Changing the world

When it comes to inequality, it appears the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Perhaps the lesson of at least some dead men, however, is that the required response is equally timeless.

This week, the University of Otago's Centre for Theology and Public Issues held a one-day conference to mark the life, work and legacy of the Rev Rutherford Waddell.

In 1888, the minister of St Andrew's Church in the heart of what was once Dunedin's notorious Devil's Half-Acre, delivered a sermon on The Sin of Cheapness.

His message detailed the plight of women and girls in the clothing industry, forced to work long hours for little pay in order to barely survive in slum conditions.

Mr Waddell (who was later granted an honorary doctorate) placed the blame for sweated labour at the feet of everyone whose lust for cheap goods, he said, was pushing wages below subsistence levels.

He was joined in his campaign by Otago Daily Times editor George Fenwick (later Sir George) and chief reporter Silas Spragg.

In late 1888 and early 1889, Mr Spragg wrote a series of exposes confirming and highlighting the situation. Mr Fenwick used the newspaper's resources and influence to bring the issue to public attention.

The widespread concern it generated was such that the government established a Royal Commission.

Its recommendations ushered in the first of a suite of progressive social and labour reforms.

Much has changed for the better in the ensuing 123 years.

Housing and labour conditions, and general standards of living, have all improved. In many cases, what was once a luxury is now considered a bare necessity.

At the same time, however, it can be argued that little if anything has changed.

In New Zealand, 300,000 employees are on or near the minimum wage, and 270,000 children live in poverty. Sweated labour may no longer be a problem in our backyard, but only because "developed" nations have largely pushed it off-shore.

Globally, 120 million children under the age of 15 are said to work full-time, half of them in hazardous or unhealthy conditions.

Up to 90% of workers in the world's sweatshops are young, uneducated women.

The global disparity in wealth is enormous.

The richest 10% of adults reportedly own 85% of the world's assets, while those in the bottom half own 1%.

In New Zealand, a new report by the Ministry of Social Development reveals the highest level of income inequality yet.

In the past two decades, we have gone from being one of the most equal to one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.

It seems the essence of the issues raised by Messrs Waddell, Fenwick and Spragg one and a-quarter centuries ago remain just as pressing and valid today.

The questions these issues pose are not easy.

Is boycotting stores selling cheap, sweated goods realistic when incomes are stretched to breaking point in the face of ever-rising costs?

And what impact would that have on often low-paid workers and their struggling families dependent on those retailers for employment?

How do we, as a society, tackle child poverty and inter-generational welfare dependency in a way which reduces harm and gives hope without undermining self-reliance and self-belief?

Is demanding that children worldwide get the same educational opportunities an honourable cause or the latest form of "civilising" colonialism?

Tough questions, however, do not absolve us from responsibility.

What is striking about those three long-dead men is that, with conviction and courage, their individual efforts culminated in profound change.

The same is true today.

We will not all come up with the same answers.

Differing backgrounds, roles and resources will shape how and in what ways we respond.

But if we share the conviction that change is needed, and each have the courage to carry that through, our actions as individuals - whether on the national or world stage, or through the seemingly simple choices and decisions we make each day - can and will change the world.



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