With an economy built on low-margin exports such as dairy, freedom camping and the haka, New Zealand workers earn among the lowest wages in the first world. Sadly, they don’t even compare that well with workers in the second or third world either. A middle-class Nigerian, on a basic internet scammer’s salary, probably has a better chance of paying back his student loan before the age of retirement, than does the average Kiwi graduate.
But on the positive side – and an asset which is more prominently featured in tourist and immigration brochures than the low average wage or high rates of aggravated assault – New Zealand does have a lot of quite nice cafes, bars and restaurants.
Noticing the disparity between the quality of hospitality venues, and the subsistence income of the people working in them, the New Zealand Labour Government, sometime in the late 2000s, legislated mandatory time-and-a-half pay on public holidays – a fairly standard piece of law in larger, overseas economies.
In response, New Zealand’s “nation of small business owners” set about passing on this increased cost to their customers. But not, as even a half-wit, Year 10 Economics drop out would advise, by spreading the price increase through-out the year. Rather, in a fit of protest – and demonstrating the collective intelligence of Michael Laws’ talkback radio audience – the majority of businesses instead chose to add a surcharge to the bill, of anything up to 20%, on public holidays only.
So if you find yourself in Nelson or Coromandel for a beach wedding this summer, relaxing with friends over cold beers, platters and a little easy listening dub-reggae, or soaking up the vineyard atmosphere and sharing a few plates of tapas on Waiheke Island, brace yourself for the arrival of an eye-watering bill, which is usually followed by a brief, boring conversation along the lines of, “shit, I forgot it was a public holiday.”
As a fair-go nation of skinflints, who already struggle with tipping, and dividing the cost of a eating out with friends, this experience can leave a sour taste in the mouth of most New Zealanders.
There are, of course, a few obvious ironies to the surcharge:
- Public holidays are among the busiest days of the year in the hospitality industry. If you can’t turn a profit, at normal prices, when you are at your busiest, then you are probably in the wrong industry. Or just plain stupid. (More likely both.)
- Time and a half must be paid on public holidays to workers in all industries. But you don’t see a 20% surcharge added to the price of petrol station pies, or t-shirts with pictures of New Zealand on them.
- The surcharge is almost never applied in cities, where there exists fierce competition for customers. It is, however, very popular in remote, holiday destinations where cafes have a captive market. Usually at times when these holiday destinations are at their busiest (see point 1 above).
New Zealand diners could probably reverse this trend, if they voted with their feet, or kicked up more of a fuss. But Kiwis are a notoriously ‘fuss-averse’ people, and will do anything not to make a scene, or stand out in a crowd.
So if the axiom “a country gets the service it deserves” is true, New Zealand may just have to put up with 20% buggery, in the form of public holiday surcharging, until we learn to assert ourselves with approximately 80% more balls.