In search of a living wage

Record levels of inequality in New Zealand would shock Irish immigrants who came to this country to make a better life.

‘This is a good country for working men as some men have from ten to twelve shillings per day,’ wrote Manawatu farmer’s wife Catherine Sullivan in 1905. ‘It is not like home. The worst men here won’t come to work for less than 7/- per day, and only work from 8 to 5pm.’

Catherine, an Irish immigrant, was writing to her brother-in-law in Ballingarry, Co Limerick, describing what he might find should he decide to follow her(1).

Many Irish, Scots and English came here to create a better life and to escape the poverty of their homelands. In recent decades, Pacific migrants have been doing the same.

One of the earliest settlers was English carpenter Samuel Duncan Parnell. In 1840 shipping agent George Hunter asked him to build a store in Petone. Parnell agreed but only on condition he work an eight-hour day.

Hunter thought that outrageous. ‘You know Mr Parnell, that in London the bell rang at six o’clock, and if a man was not there ready to turn to, he lost a quarter of a day.’

‘We’re not in London’, replied Parnell(2).

The sense of being architects of a new world drove early Kiwis to create one of the world’s most egalitarian – and prosperous – societies. But in recent decades we’ve recreated the class-ridden societies they escaped. According to a recent Herald article, the gap between rich and poor in this country widened so much in 2011 that inequality is at its highest level ever.

‘Middle and lower class workers saw their business incomes fall sharply, while the rich saw their earnings increase,’ says the Household Incomes Report released by the Ministry of Social Development. ‘It is the first time the average household income has dropped since it hit a low point in the early 90s.’

The OECD ranks us 23rd out of 30 developed countries for income inequality. The debate raging over national standards in education has starkly highlighted that, from the day a five-year-old first steps into a classroom, their family’s socio-economic background has a huge impact on their learning and achievement.

After more than a century of inching towards a better, fairer New Zealand, it seems we are destroying the egalitarian society early migrants risked travelling half the world to create.

How have we let it come to this? And what are we doing about it? The Closing the Gap Income Inequality Project aims to ‘raise public awareness of the benefits of a more equal society to such a level that our leaders take notice and act’. Unions, community groups and churches have launched a Living Wage Campaign ‘as a necessary step in reducing inequality and poverty in our society’. TV3, the Herald and other media have launched public debates.

Good luck to them all. Their Irish ancestors would be proud of them.

(1) Te Ara NZ Dictionary of Biography

(2) ‘A Good Idea of Colonial Life’. Personal Letters and Irish Migration to New Zealand, Angela McCarthy. NZ Journal of History, 35, 1 (2001)

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