The National party has followed through on its election
promises threats with a welfare policy that requires beneficiaries to look for jobs. As soon as their youngest child is five years old, sole parents will be required to look for part time work, or should they happen to have another baby while they are already on benefit, then back to work they go as when that baby is just one year old. It’s punitive.
Any job will do, no matter how ill paid. And many jobs are very lowly paid in New Zealand, because it’s always cheaper to put another labourer on the chain gang, instead of investing in better equipment, or more advanced technology, or anything that might have the sad consequence of requiring a more highly paid worker, because it takes greater skills to operate the machinery and do the job.
The extent to which New Zealand employers always prefer the low tech low waged route is made plain to me every week, when our household rubbish is collected. Here in Greenhills, a reasonably well off heartland New Zealand city, we put our rubbish out in specially marked plastic bags. The city council rubbish truck drives up and down the streets, one worker driving, and another running from house to house, picking up the bags of rubbish and throwing them into the truck. It’s a highly manual process. Alongside the rubbish collection we have a recycling collection: plastics and paper one week, and bottles the next. The plastics and paper go into a large wheelie bin, which is picked up by a hoist on a truck, and swung into place and then tipped so that the contents fall into the recyling truck. It’s a mechanised process which needs only one worker. However in the other week we put out our tub full of bottles, which is picked up manually, very much as the rubbish is.
So just as happens in any first world city, our rubbish and recyling is collected, but here, it’s mostly done by people in low wage jobs, because the process is highly manual.
Back in Adelaide, each week we would put out two bins, one larger one for recyling, and a smaller one for rubbish. The recycling bin was divided into two compartments, one for glass and the other for paper and plastic and tin. The recycling truck, driven by just one person, used a hook and hoist system to pick the bin up and empty it into the truck. The truck was so designed that as the bin was swung into place for emptying, glass was tipped into one part, and other recyclables into another. Our rubbish bin was likewise collected by a truck driven by just one worker, because the entire process of lifting and emptying the bin was automated. One worker, on higher wages, because the job she or he was doing was more skilled. And because wages are in general higher in Australia, it’s worthwhile for employers to invest in better plant and machinery, so they can get greater leverage out of their wages bill. That better plant and machinery leads to greater production per worker. It’s a virtuous cycle: higher wages leading to greater investment in better plant and machinery leading to greater production leading to higher wages.
Wages are low in New Zealand. So low that it is always cheaper to put on an extra worker instead of upgrading plant and machinery. Employers have no incentive to invest in new plant and equipment, because the same end can be achieved by adding another worker. And that has the advantage that when times are tough, the worker can be laid off, and the employer’s machinery isn’t lying idle. It’s a vicious cycle: low wages leading to less investment in plant and machinery, and even lower wages in bad times as workers get laid off.
And now National is driving more and more low wage workers into the job market. Yes, some of those sole parents will have valuable skills, but by definition, they are going to need flexible work where employers won’t mind too much if they have to leave at a moment’s notice to tend to sick children, or take time off to get to parent-teacher meetings, or only work between say nine and three, or take 12 weeks leave every year to cover school holidays. People who need to have work patterns that fit in with the needs of children very rarely have the ability to demand high wages as well as flexibility.
I begin to see a strategy for driving wages down even further, so that New Zealand can become an assembly line country. How’s that for a 21st century vision?