Growers' views on lifting wages vary

Smaller producers have had mixed reactions to recent debate by politicians over minimum and living wage levels.Last week, Labour Minister Simon Bridges announced the adult minimum wage would to rise by 50c to $14.25 an hour from April 1.

Opposition parties are championing a higher minimum wage, with the Labour Party saying its first step in government would be to lift the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The Green Party is pushing for a minimum living wage of about $18 an hour, which it says is necessary for a worker to meet basic needs.

New Zealand Flower Growers Association chairman David Blewden said the debate presented an "unreconciled dichotomy".

Politicians wanted to lift wages and business was "exhorted" to play its part, but hiking wages would only further expose flower growers to already serious competition from imported product, he said.

Consumers want to buy "ever cheaper product" yet there was this pressure to pay people more.

Cut flowers could be produced at lower cost offshore because of lower wages and fewer regulatory controls.

The industry here could not raise its prices but had to absorb costs to remain competitive.

Given the size of the market, other cost-cutting measures such as increased mechanisation had been "taken as far as it could go", he said.

The flower industry was one which gave lower-skilled employees employment opportunities.

"Not everyone by inclination or ability is destined to be part of the knowledge economy or whatever the latest buzzword is," Mr Blewden said.

Summerfruit New Zealand chairman Gary Bennetts said governments should not be able to dictate wage rates.

"Our industry works in the real world. We have to earn our income in the market, a very competitive market.

"We pay as much as we can afford to pay."

In contrast, government departments, funded by the taxpayer or monopoly industries with a "captive market", could pay what they liked, he said.

Certainly, there would always be issues with "rogue employers" who tried to do people out of a fair wage.

But he believed wages would have levelled out at a higher rate if no minimum had been set because people would be focused on pro› ductivity and that in turn would lift wages.

The labour market was competitive and the "best people" would be lured elsewhere if the wages did not suit.

As it stood, the Summerfruit industry generally paid a piece rate so there was the capacity to earn more than the minimum wage depending on productivity, he said.

"The reality is if governments could have a rule where I got $7 a kilo for my apricots, then I would be happy for them to set the wages," Mr Bennetts said.

Potatoes New Zealand chief executive Champak Mehta said the "aspirational goal" of a living wage had broad support within the potato industry.

The impact on individual business would be to make the adoption of increased mechanisation a more attractive financial proposition, he said.

This, in turn, would provide an incentive for the labour force to upskill and would increase overall productivity, Mr Mehta said.

- by Ruth Grundy