Sunday, April 23, 2006

Matt McCarten: Double standard on salary increases

The wages of greedy New Zealand workers, according to Statistics New Zealand, soared by 3.1 per cent on average over the past year. But before workers go off and bank their surplus value, they should know that the Consumer Price Index results released this week has inflation rising by 3.4 per cent. Effectively this means that workers on the average wage are actually worse off by $128 than they were last April.

Without trying to be a killjoy, I'm afraid it's even worse for workers when the statistics are broken down. Household costs jumped by 5.4 per cent, home prices by 5.9 per cent and transport by 6 per cent. The real bummer is that petrol prices have rocketed by a criminal 23.5 per cent. The petroleum barons are drowning in so much loot they don't know what to do with it. It seems every newspaper or magazine has these companies splashing out on wall-to-wall glossy ads trumpeting how the oil industry is protecting the environment. It's a bit like tobacco companies telling us how they are protecting our health.

But if you think it's hard to comprehend these contradictions, then I have a real doozy for you. The chief executives of our 44 largest companies have given themselves an astonishing 23 per cent salary increase in this past year, while over the same period paying increases to their employees less than the inflation rate. Apparently they can even keep a straight face when lecturing unions to show restraint on wage increase expectations for their workers.

The New Zealand Herald reported this week the windfall for our top business barons that takes their average booty to over $1 million each. It's like giving yourself a guaranteed Lotto win.

If you think this is one-off piracy you'll be impressed at their audacity, as they gave themselves a similar hike the previous year. What extra duties are our top bosses carrying out to justify almost a quarter more money for each of the past two years? If New Zealand workers on the average wage two years ago had got a similar rise they would now be close to $67,000 rather than the current $41,331. Even our most industrious worker, getting slipped another $500 a week for doing the same job they were doing two years ago, would know something dodgy was going on.

Our industry captains' salaries are now 25 times higher than the average wage. A few years ago there was a consensus in companies that no boss should earn more than 10 times their lowest-paid employee. That would put our current top business leaders on $250,000 a year, not a million bucks.

Apparently the argument these corporate beneficiaries are using to justify their largesse is that they have to increase their salaries to close the gap with their counterparts in Australia. Interestingly, these same bosses argue at pay talks with their own employees that Australian workers' wages have nothing to do with what New Zealanders earn.

It seems, as Ross Wilson, the CTU president says, we have a corporate culture where senior bosses lavish rewards on themselves at the expense of their workers. Even our top women are in on the act. The two top earners were Westpac's chief executive, Ann Sherry, and Telecom boss Theresa Gattung. They both took home around $3 million each.

A feminist friend of mine argues that this indicates New Zealand is evolving into a "bourgeois feminist paradise". Really? I always assumed greed was non-gender specific.

Most women of course are still slaving away at the bottom of the food chain. I popped into the launch of the "Clean Start - Fair Deal for Cleaners" campaign organised by the Service and Food Workers Union last Thursday - part of a worldwide campaign on behalf of cleaners employed in commercial buildings. This is the first time an integrated global campaign has been attempted by unions on this scale. Most of the cleaners represented are women on minimum wage.

So when our two new successful female money makers get to their polished and palatial office suites on Monday morning they should spare a thought for their sisters who tucked their children into bed the previous evening and travelled to spend the night cleaning up the previous day's office mess.

All women - and men - who work in commercial buildings should ask what their cleaners get paid. Then make a commitment to take responsibility for ensuring that these workers are paid a fair wage.

The fight for feminism was meant to be for all women, not the privileged few who got lucky enough to join the men at the top table.


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