Roll up, roll up for the latest Wellington City Council circus. The Council has voted on extending its diluted (half-arsed) ‘living wage’ to external contractors.
The ‘living wage’ is the Council’s bluntest tool to help those on low incomes – it targets a select few, while Wellington’s working poor have just been clobbered with a 5% rates hike to pay for it.
Council CEO Kevin Lavery took the unusual step of making a formal statement. He told councillors his job was to tell them ‘not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear’ – explaining his job was to ‘find a way to implement council’s will in a legal way’, and setting wages for external contractors ran a ‘serious risk of losing a legal challenge’. Lavery finished by saying ‘I would have a problem directing my employees to do something that is potentially unlawful’.
It was a remarkable intervention, and to any sane head it spelt D-A-N-G-E-R.
And then the madness kicked off – it is really worth the watch.
The Mayor dumped on Lavery saying that ‘in most respects I highly appreciate the advice of our CEO’, but ‘cost effectiveness is important, but it isn’t a precise art’, and started a whacky economic analysis including the social worth of Christmas decorations – which she scrapped in 2013, only to reinstate them when Wellingtonians made it clear dishing out Christmas recycling bags on Facebook was not a substitute.
Iona Pannett talked about lifting people working 90 hours a week on the minimum wage out of poverty, not realising that would give them an annual income of at least $65,000 with four weeks of holiday. But that’s the level of economic literacy we have around the council table – our representatives can’t do basic maths.
There then followed a string of grandstanding from the left. Helene Ritchie interrupted her muttering commentary to rant about the runway extension and Ray Ahipene-Mercer (née Mercer) talked about ‘slave wages’. [Note to Ray: New Zealand has a minimum wage, so if you know someone working on slave wages, then call the police.] He reckoned the move wouldn’t cost the ratepayer – only to be countered by NZ-First-reject-now-Green Sarah Free, who said the council would foot the bill, as the increased wage costs were not being passed onto the contractor.
Then Justin Wade-Lester delivered a speech that he’d spent hours practicing in the mirror: his hand gestures looked exquisite. The media training paid for by the ratepayer was on full display, as was his biro – used to dramatise lines like ‘we’re a beacon, we’re a place where talent wants to live, but are we for the many or the few?’ We were just about to wipe away our tears at his Tony Blair quotes, when we remembered Lester famously doesn’t pay junior staff at his Kapai the living wage, explaining in an email before the vote that:
We make sure that every staff member with dependents is on a living wage along with senior employees and, by the end of this year, every employee with more than one year’s service.
Food retail has a high turnover of young staff, so the ‘every employee with more than one year’s service’ line is the mother of all fudges. Also is it kosher to be asking staff if they have dependents and offering them more than those without dependents? How does that work??
Paul Eagle was beamed in via live video feed from Perth and it isn’t easy to catch it all over the video clip. Eagle is normally a voice of sanity on the council, but he’s up for reselection soon so no surprises around his position. Maybe it was the video connection, but his speech was like one of those cheap clockwork toys. Labour’s apparatchiks had wound him up to go through the motions, he did his thing, and by the end of his three minute slot he’d come to a stop.
Mark Peck then drew himself up to his full 4’11½” and tried to out-Lester-Lester. “We have a moral responsibility to ignore unjust laws!” he exhorted, and then mumbled something about Martin Luther King and how he was plagued by Tory trolls on his Facebook page for not paying the living wage to staff in his cafe Little Peckish a name that perhaps sums up how his employees feel when they’ve surviving on their slave income, if you believe the rhetoric of the Lower Hutt bloke who sets the living wage (which, by the way, is now ‘officially’ $19.25).
A quick thought for anyone who works at Little Peckish or Kapai: why not have a crack at bidding for Council contracts? It’s your best shot of being paid the living wage, given that your employers Cllrs Peck and Lester refuse to extend the largesse of the ratepayer to their private businesses.
By now it was clear that the pro-living wage faction had the numbers, but there then followed a glorious uprising that will be likened in the annals of history to Warsaw ’44 and Tiananmen Square ’89.
First to stand up was Andy ‘Tank Man’ Foster, who asked why the proposal to fund the increased wages expenditure by cutting the council’s travel and personnel budget was being offered only months after finalising the Long Term Plan – which supposedly had provisions for the living wage.
Why, asked Foster, hadn’t these costs been pruned by the Council already? Ratepayers will of course be concerned a reduced travel budget might force the Mayor to cut her jet-setting leadership and blight the city with more time in Wellington.
Nicola Young’s contribution was to bring the debate back to the advice from officers, reminding people of the threat of legal action. Then she quoted Cllr Peck from the Council’s Governance, Finance & Planning committee the previous week: “Very few people around this table realise that people have to open their cheque books to pay their rates bill. There will reach a point when ‘enough is enough’.” And how right he was, although he seemed to have forgotten his flash of prudence.
Simon Marsh spoke eloquently about bringing the council’s parking operation in-house, observing that ‘parking officers are better paid now because they are doing more: better training has helped people to earn more’. He could have mentioned that many of the parking wardens lost their jobs when they were moved in-house: they got the dole rather than the living wage. And Simon Woolf said he was nervous about the proposal, stammering and crossing his legs more than usual. We felt nervous just watching him, to be honest, but at least he voted in line with the council’s legal advice.
As expected, the vote passed. Representatives of the city’s businesses are expected to take the council to court. Justin Wade-Lester will be happy he has survived a tricky hurdle to establish his ‘Redder Than Mickey Savage’ credentials before Labour’s local government selections next month – and Mark Peck’s political future remains about as good as a frog a blender. And, because council officers see the issue as politically charged, we haven’d seen the last of this. Repeat ad nauseam.