National, ACT, employers want 'breather' as minimum wage hike looms

Labour will finally fulfill a 2017 election promise this Thursday, when the minimum wage increases to $20 an hour.

But National is calling for the increase - from $18.90, a 5.8 percent increase - to be lowered or postponed, saying it will cost jobs and businesses. 

"It's appalling timing for businesses up and down the countryside which have been struggling with the impacts of COVID and a slowing economy for a long period of time now," National Party workplace relations and safety spokesperson Scott Simpson told Newshub.

He said it would hurt job hunters too, with businesses less likely to take on new staff as they configure themselves to "remain profitable and competitive" after having costs like added bereavement leave and a public holiday for Matariki "imposed".

"Twelve months on from that first initial lockdown, businesses are still struggling," said Simpson. 

"We've had statistics out in the last few days that show that something like 9000 fewer businesses are operating today than were 12 months ago. That's an indictment on the economic response from the Government and it's also a sad reality for people who used to be employed by those businesses." 

The actual figure from Statistics NZ was 1000 fewer businesses operating in January compared to last January. 

National's view has been backed by the ACT Party, which said businesses were being "bled dry with a higher minimum wage, more sick leave, new domestic violence leave, a new public holiday, 'fair pay' agreements, weakened 90-day trials, and more"; and the Employers and Manufacturers Association, which has called for a two-year "breather" on "new business legislation that will only further add to the costs of doing business".

Speaking to media on Monday afternoon, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the increase would go ahead as planned. 

"You won’t find a year where Labour governments haven't moved the minimum wage," she said.

The $20 goal for 2021 has been in place since 2017, giving employers plenty of time to prepare.

The number of people receiving income support has been trending downwards since August last year, after they spiked in the wake of the pandemic and lockdowns. 

Previous minimum wage increases have had no obvious effect on unemployment figures - the minimum wage has gone up every year for the past decade, during which time unemployment fell as the economy recovered from the global financial crisis. Unemployment also fell in the 2000s, as the minimum wage went up by about 8 percent a year.

Both drops in unemployment were followed by sharp rises - the first when the global financial crisis hit, the second COVID-19.

Ardern says the latest hike will benefit 175,000 people. It's not clear if Labour plans to keep up a similar rate of minimum wage increases in the next couple of years.

"We haven't gone beyond that at this stage," she said.