James Crow, Nice Blocks, Living Wage

Q&A | Nice Blocks’ James Crow on the living wage

James Crow is an entrepreneur and man for the people. As well as co-owning Nice Blocks and Nice Cream with his partner Tommy Holden, he runs Pot of Gold and opened the doors to the Waterview Coffee Project in early 2013. He also just helped launch Gimme Shelter, an initiative aimed at securing permanent housing for New Zealand’s homeless. Known for prioritising people over profit, James shares some thoughts with Sarah on the so-called living wage. That is, a wage based on the minimum income people actually require to live.

Why did you start paying employees a living wage?
It all goes back to me starting my small business, starting out as my only employee. I wanted to set myself a pay rate that meant I could work. So I was billing myself out at NZD $50 an hour, and then for bigger things NZD $25. As I took on another venture, or another idea, and I needed someone to help me, it was often a friend, and I would think, well $20 an hour is the minimum I’m going to pay this person, and then they’ll be relatively self-managed, and we’ll both feel like we owe each other. I’ll pay you a good rate, and you’ll respect the job, and the flexibility of the job, and hopefully that’ll help to have you not worrying about rent, you’ll be worrying about problems here instead.

When Tommy and I started Nice Blocks, and we started taking on people, it seemed really silly to pay anyone less than what was effectively the living wage. Because the adult wage was so far below what I’d ever pay people. Even if they were coming in and helping to clean the floors, they still deserved a living wage, and that was easy because the group that set the living wage said it’s NZD $18.50. Now, I think all-together there’s just under 20 people that I employ, in different facets. And they all at least get that. It hasn’t affected us in any negative way. We can still pay our bills. We’re still a small family, sorta, business, and we live week-to-week, but then so does everyone that works for us, so I think they put a bit extra out there because they know we’re not banking all that extra money we’re not paying them.

How did you find out about the living wage itself?
Through Living Wage Aotearoa. It’s a really positive lobby group. My wife, Bonnie Sumner, had a strong upbringing through the Union Movement. She was the one who told me the rate had gone up to NZD $18.80. It doesn’t happen a lot, once a year I’m expecting there’ll be a little increase. And that’s good, it’s the basic level of human need. It keeps us knowing our staff aren’t going to be like, I can’t come in anymore because I’m worried about this bill, or I’ve gone into debt or whatever. It just keeps them stable.

Do you know how many other businesses do the same?
Not really, but every time we’re in the media for it we get a lot of people calling us, saying, Hey we’re working at radio stations. We don’t necessarily want to interview you, we want to ask you about how you’re doing living wage, because we want to ask our boss to do it. A lot of staff that work in businesses around us have been like, Can you help us? or, Do you have any more work? Because they’d like to work for somebody that respects that rate.

You tend to find it’s an easier step if you’re an ethical business, and that’s already a cornerstone of how you do business, but even then a lot of businesses seem to feel like it’s going to be too large a cost to do it all at once. I ask a lot of them, What would $200 a week, or $300 a week affect your overall business survival? You might not make as much money this month, and next month, but I’m sure it would all figure itself out after a couple. I’m sure it all flows through. A lot of them I think stay quite quiet until they are doing living wage, and you don’t hear of many, so I’d say there’s probably a very select few that have taken the leap. But this is the best time. In two years people will go, So what? Everyone’s on that. They should get in while everyone wants to talk about it, and no one’s getting paid that.

It’s a respect thing too – if people feel valued they work harder.
There’s no clearer way of saying I value you. Because you’re working to be paid. It’s a really simple social thing. We all need money. It’s one of those tools I’m not ashamed is part of modern society. You need employees, and you need people to be on payrolls, and to be on salaries, because it gives them security. From there they can solve that food, shelter, warmth thing – then they can start looking at other things they can help with, in their communities. Otherwise they’re always just having to look at number one. And that’s fair enough.

You’ve got to try and help people remove that initial set of fears, otherwise it seems like most people travel around all day, every day just being controlled by them. What if I get fired next week? What will I do? I do get that it’s harder for someone like a café owner. Their margins are so much slimmer. It’s upsetting, but they have to rely on the minimum wage adult, to say, That’s who we can pay to scrub the dishes. And I guess effectively you’re saying, That person can’t generate more income for us, because they can’t scrub more dishes, or they can’t increase their productivity. It’s a matter of asking, Are people going to respect it if you add a dollar to your products, with that dollar going directly to staff?

I stick with manufacturing stuff, because you do get better margins, and that’s important because you have a bit of a buffer to make mistakes. I know we probably couldn’t afford to pay everyone a living wage if you really got down to it. We could’ve maybe made a little more a bit sooner, but in the long game it’s like, who cares? Really.

For more on James, start at www.niceblocks.co.nz. For more on the living wage, and how to become a living wage employer, visit Living Wage Aotearoa.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.