Wellington Living Wage Advance

After a long debate, a meeting of the Wellington City Council on 28th October voted 9 to 6 in favour of security contract staff being paid a Living Wage. The Council already pays its directly-employed staff a Living Wage. Earlier this year the Council had resolved under the Long Term Plan that they would extend it to workers in Council-Controlled Organisations and, on a case by case basis, to contract workers. Recently the Living Wage was duly implemented at CCOs. The security and noise control contract has come up for tender and has been a test case for Mayor Celia Wade-Brown’s and the councillors’ resolve to carry the Living Wage policy through. Paying the security staff a Living Wage will add to the contract price.

The centre-left on the Council must be applauded for the stand they have taken. They took the decision in the teeth of opposition from the Council’s senior management and business interests. The management report to the Council meeting was outrageously one-sided. Its central arguments were that topping up the security workers’ pay would be illegal and too expensive. Unusually, the report quoted lengthily from legal advice the managers had procured. The report was practically an invitation to take the council to court.

The council’s Chief Executive bullishly told the council that they might not like it, but they needed to be told what he had to say. He said that a decision to pay the Living Wage would be challenged by a judicial review. He said that they had a duty as a good employer not to direct him to do something that was potentially unlawful.

The Chamber of Commerce and the Retailers Association representatives also pleaded against the Living Wage.

However, there was another force present at the council meeting. This was a mobilisation of Wellington’s Living Wage supporters. Those that could not be accommodated in the public seating had to follow the proceedings by a link to an overflow meeting room. One Living Wage supporter who addressed the meeting was Tiso Panapa, a security guard on the minimum wage. Tiso said that a living wage would enable him to take out his paraplegic father for fish and chips once a week.

What is to be made of the legal risk claim? The threat is real. The fact is that every council can be challenged in court on the cost-effectiveness of any decision. The National Party and its allies passed a law change in 2012 that is aimed like a dagger at the heart of any left-wing council. If you have not heard of the change to section 10(b) of the Local Government Act do not worry, you are not alone. In the absence of a news media worth the name, and with an insipid Opposition, the National-led government has repeatedly got away with passing legislation without any public debate and scrutiny.

Section 10 of the Local Government Act outlines the purpose of local government. Before the 2012 amendment it read:

The purpose of local government is—

(a) to enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities; and

(b) to promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities, in the present and for the future.

After the amendment section 10(b) reads:

(b) to meet the current and future needs of communities for good-quality local infrastructure, local public services, and performance of regulatory functions in a way that is most cost-effective for households and businesses.

The restriction on the scope of activity and the cost-effective imperative have not been tested in court yet, but the provision is there for the Right to use at any time. Under Wellington City Council’s “open for business” philosophy public money is frequently splashed on pro-business boosterism without senior managers or the Chamber of Commerce issuing blood-curdling threats of legal action. It is only when the council takes a measure to tackle poverty do they remember Section 10 and cry “illegal”.

The implementation of the Living Wage at Wellington City Council has been held back by the senior management since its introduction in 2014. The Living Wage rate paid at the Council is not the official Living Wage rate of $19.25. The Council’s “Living Wage” is currently $18.55. Wellington Living Wage campaigners have had to constantly keep up the pressure to counteract management backsliding.

In the longer term the gains won by the Living Wage campaign will be best preserved and built upon by union organisation of the council’s and contractors’ workforces.

With council elections coming up in 2016, it is as well to record for Wellingtonians how the councillors voted on the security contract. For the Living Wage: Lester, Ahipene-Mercer, Peck, Ritchie, Lee, Free, Pannett, East and Mayor Wade-Brown. Against: Young, Marsh, Sparrow, Foster, Coughlan and Woolf.