Essential workers deserve a Living Wage


Rose Kavapalu, a cleaner at Ōtāhuhu Police Station, has to work 13 hours a day, Monday to Friday, to feed her family and pay the bills.


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has thanked cleaners for their work in the lockdown and made special mention of Rose Kavapalu, who has been working 13-hour days at Ōtāhuhu Police Station, in Auckland. "These are our essential workers and I hope we continue to recognise them as that long after this pandemic has passed. Thank you for keeping us safe," she said.

Around the world, essential workers are being thanked for putting themselves at risk, in the fight against COVID-19.

In Singapore, London, New York, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Barcelona, Christchurch and Auckland, people are clapping essential workers, from the safety of their homes.

Actors, sports stars, Prime Ministers and employers are speaking in support of these workers, on the frontline of this global pandemic.

Queen Elizabeth II acknowledged our essential workers, in her COVID-19 crisis message of support to New Zealand. "I send my enduring thanks to those who continue to put the service of others above themselves, whether by staying at home, providing essential services, or by caring for the most vulnerable."

While we’re all saying thank you, let’s remember these essential workers — cleaners, security guards, rubbish collectors, supermarket workers — are being paid the minimum wage, or only marginally above it. Even during normal times, these low paid workers struggle to feed their families and pay their bills.

In this time of crisis, they continue to struggle, while they leave the safety of their homes to provide lifeline services, we’re all relying on.

Saying thank you is great. It’s the least we can do. But don’t we need to do more? Don’t we need to ensure that the future is one where all these workers are paid the Living Wage.

It’s taken a global health crisis for us to recognise cleaners, care workers, security guards, rubbish collectors and supermarket staff are essential workers. The reality is, they’ve always provided essential services.

Now, this has been officially acknowledged by the Government. The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) COVID-19 advice says: Security is an essential service for all essential workplaces and non-essential premises; cleaning is an essential service at essential workplaces and at businesses supplying essential workplaces; kitchen and cleaning workers in aged care are essential; rubbish collectors are essential; supermarket workers are essential.

Given this, it’s unfair that a worker like Rose Kavapalu, a cleaner at Ōtāhuhu Police Station, has to work 13 hours a day, Monday to Friday, to feed her family and pay the bills.

She says: “Being an essential services worker at the police station, all of a sudden people realise how important your job is. I’d rather not be at work as I have many family commitments, but the police officers really need us to keep the place clean and free from COVID-19. So, I am happy to do the work, but honestly, I deserve more than the bare minimum.”

It’s unfair that a worker like Lavinia Kafoa, a security guard at an Auckland train station, has to work long days to support her three sons.

The solo mother says: “We need more money because of the risky work that we do. We also need proper PPE, but we’re still waiting for that. We should be doing more for our frontline health and service workers.”

Halting the spread and eliminating COVID-19, is New Zealand’s number one priority. But we also need to plan for the revival and rebuild of our economy.

As we emerge from the lockdown paying the Living Wage will help revive our economy, by keeping local businesses afloat. That’s because low paid workers spend most of their income in their communities.

Economist and Research Director of BERL, Dr Ganesh Nana, says the Living Wage is part of the protection vulnerable New Zealanders need to weather the economic impact of COVID-19.

“Right now, everything is uncertain but there will still be a future. Our immediate response to COVID-19 should also plan for the future. Everyone has to make adjustments, but we cannot put the burden of adjustment on those most vulnerable. Those of us in positions of power and influence have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable and part of that protection is to ensure they have a Living Wage.”

Our post COVID-19 economy must sustain the planet and people. It must ensure that all essential workers, such as, cleaners, security guards, all workers in the care sector, rubbish collectors and supermarket workers, are paid a Living Wage.