Saunoamaali'i Dr Karanina Sumeo: Action needed to help our nation's working poor

Saunoamaali'i Dr Karanina Sumeo: Action needed to help our nation's working poor

January 22, 2020

This first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on the 24th of December.

At Christmas time, many of us are spending up large in shopping malls and supermarkets, but this is not the case for all Kiwis.

Research commissioned by the Human Rights Commission found more than 50,000 working households live in poverty in Aotearoa; before housing costs. About 100,000 kids are in these homes where at least one adult is in paid work.

The research showed Māori, Pasifika, ethnic minorities, the disabled, women, and households with low educational attainment have the worst poverty. Without Working for Families or the accommodation supplement, many families would suffer extreme hardship.

New Zealand has changed. Some still believe individual prosperity is limited only by one's attitude, education and ambition, ignoring the uneven starting points and access to opportunities that different people have because of sex, ethnicity, socio-economic factors, disability, age and family background.

Poverty is a human rights issue. NZ's failure to make real the right to an adequate standard of living is a breach of the human rights of those 50,000 families. Key to poverty alleviation is the realisation of rights related to paid work, including equal work opportunities and fair pay. It requires collective responsibility and mobility.

NZ signed up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that include decent work, gender equality, sustainable cities, and end poverty by 2030. But our 2030 must be now.

Employers have a central role in poverty alleviation. Long-term profitability for businesses means workers who feel valued, safe, are supported to develop, and on decent pay. 

Tackling unconscious bias in hiring and promotion would help minimise hardship and poverty for workers. Making pay transparent to shine a light on persistent gender and ethnic pay gaps would be a good start. The commission is engaging with businesses, unions and advocacy groups on the issue.

Closing the ethnic pay gap requires political commitment that is not yet obvious. We can address the racism that exists in hiring, pay determination, and promotion practices and close the ethnic pay gap. The commission gets complaints and stories of racial discrimination. Migrants from certain parts of the world are more likely to be poor, and exploitation contributes to poverty.

Creating equal job opportunities between sexes can counter the gendered nature of poverty. The in-work poverty rate for single-parent households is significantly higher when the main earner is female compared with male. Efforts to close the gender pay gap are coming to fruition. The public service, through setting targets, is almost at 50:50 ratio for men and women in CEO and senior management roles. The gap is closing.

We could consider meeting the costs of early childhood care through the public purse like compulsory education, as an investment in the economy and our kids. Poverty prevalence rises with the number of under 5-year-olds in a household. A recent OECD study showed Kiwis pay more than any other country to have their children cared for while they are at work.

The under-use of Māori (17 per cent) and Pasifika (14 per cent), according to the September 2019 Household Labour Force Survey, show a workforce pool in waiting. This includes workers who want more hours and might, if paid more for the same hours, be better able to get by. A 40-hour week on minimum wage is inadequate if we factor in household size and costs.

Local government programmes like the Auckland's Southern Initiative tap into this under-utilised group of Māori, Pasifika and youth by setting quotas on council contracts for infrastructure projects, imposing strategies to move people to higher wages and requiring employers to upskill workers. I encourage other municipal councils, businesses and the Government to duplicate this model as a way to create sustainable jobs, prevent long-term under-employment, and lift working New Zealanders out of poverty.

We can help alleviate poverty by recognising the contribution of unpaid work in families and communities. Everyone's contribution counts.

• Saunoamaali'i Dr Karanina Sumeo is the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.