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$15 too much to ask? Minimum wage hits more Maori in pocket

Mar 19th, 2010 | By | Category: Featured Article, Features, Front Page Layout

low wagesMAINWELLINGTON union organiser Karen Bruce says if the government wants to see fewer Maori on benefits, it should raise the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour.

Ms Bruce, of the New Zealand Service and Food Workers’ Union central region, says increasing the minimum wage would boost the confidence of Maori and would mean better access to healthcare and education.

The National Government’s 25-cent wage increase will do nothing to pull Maori out of a cycle of benefit dependence, she says.

Wellington cleaner Olive Harding has been on the minimum wage for 21 years, and she does not think $12.75 an hour is enough reward for the work she puts in.

WORKERS' STRUGGLE: Unionist Karen Bruce (left) with Olive Harding.

WORKERS' STRUGGLE: Karen Bruce with Olive Harding.

Ms Harding, of Ngapuhi, moved to Wellington from Tai Tokerau (Northland) in 1972 and, after being made redundant from New Zealand Post, took up a job as a cleaner. Now 64, she has been on the minimum wage ever since.

Raising two kids on the minimum wage was difficult and the money you get is not enough, she says. “We had to cut down on luxuries, clothing, health and education.”

The latest small increase is not worth it, she says.

Olive Harding is one of a disproportionate number of Maori who live on, or close to, the minimum wage.

money4vaughanMedian hourly income for Maori sits at $17.50, 10% lower than the national median of $19.50, according to Statistics New Zealand

Karen Bruce says Maori will be disproportionately affected by the small increase, which will do nothing to increase their standard of living.

Her union represents the lowest-paid workers in the country, including workers in cleaning and hospitality.

“Maori probably make up somewhere between 45 and 55% of our members,” says Ms Bruce.

Having a low minimum wage means Maori are more likely to stay on the benefit and only reinforces a cycle in which parents cannot afford to pay for their children’s health and education, she says.

“A lot of [Maori] weigh up whether they want to get out of bed for $12.75 an hour or stay home and get the benefit.”

Nearly 13% of Maori were unemployed at December 2009 – more than double the 6.1% unemployment rate in the general population, according to Statistics New Zealand.

Increasing the minimum wage would mean Maori families would not be forced to cut back on health and education, says Ms Bruce.

“People will feel confident if they are paid well and they will start valuing themselves.”

The Maori Party also supports raising the minimum wage to $15 and disagrees with National’s 25-cent increase, saying they would continue to fight for a higher rate.

PitaSharples“We will continue to work with the government, to pull these right-wing monetarist policies back into balance, and to protect the interests of te pani me te rawakore, the alienated and the poor,” says Pita Sharples (left) , co-leader, in a press release.

Ms Bruce says that the Maori Party are not doing enough to represent lower-paid Maori.

Their support for National Party policies such as raising GST will have a negative impact on lower paid Maori, she says.

Ms Bruce, who is from the Ngati Hauiti iwi of the central North Island, joined the union after climbing the ranks of an international corporation and studying business.

Working for chemical giant ICI as New Zealand and Australia transport manager made her question why there were so few Maori people at the top of the business world.

“I worked in an office where I was the only brown face in amongst four floors,” she says.

The Service and Food Workers Union have made some progress in improving the position of Maori in the workplace, she says.

A lot of this has been done through a runanga where Maori union representatives from different iwi come together four times a year to discuss Maori workers’ rights.

Some of their successes include getting employers to acknowledge Maori cultural differences, she says.

“This could be as simple as having a karakia (prayer) before work,” she says, or giving tangihanga leave to acknowledge bereavement leave in the context of Maori culture.

Fighting on behalf of the low paid workers like Olive Harding is what keeps her going, she says.

Ms Harding has cut down on hours as she has got older but continues to work because she likes to keep active.

The job can be quite hard on her body and she has stopped doing the buffing which she says was particularly tough.

In the past few years she has suffered health problems including being diagnosed with type-2 diabetes.

She managed to fight the condition and after dieting she was recently given the all-clear by her doctor.

“I might put in two years before I retire,” says Ms Harding.

“I’m looking forward to it.”

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is an aspiring political journalist. I came up to Wellington after living in Dunedin all my life. I have a degree in politcal science and would love to be a political reporter.
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