There seems to have been a lot of confusion lately around the whole ‘working for the dole’ proposal Shane Jones announced over the weekend. Even the media reported unions as variously supporting, opposing, and scratching their heads– which might have something to do with the fact what was being proposed is neither well defined, nor, probably, ‘work for the dole’.
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Of course the CTU has been calling for the Government to grab hold of the wheel and actively create more jobs instead of throwing their hands up for a long time. Let’s not pretend anyone thought 90 day trials, ‘youth’ or ‘starting out’ rates, unliveable minimum wages or any of the lazy, free market employer policies successive Governments put up were going to lift employment.
In fact, unemployment and underemployment in New Zealand is no accident. We’ve been warning that this couldn’t-care-less approach discriminates particularly against young people and those who already have a harder time finding and staying in work. It’s part of a wider, deliberate push by employers around the world to erode decent secure work conditions. When unemployment is high and workers are easily replaceable it’s easy to push wages down every time desperate people without savings dip in and out of work. Not many people know that benefit rates in New Zealand were deliberately set below the minimum cost of living 30 years ago. This was to encourage ‘labour market competition’ or the amount of unemployed people desperate for a job, any job, because the alternative was such a horrible life for them and their families.
The outcome of these deliberate policy settings is a whole generation who have never experienced regular dependable work. They cycle in and out of short term, fixed term, casual contracts, summer jobs, internships and promo gigs, or just bounce between the Studylink and WINZ office to collect a confusing array of entitlements that never quite make ends meet. Some academics have called this trend towards insecure work ‘the precariat’. But it’s less a well-defined group of people as the common experience of work for younger people and for older working people who haven’t built up a nest egg or obtained formal qualifications. Shifting into and out of being a ‘beneficiary’ to various degrees has become a normal part of work experience.
Then there’s those pockets of New Zealand who have simply had no work since the closure of Government employment like the Forestry Service and the collapse of manufacturing in the 1980s, sometimes over several generations. These are the people most often characterised as ‘bloody idle bludgers’. It’s no coincidence this demographic is more likely to be rural, Māori or Pasifika, and have had a worse experience of the education and health systems. You could more accurately call this group ‘no bloody options’.
Shane Jones and Hone Harawira are right to be frustrated. I’m frustrated. We’re all frustrated! 30 years is a long time to wait around for something good to trickle down. I think it’s time we called it what it is – no dry spell of underemployment - a permanent drought of decent work.
And it’s time we stopped pretending that there’s one class of Kiwis that are hardworking grafters paying taxes for a separate bunch sitting on the couch. It suits bad employers perfectly well to stir up resentment from ‘working people’ towards ‘beneficiaries’ and introduce ‘tough’ work requirements. This means more cheap, desperate labour, lower wages, shorter contracts… and eventually, more beneficiaries, when you’re restructured out of your well-paid job and onto the dole queue. It becomes easier for rich business interests to argue that unemployment is a problem, so we’d better loosen labour laws further to ‘encourage employment’. Take the example of a service partner to fibre company Chorus taking WINZ referrals and paying less than the legal minimum wage.
We have an enormous opportunity now with our coalition Government to break the deliberate cycle between poor quality employment, high unemployment and punitive benefit conditions. Not only have Labour and the Greens said they’ll make benefit settings more humane, the Prime Minister has said she wants to reduce unemployment. And Shane Jones has $1 billion in his hands to create desperately needed, reliable, sustainable jobs in the region - a mighty power indeed. There is so much good work in New Zealand that needs doing, from rebuilding our schools and insulating cold houses to planting community gardens for cheap kai, to getting our rail networks up and moving. And there are so many creative ways to set it up that reward good employers.
In particular industries, like forestry, people new to the workforce are going to need the support of skilled hands and good regulatory protection to make their entry into these jobs safe for everyone. We’ll need to help build the confidence of an inexperienced and potentially vulnerable workforce to guard from anyone who would want to subsidise bad employment practices with taxpayer funds. To prevent that, we’re going to have to work together; unions, beneficiary advocacy groups, people inside and outside of paid work and those of us somewhere in-between.
Unions have the collective industry skills, research power and will to help roll out Government job programmes that protect local employment conditions and community infrastructure as well as the people employed under them. We’re saying it right here. We’ll put our backs into supporting a sustainable Government employment plan that benefits our whole country. Winston Peters has renamed his Minister’s plan ‘working for your country’. And we think that’s pretty sweet.
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