Monday, September 11, 2023

Back where we started

Image - Newshub
Here, in New Zealand, we are deep into election season and a torrent of political posturing is sweeping the country like a river in flood. With this in mind, as I was browsing "Papers Past" the other day, my attention was caught by this letter to the editor of the Oxford Observer, from September 1889:

To the Editor of The Observer.  

Sir, Allow me to express my pleasure with the capital article in your issue of the 7th Sept., on the great struggle now pending between Labor and Capital. How grievous to anyone with a heart to feel for another is the knowledge that in this fair land of ours hundreds of our fellow-creatures toil almost day and night for a bare existence, all their labor bringing to them no more than sufficient to keep body and soul together. How sad to think of poor young girls deprived of all which makes life pleasant by the cruel "sweating" system; and, oh, sad beyond words, is the fact that many beg for work (which to them means bread) in vain.  

This is a subject on which I feel very strongly; it seems to me so cruelly unjust that one should give up all their strength. all their energy and time, and only receive in return just enough to support life in the most miserable fashion. Stick to your colors, Mr Editor, and write boldly as a friend of labor.  

Nowadays if a man is poor he is treated by many as if he were an intruder on the Earth, who ought to be thankful that he is allowed to live at all.  

I am, Sir, your sincere well-wisher,  


The letter is 130 years old but, aside from one or two details (and some archaic language), it could have been written today. I'm tempted to say that 'nothing changes' but that's not true. New Zealand had changed from the situation described in this letter and, by the middle of the 20th century, we had a much-improved situation for the majority of New Zealand's citizens. I know, I was there and experienced it. Then came the "Rogernomics" of the 1980s. In many ways, New Zealand did need to change but it seems, in hindsight, that we threw out the baby with the bathwater. New Zealand embraced the free market with a zealous disregard for the consequences of deregulated greed. 

What followed, was a steady decline in the living standards of ordinary New Zealanders, until we find ourselves in the present parlous position of unaffordable housing, homeless living on the streets, a healthcare system that seems broken beyond repair, and food so expensive that some people are forced to routinely rely on food banks. 

Image - Stuff

While this goes on, many businesses are returning stellar profits on the back of an increasing number of workers who don't receive a living wage*. Effectively, business relies on taxpayer-funded handouts to supplement poor pay with income support schemes like Working For Families. Letting business off the living wage hook in this back-handed way needs to stop. 

As Ajax wrote in 1889, "it seems to me so cruelly unjust that one should give up all their strength. all their energy and time, and only receive in return just enough to support life in the most miserable fashion." We simply have too many New Zealanders today earning less than is required to live adequately. Do any of our political parties have a plan to fix that? 

When it comes time to cast your vote next month, have a think about where our country is going. Do we continue downward as we have for the last thirty years or has someone got a better plan than that?

* By "living wage" I don't mean any official "Living Wage" figure, I simply mean wages that allow a person to live an adequate life.