Frances Cook: Of course I go to work for money, and so do you


Labour’s announcement that it’s freezing pay rates for public sector workers is an astonishing kick in the guts for the heroes of the “team of five million”.

In case you missed it, the announcement is that nobody who is paid over $60,000 in a public sector role should get a pay rise over the next three years.

Labour seems to be hoping voters will think this only applies to dusty Wellington bureaucrats. But that’s far from the truth.

The change will hit the managed isolation workers who have protected us at the border.

It will hit the nurses and doctors who were ready to risk their lives for us, who treated people with Covid-19, and are now rushing to vaccinate us all so that we can live normally again.

It means the teachers who did their best to keep teaching through lockdowns, and soothed worried and disoriented children when they came back to the classrooms.

It means the cops who secured quarantine hotels, and patrolled the Auckland lockdown border, often in shocking weather with no shelter or even bathrooms.

Thanks very much for your service, everyone please clap. But also take a pay freeze you greedy fat cats.

Keeping this pay freeze in place over three years is brutal, especially considering they’ve already been under a pay freeze for the past year.

Then factor in inflation, which according to Reserve Banks records is on average just over 2 per cent per year, and the people who worked tirelessly to protect us through a pandemic are actually going backwards.

In real terms, those in the public service are facing a pay cut of about 6 per cent. It could be more, as some economists are predicting higher than usual inflation over the next few years.

So costs of living, particularly housing, utilities, food, will keep rising. And our teachers, nurses, cops, will be stuck with their frozen pay packets.

Sure, there’s an argument that some top tiers of the public sector are now paid silly money.

University of Otago research has found that, between 1997 and 2015, the pay packets for chief executives across New Zealand went up 228 per cent.

The pay packets for the average worker over the same time? They went up 91 per cent.

Maybe you have to pay more to get good people to lead our big organisations.

But this logic also applies to the middle class worker who is just trying to get by, feed their children, and is already facing the prospect of never being able to afford buying their own home.

They deserve to be paid what they’re worth for the hard work that they do. We all go to work in exchange for money, no matter how much we believe in our job.

New Zealand already faces a shortage of key workers including nurses and teachers. Who would sign up to that career now?

If you want to address the widening gap between the haves and have nots, there are better ways than an extremely blunt pay freeze for those earning more than $60,000.

You could introduce a new public sector pay ratio, saying that the chief executive can’t earn more than (for example) seven or eight times their lowest employee.

Or you could say the pay freeze kicks in for those earning over $150,000. Fair enough, those people are probably currently able to pay their bills.

You could even introduce a new top tax rate, so that you’re not just hammering the people in the public sector, but rebalancing things in a wider manner.

But that might lead to the revival of the old Taxinda nickname, and nobody wants that. How mean.

People earning over $60,000 are by no means rich, especially if they’re stuck working in an expensive main centre like Auckland or Wellington.

So what’s the rational thing to do, if your employer tells you you’re doing great, your work is really important, but you absolutely don’t deserve a pay rise and you’re greedy even for raising the idea?

You leave.

Maybe our nurses and teachers should take up a new career as a house. I hear they earn a lot, and the Government’s committed to keeping it that way.

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