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March 5, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Our Hidden Figures

The idea of a living wage is not a radical one: to have a job with wages that are enough to live off. It is about equity and fairness, and can significantly change the lives of those who facilitate ours.

The Living Wage campaign calls on employers to pay a rate that’ll allow workers to lead dignified lives and be active participants in their local and national society. The current NZ living wage is $19.80 an hour. The 2017/18 rate of $20.20 was announced on February 21 and becomes effective on July 1. This rate is determined by the New Zealand Family Centre Social Policy Unit.

This piece brings to attention those who carry out the unseen work that allows our esteemed institution to function. Here are some names and faces of those who you’d see pushing trolleys and smiling through the university corridors every day and through the night.

The stories below are from only six of the university cleaning staff. There are many other cleaners and essential staff who make this place tick. Bear a thought for them all.


Awak Apiok


Awak is a solo mum with four kids who came to New Zealand as a refugee from war-torn South Sudan with her husband and three children. She’s now been here for ten years. For the last few, Awak and her husband worked full-time jobs doing different shifts.

“We never actually spent time together,” says Awak. “Because of our work hours, we also didn’t spend much time with our kids and that impacted on our lives and our relationship. Now I am a single mum as a result.”

“Both me and my husband were working full-time jobs and still struggled. We never made ends meet and we always struggled to provide food for our kids. Life is even harder now that I’m a solo mum supporting four kids. I work the whole night and have to care for my children during the day time. I work hard but life is still a struggle. I struggle every day. That is what my life looks like on the minimum wage. It’s not fair at all. We clean the university. It’s dirty and it’s a tough job, but what is worse is we do all this hard work on very close to the minimum wage.”

“Life on the Living Wage would be better. I wouldn’t say our life would be luxury, but I’d be able to provide basic things for my kids. When you have four kids in school and you only do 40 hours a week on a few cents more than the minimum wage, it’s a struggle. The Living Wage will definitely improve things for me and my children.”

“All the cleaners at Victoria University work hard and we all deserve a living wage. We will feel valued and respected for the work that we do. At the moment we don’t feel valued and respected and we need a living wage.”


Paul Tuiloma


Paul Tuiloma is 66. He and his wife both do cleaning work. They have two children. The youngest is a student at Victoria University, the eldest is looking for a job, and they both rely on them for everything.

“We are supposed to be retired now, but sadly we can’t as we need to keep working,” says Paul. “My wife and I have been cleaners for a very long time — my wife doing both morning and night shifts — which means we hardly see each other and by the time we get home both our boys are in bed.”

“Living on low pay is rough. There’s too much pressure and we hardly have enough money to pay the bills on time. When the prices go up the minimum wage pretty much stays the same and that makes life harder. Earning a low wage means we have to keep working long hours to buy what the family needs. I am talking about basic necessities. It also means we never have holidays at all because we simply can’t afford it. Earning low wages for the work that we do is unfair, as cleaning is a hard job and quite physical, so life on a low wage is shit!”

“The Living Wage would mean a big change for us. We would be able to work less hours and get to spend more time with each other as a family. It would also mean we don’t have to rely on charities for extra food. We wouldn’t have to buy junk food anymore, as it is the only cheap food we can afford at the moment. The Living Wage might even enable us to have a long overdue holiday and even to visit family in Samoa.”

“Working two jobs at the age of 66 is hard on me. I would like to relax and have some time off. The Living Wage would take some of the pressure off.”


Amparo Santamaria


Amparo came to New Zealand from Colombia as a refugee with her family. She and her husband have four children and have been in New Zealand for seven years. They live in Lower Hutt and commute daily to Wellington.

“I am now a New Zealand citizen and work as a cleaner,” says Amparo. “I work multiple jobs and cleaning at Victoria University is one of them. This is really tough on me but I have no option as I am on low wages.”

“Life on the minimum wage is hard. Food, rent, and everything else keeps going up which is why I have to keep doing long hours. My daughter works alongside me, cleaning — even my husband comes and helps. Life is really tough and we want fair wages for the hard work we do, as cleaning is a really tough job.”

“A living wage would mean a lot to us. We would be able to afford to buy more food and save money for our retirement. I would also reduce some of the hours I do because I clean other places as well as the university. I am old and doing long hours, which is hard on me. We could even buy some good furniture for our house. If our wages increased we would be able to live like humans, because we are not at the moment.”


Abeba Yeholegela


Abeba is from Ethiopia. After living all her life in Sudan as a refugee, she arrived in New Zealand in 2008 and started cleaning in 2010. All the jobs she has done were paid the minimum wage or very close to the minimum wage. Both Abeba and her husband clean at Victoria University.

“Life on the minimum wage is hard,” says Abeba. “I have four children — all teenagers in school — and they need money for things. You just can’t provide them everything they need when you’re on the minimum wage.”

“The Living Wage would really make a difference. It doesn’t mean it’s a good life but it definitely means providing three meals for the children, supporting their school activities, and even camping trips. It’s really hard for many refugees who often do jobs that pay minimum wages.”

“New Zealand is a beautiful country but life on the minimum wage means, for many people, living in poverty. Life on low wages means it’s hard to provide everything for your family and when you have teenagers at school it’s even harder providing uniforms. Cleaning is hard and dirty and we deserve a decent pay for the hard work we do. Imagine cleaners not doing their job for one day. The university just won’t function.”


Keu Taitea

Keu has five children. Three are working. One is a student in Australia and Keu’s adopted 18-year-old daughter is with him. She has two grandchildren who are in school.

“These kids need a lot of things and I help them,” says Keu. “I am originally from the Cook Islands and have been here since 1982. I came here with all my family as my parents were here in New Zealand. My first job was in 1987 at Parliament as a waitress. Then I was at home looking after the children and grandchildren. I worked until 1999 and have been at Victoria University since 2010.”

Keu says life on wages very close to the minimum wage is tough.

“It’s hard. You have all the bills, rent, and other stuff to pay and the minimum wage is not enough. You have to budget to make ends meet. I am supposed to be retiring but am still working because I have no savings — never had extra money in my hand — always struggling with bills. At the moment there is no way I can afford to go on holiday. We don’t get to enjoy life or live a dignified life.”

“I want to go back to see my family in the Cook Islands but I can’t afford it.”

“The living wage would transform my life. I would be able to afford to buy things that I love. I would save up to go to Australia for a visit. I would also cut my hours and be kind to myself. I would love to do part-time work because I am old now and need some rest. If I get the living wage, I would start saving for my own retirement. I am sick of budgeting and buying cheap stuff. I would love to walk into a grocery store and buy everything that I love but, at the moment, I can’t even think about it because we are on such low wages. Cleaning is hard and dirty and we deserve a decent wage.”


Abullah Mohammed Yusef

Abullah is 31. He’s been a cleaner at Victoria University for three and half years. Abullah came from Somalia as a refugee in 2012.

“Back home I was a photographer,” says Abullah. “I had a diploma from technical college and took photos of events like weddings, all sorts of things, even passport photos. I came to New Zealand with my sister who has since moved to Australia and now works in childcare. I plan to stay in New Zealand and apply for citizenship.”

“It costs me $65 just to get to work each week on public transport as we are not allowed to ride a bike in, unlike other staff. I spend all my wages just to eat, have a roof, and get to work. I would love to try photography again, but don’t have the time to do it, or the money to buy a camera.

With the Living Wage I would be able to help my family back home out a little, I would be able to work a bit less, and enjoy things in life. This is a great country I’d like to see a little more of it.”


These stories were compiled by Ibrahim Omer. Ibrahim came to New Zealand as a refugee from Eritrea and has worked as a cleaner at Victoria University of Wellington. After becoming a manager, and increasing his salary to roughly the living wage, Ibrahim was able to study and complete a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. He graduated last year and now works for E tū Union.

If you’d like to find out more about the campaign, or show your support for the Living Wage, there will be a stall at Clubs Week — March 9 and 10 on Kelburn Campus.


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