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Almost three-quarters of a million New Zealanders could be classed as the new working poor this week when the union movement fixes the value of a ''living wage'' needed to have a decent life in New Zealand.
The living wage rate, expected to be about $18 to $20 an hour, has been calculated by researchers at the Anglican Church's Family Centre in Lower Hutt to be ''the income necessary to provide workers and their families with the basic necessities of life''.
About 40% of the country's 1.85 million employees, or around 740,000 people, earn below that rate, including beginning teachers, chefs, truck drivers, mechanics and carpenters, as well as traditionally low-paid groups such as cleaners, caregivers and checkout operators.
The unions have invited national and overseas researchers to a two-day conference in Auckland on Thursday and Friday to launch the Family Centre study as the basis of a campaign to lift all wages to the new ''living wage'' level.
They are not asking for legislation, such as that governing the minimum wage of $13.50 an hour which is updated each year. Instead, unions are targeting major employers such as councils and universities to pay at least the living wage to employees, and to make it a condition in their contracts with companies that clean their offices and provide other services such as security.
A similar campaign in London, whose Mayor Boris Johnson has endorsed a living wage of 8.55 ($15.62) an hour, has raised wages for about 45,000 low-paid workers. Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly predicted that the idea would ''take off'' in New Zealand.
''The deal is that if you go to work and work hard, you should have a decent standard of living at the end of the week,'' she said.
''The argument that you shouldn't have a living wage only seems to apply to the poor. Others seem to get wages that most people couldn't even imagine are being paid in this country. I think there is a moral question here.''
The Rev Charles Waldegrave, who led the Family Centre study, said the $18 to $20 figure was based on ''not including any luxuries at all''.
''A living wage would mean that you could have a computer in your home with the kids, you could afford for your kids to go on a school camp, and you could have a modest recreational event with friends say once a month. It's pretty minimal,'' he said.
''The whole idea is that you could participate in society and have enough to pay your rent and food and power.''
He said it needed to be higher than in London because Britain had higher family tax credits, including a universal family benefit, and because the London wage assumed a family lived in public housing and used only public transport - both out of reach for most working Kiwis.
The New Zealand figure is based on the University of Otago's calculation of the costs of a ''basic'' healthy diet for a family of two parents and two children, assuming all food is cooked at home with no takeaways or meals out.
The university's latest estimate for a couple with children aged 10 and 4 in Dunedin is $220 a week.
Most other costs are based on the household economic survey, which shows that couples with two children spent an average of $158 a week on petrol and other transport, and $669 a week on other costs excluding food and housing, in 2010.
By Simon Collins, of the New Zealand Herald.