Jacinda Ardern asks private sector to 'value your workforce' the way Government has

The Prime Minister is asking the private sector to "value your workforce" during the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting how the Government has raised the minimum wage and boosted the pay of some public workers.

Jacinda Ardern was asked during her daily press conference if the Government would consider making all essential workers on the COVID-19 frontline earn the living wage, but she did not answer the question directly. 

"What we have been doing - for instance in our nursing workforce - is working hard to see their wages lifted and that's something we've been doing since we've been in Government," Ardern said. 

"Equally, I would say the same for people who are cleaners in our schools - that work we've done to see their wages lifted," she added, in an apparent reference to the minimum wage increase that came into force on April 1. 

"Where the Government had a role to play, we've played it. What I would ask the private sector is to value your workforce in the same way."

The Government has increased the wages of public sector workers, such as nurses and teachers. Both sectors meet the current living wage of $21.15 per hour, about $43,000 annually for a full-time worker. 

For example, Q1E entry point teachers with a Diploma of Teaching currently earn $48,410 which will go up again in July to $49,862 and go up again the following year to $51,358. 

But getting there wasn't a smooth ride.

Up to 30,000 Kiwi nurses marched against their pay in July 2018, while up to 50,000 primary and high school teachers protested against their pay in May 2019 - considered to be the largest industrial action New Zealand has ever seen.

Nurses accepted their pay offer in August 2018, worth at least $520 million, and deals for primary and high school teachers were eventually settled too in a deal worth more than $1 billion.    

The Ministry of Education also offered to pay teacher aides and other school support staff the living wage, representing a 19.5 percent increase, after lobbying from union NZEI. 

But increasing the minimum wage to $18.90 per hour didn't come without criticism. The Opposition echoed the call of some businesses who wanted it postponed as the economic fallout from COVID-19 began to set in.

The Government argued it would help to stimulate the economy.

Supermarket staff have been on the COVID-19 frontline during lockdown and the average checkout worker earns the minimum wage of $18.90, which is below the current living wage.

Better pay is in the pipeline for some supermarket workers, however. Countdown agreed in November last year to guarantee workers a living wage which will come into effect in September. 

Countdown and Foodstuffs also offered staff a 10 percent bonus during the level 4 lockdown, but the supermarket giants confirmed it would be stripped away at alert level 3.

The list of accredited living wage employers in New Zealand totals about 178, including Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party and also the Green Party.

"We've seen the importance of the people working on our frontline, whether they are cleaners, whether they collect waste, or whether they are working at a supermarket," Ardern said.

"I think what we've seen at the moment is a growing awareness of people in jobs that have often been undervalued."

The Government has spent more than $10 billion subsidising the wages of about 1.6 million New Zealanders during the COVID-19 crisis.