Valuing the essential but low paid

Our response to the Covid-19 crisis will embolden many low-income workers to ask for a better deal. In workplaces around the country, many will wonder how their employers should recognise their efforts in the post-virus world.

They and we know this virus threatens the mobile and social more than those locked down at home. It pays no heed to how essential a person might be to their communities. To Covid-19, job titles mean nothing.

More of us appreciate how much we rely upon certain people since the Government declared the nationwide Level 4 response. Non-essential work is done from home, essential work continues in the workplace.

Essential work, broadly, assures our communities of the essentials of life. The designation identifies the sort of businesses that must keep going and highlights jobs some may have taken for granted.

Thousands of southerners perform such work. They make and grow the necessities, they process, pack and transport them, and they provide safe access to them. They are just as essential as they were before.

Not all are well-paid. Seasonal food workers, process workers, drivers, warehouse workers, deli assistants and checkout supervisors work hard for rates that are not always better than the living wage.

Many are on the front line. Cleaners sanitise environments in which sickness lurks, to keep essential services open. Checkout operators serve hundreds of customers, so those customers have what they need to stay safely home.

The list of such people is almost inexhaustible. Carers, deliverers, dairy workers, service station attendants and rubbish collectors work in essential occupations that were essential before the Covid-19 outbreak.

Their conditions and pay have been in the spotlight for years, especially since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis pushed New Zealand’s economy down a path of heightened living costs and housing shortages.

Workers’ advocates have spent years arguing for low-wage workers to get a bigger slice of the pie, even if that simply means earning a wage that keeps pace with what it costs to pay for rent, food, utilities and education.

The living wage movement grew from this push and many employers now pay what is considered a living wage. Last year, it was set at $21.15 — at the time, about 68% of the average hourly earnings in New Zealand.

A new rate is due to be released on April 1, coinciding with the minimum wage rising from $17.70 to $18.20. Of course, this will also coincide with a period of potentially deep economic recession, price inflation and joblessness.

Nonetheless, we should expect fair pay calls to intensify when the country emerges from lockdown. Those who seek better conditions will do so knowing they were asked to sacrifice their sense of wellbeing — at the least — to keep working.

The Unite Union this week told us many such workers feared for their health and that of their families. No matter the protective measures provided by responsible employers, such fear must always be there.

It is worth considering how much ‘‘choice’’ some had when considering whether to work through the crisis. Circumstances often dictate choice: one often has little to fall back on when one is in low-paid work.

It is also worth considering the bind such workers may find themselves in if the economy slips into a lengthy recession. Low-income workers may be reluctant to risk their positions and conditions in trying and uncertain times.

Many employers will be able to do no more than thank them for their loyal service during the outbreak because so much of their business will depend on how quickly he nation recovers.

Others, though, might expect to come under increased pressure as workers seek to convert some of the remarkable turnover their employers experienced in the lead-up to — and, perhaps during — the lockdown, into concrete recognition.

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