayor of Wellington made a commitment that yes, WCC will become New Zealand’s first living wage council. The current living wage rate, that will be $20.20 on July 1 this year, will paid to a very large number of workers — including some workers employed by contractors. This is absolutely fantastic and it’s happened because Wellington is a progressive city. It’s happened because the people of Wellington, whenever this has been put out for consultation by WCC, have overwhelming said, “yes, we really back this; we strongly support this and we want our council to be a living wage council.”  There was a lot of pressure on them during the election campaign — they promised [to support the living wage] to the community in a very visible campaign and now they’re delivering on their promises and good on them.

 

We previously interviewed Vice-Chancellor Grant Guilford who was hesitant about the living wage due to it not being set by an elected body — how would you respond to that?

The current wages at VUW are set by a commercial company who recommend wage rates. Businesses like Hay, or other businesses whose job it is to set pay rates, are not elected by anyone. As I said earlier, the minimum wage is set with no research and no methodology around it, and plenty of people within the VUW workforce are paid the minimum wage, so I struggle to see a relevance of people being elected to calculate a rate that workers need to have a decent life. The issue that has been raised in our discussions with VUW is more around an external body setting a rate, rather than the HR at VUW determining the rate based on a body that’s not elected like Hay.

 

Have you talked to many of the staff on minimum wage at VUW?

Yes, definitely. The Living Wage Movement doesn’t just decide to have a campaign at VUW. Many Tertiary Education Union members and directly employed staff at VUW are paid minimum wage, or less than the living wage. Those workers are in the library, they’re in campus care, they’re research assistants, they’re tutors — they’re directly employed by VUW. Now, for some reason, until last year at least, it was deemed okay by the university to pay only a few cents more than the minimum wage to workers in the library performing a role in the VUW workforce that is absolutely vital to the running of the university. […] Yes, we do talk to those workers — and those workers want a living wage, and they deserve to have a living wage. Their colleagues who are part of the VUW workforce want them to have the living wage and there’s overwhelming support across the campus, and that’s something we’ll be demonstrating tomorrow.

This is my old university, I’m an alumni. I’m a graduate from VUW, so I’ve got a stake in this university, and I want to be proud of my university, and I’d be thrilled if this was the first university in New Zealand to be a living wage university, so I think I have a right to have a say. It’s not really a question of “has the Living Wage Movement talked to those workers [in VUW]?” — it’s a matter of this coming up from the VUW community itself. And it’s a call that’s consistent with the strategic plan and the goals of taking the lead on socio-economic issues, of seeking fairness and equity, and equal access to education. All the values that are in the [university’s] strategic plan are absolutely consistent with ensuring that every worker within the VUW workforce is paid the wage they need to live a decent life. There are workers who aren’t employed but are an important part of the VUW workforce who are paid absolute poverty rates of pay, and the cleaners are a good example of that. There are around 90 cleaners here and they are on the minimum wage of $15.75. They work horrendous hours, they’re cleaning up vomit, they’re disposing of needles, they’re finding their own parking, they’re travelling a long distance to get here, they’re parents of young children. Many are new migrants or have a refugee background — they’re significantly struggling on a very very low wage.

Tomorrow [May 10] is about demonstrating the support for the call for the living wage at VUW — on the campus in a visible action — and it’s about providing a platform for a range of voices. We’ve been running a postcard campaign called Vic Voices and we’ve collected over 2,000 signed postcards on campus, and we’re presenting those postcards tomorrow to Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Pasifika) Luamanuvao Winnie Laban, who has agreed to accept them. Vice-Chancellor Grant Guilford has apologised, he is unable to accept them tomorrow. We believe that we are moving significantly closer together in an understanding of the values of the living wage, and we’re happy with how discussions are going. It’s good that we have someone on the senior leadership able to come tomorrow to accept the cards and hand them over.

A part of this conversation is the pressure that’s on students to work, and working in really low-paying jobs in Wellington. The Living Wage Movement is about raising the issues around workers struggling to get by and the impact on their lives, and calling on large corporates — large institutions funded by public money — to take a lead around wages. That’s why we’re thrilled to see WCC take that lead; they’re one of the biggest employers in Wellington. VUW is another large employer. It’d be great to have the first living wage city council in New Zealand and the first university. But it’s also about setting an example for employers across New Zealand. One of the things that really concerns us, and also concerns me as a parent (I have adult children and was a student here in the 1970s) is the pressure on students to work part time and in many cases very long hours to support their study and their lives in Wellington.

 

Have you seen much change in the way students have been treated by employers over the last couple of decades?

Yeah. I was a student here from 1970–1973 and in those days we had free education, and rents were very cheap. We had pretty simple lives, but food was cheap and I know that there was almost no pressure on students to work during term time. There was plenty of time to study. […] I’m also the parent of two adult children, graduates (not from VUW), and yeah I did see the difference for them in the late ’80s with user-pays education and rising rents. The pressure was starting to grow on students to work just to be able to study, and it’s alarming to see now the number of students who absolutely have to work. Who have to work long hours, who work in tough jobs — hospitality is a tough job. It’s punishing and it’s very low pay, and that’s hard. […]

A stressed, tired student is a student who’s going to find it difficult to study and do well. We need to live in a society that supports equal access to education, and for students to be able to have the time and the space to be able to learn and do well — that’s the kind of society many of us want to live in. […]

 

One final question, what’s your favourite colour?

Red, the living wage colour!

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