Editorial: a living for the least

Columns Cecily McNeillFebruary 2013 A recent cabinet paper from the prime minister shows the extent to which workers in this country have become a cheap commodity with which to lure…


Cecily McNeill
February 2013

A recent cabinet paper from the prime minister shows the extent to which workers in this country have become a cheap commodity with which to lure the film industry.

The New Zealand Herald reported on 24 January that, after a star-studded Hollywood dinner party, last October, John Key told the Cabinet that film industry leaders had said they liked our ‘flexible labour market and educated workforce which is not heavily unionised’. A lack of ‘fringe payments’ such as healthcare and superannuation was also appealing.

As the gulf between rich and poor in this country yawns ever wider on Key’s watch, it is not surprising the unions are putting so much energy into the Living Wage Campaign, a move to address just such commodification of labour – see our feature on the Living wage Campaign’s recent activities.

Catholic Social Teaching has long highlighted the need to recognise the dignity of the human person in remuneration that enables workers and their families to fully participate in society.

The New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference 2010 statement Working for Life said, ‘Work that is demeaning, working conditions that show minimum regard to health and safety, wages that do not reflect the value of the work being done, do not help the worker to feel good about [themselves]. The lifestyle within the work environment needs to be such as to speak unequivocally of the value of every person engaged in the production process.’

Or, as Matthew’s gospel has Jesus saying, ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ [25:40].

John Ryall and Mea’ole Keil of the Service and Food Workers Union both stress the fact that workers’ social participation – their ability to support their children at sports matches, for example – is vital for their human dignity.

John Ryall, the union’s national secretary, discovered the ‘goldmine’ of social teaching in the Catholic Church after he left St Patrick’s College and says he draws constantly on its principles, particularly those of the dignity of the human person and the common good. He says this is probably why there are a large number of Catholics in the trade union movement.

Samoan-born Mea’ole Keil says religion and culture are big influences in his union work. He grew up in a community where people looked after each other, where everyone’s wellbeing was important. ‘It was instilled in us that we had to look out for the vulnerable in the collective.’

But, he says, he has seen the erosion of family time through workers needing to work several jobs to make ends meet.

Shame on John Key for selling the ‘least of our brethren’ so short. We Catholics must stand in solidarity with those fighting for a living wage so that we can all benefit from a society that rejoices in the dignity of every member for the good of all.