When I was barely two years old, American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr spoke to an audience in Memphis.
All labour has worth, he said.
It was a crime for people to live in this rich nation of America and receive starvation wages.
In his mind it was criminal that people worked in fulltime jobs and yet got paid part-time wages.
Fifty-one years later I wonder to myself, has the plight for workers changed and do they receive their fair share for the work they do, as opposed to the profit gained buy their employer?
It raises the question also, for us here in the Cook Islands about a living wage. What is a living wage and are the workers of the Cook Islands afforded a living wage?
Recently in New Zealand, living wage champion Fala Haulangi said she would swap her Queen's Service Medal for a pledge from either Auckland Council, or the government, to pay all their contractors a living wage.
Haulangi was among the great and good of business, sport, academia, charity and civil society to receive Queen's Birthday Honours, but the former commercial cleaner was frustrated that too many government and council workers continued to be paid less than they could live on.
A living wage is exactly that. It is receiving a wage that you can live on and not just exist.
A wage that pays your bills, provides food and shelter and maybe just a little to save, and with each wage you move further away from where you started and closer to where you want to be.
But how many of our people live on a living wage? A wage that means they don’t have to work two jobs like so many of our people do, to work day and or night, just to exist, just to get the bare basics and nothing to save.
In fact it’s always a pay cheque spent already on noodles, corned beef, spaghetti, white bread, rice and whatever else was on special that week.
Too many of our people exist from week to week and do not live here in the Cook Islands. Too many struggle from week to week, and the idea of owning a car, having accommodation to rent, or even travelling overseas are realities for others but not for them.
The statistics say a third of the accommodation market is our own Cook Island people, and smatterings of expats who live and work here and supplement their income with the growth in the accommodation market.
But that still leaves two thirds of our people outside of that tourism harvest who probably have little idea of the reasons as to why we are graduating into a developed country and are instead just trying to live from week to week.
I take the back road to work most days and drive through the back of Arorangi and on the back road, away from the glitter of sundrenched verandahs and swimming pools, many of our people are obviously struggling and living well below what anyone could call living, and instead struggle from week to week to month to year with little hope of change or advancement.
They will have their teenage children working as soon as they can, have numbers of people living together in crowded conditions, just to spread the load, and eat the basics because that is all they can afford.
Power bills are unwelcome brown envelopes and forget the internet, that’s something only others could ever afford.
Meanwhile our Union is quiet, little is protested or said on behalf of worker’s needs or interests and though government has raised the minimum wage is it still enough? Especially while in the private sector some employers and business and hotel owners continue to exploit workers and foreign workers where they can and with a sense of impunity, because they can, and because at the moment, no one will hold them to task.
Impunity is the idea that no one will ever hold someone to account for what they do, or the decisions they make, and impunity usually follows a sense of entitlement, where a person feels they are entitled to whatever it is they believe they are owed. Entitlement and impunity are hardly ever tolerated in children, in fact we discipline them for being spoilt brats, for being demanding and having no sense of the great responsibility that goes with great privilege.
When this occurs in adults, it is even less palatable and usually means someone, and more often than not a worker is literally going to pay for someone else’s sense of what they are entitled to and sense of what they can get away with, either way, we all lose, when people live below a living wage.