Denise Roche

Workers moving back to 19th Century

by Denise Roche

“There are twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves”

So said Samuel Duncan Parnell when he emigrated to New Zealand in 1840 and established the eight-hour day by organising his fellow carpenters to refuse to work the much longer hours that had been the norm in their native United Kingdom.

The eight hour working day (and the 40 hour week) was a standard that was rapidly picked up by workers across the land as they sought to create a fairer society from the one they had left. It became enshrined in workers’ employment conditions and lasted until the international move towards ‘labour market flexibility’ of the mid-1980’s and was pretty much dismantled by the bargaining reforms of the Employment Contract Act introduced by the National government in 1991.

At the second day of the Precarious Work and the Living Wage in our Community Symposium, the focus has been on how to ensure that workers can once more enjoy a standard of living that enables them to participate fully in society.

We’ve all heard the appalling statistics around inequality in New Zealand (we are placed 23rd out of 30 OECD countries for how well we’re doing on equality) and we know that 270,000 children are living in poverty with two out of five of those kids coming from families where one adult is in the paid work force.

At today’s workshops we heard from Deborah Littman, who is involved with the London Living Wage campaign and also the Metro Vancouver Alliance.    Her message was that these campaigns are affordable and are winnable but the community has to be pushing for it because workers cannot do this on their own.

She spoke about how communities had come to realise that poor wages affect everyone, not just the workers.  She pointed to the costs associated with poverty wages.  These include the cost of people’s poor health outcomes, poor education outcomes for children and the loss of the economic contribution they could make as well as the cost of the justice system for those kids who slip into crime.

She also pointed to the fact that low wages weaken local economies.  Lower paid people tend to spend what they earn (they don’t keep their money in off-shore accounts for example) and economists argue that for every dollar earned in a low income family it has the value of at least $1.60 as it circulates through the local economy.

She also spoke of how communities are weakened by low wages.  As the adults in a family struggle working horrendously long hours and sometimes several jobs to make ends meet, our communities become poorer because those adults do not have any free time to volunteer. It’s hard to put your hand up to coach a netball team or deliver meals on wheels when every hour is spent trying to earn enough to feed your kids.

Several speakers today have made the point that we cannot afford to keep wages low because we all pay the cost of that.  The challenge for all of us – especially those who are better off – is to pass that message on to others in our communities so that together we can all have a decent standard of living.  Low paid workers cannot do it by themselves. I am hopeful that we can create a fairer future for our most vulnerable citizens – a future Samuel Duncan Parnell might have wanted.

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Published in Economy, Work, & Welfare | Society & Culture by Denise Roche on Fri, February 15th, 2013   

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