Rubbish collection and jobs

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?


4 comments on “Rubbish collection and jobs

  1. Denny says:

    I agree that some jobs can be unskilled, but I’m not sure about your conclusion.

    High wages vs low wages. It’s complex, but in the short term, how would the extra rubbish collector feel losing his/her low paid job no longernneeded in a higher tech service? How many young men are on the dole because the low skilled labourers’ work that used to employ the undereducated have disappeared. Improving literacy and numeracy may take generations of better parenting.

    Even then, there will always be a need for “unskilled”work. Another criticism of this policy is that only ” menial” work like cleaning is available. When I hear people describing cleaning in a derogatory way, I feel sad, and offended on behalf of the people who help me around the home. they clean my bathroom, kitchen, toilet, do the vacuuming and ironing. It’s a valuable service to me. They are employed by a company that provides pays them between $14.50 and $17 per hour, depending on length of service and experience. The work is extremely flexible. Yet the company that employs the cleaners and personal carers cannot find enough people to work … They are always scrambling to find workers. Some cleaners have worked for them for years, some do it til they get the qualifications (paid by the company) to work as personal carers, some do it as their first job off the unemployment benefit and a step into other employment. I see nothing wrong with asking people to work as cleaners rather than be on a benefit. To criticise it is insulting to those people who are working as cleaners now.

    Years ago I was involved in researching the effectiveness of a policy that offered those on the dole an opportunity to do work in the community. I remember interviewing people who were almost in tears, they were so grateful to be able to leave the house in the morning, come back home and know that they had done something useful … helping a school caretaker, maintenance work …

    I just don’t see it as a strategy to drive down wages. I see it as a genuine attempt to get people into work, rather than depend on a benefit.

  2. M-H says:

    I find it appalling that NZ workers are still lifting bins and throwing their contents. This work must carry a high risk of injury. And here there are still two people – the truck driver and someone who shifts the bins into position for the hoist – no lifting, just dragging them on their wheels.

    Denny, I have the highest regard for cleaners. I choose to employ someone to do my cleaning, and I highly value their skill, energy and reliability. They underpin my whole life! As for forcing people with young children to work to get the dole, I find it difficult to choose polite words to express how I feel about this policy. Single parents already do one of the hardest jobs in society, so let’s make it even harder? And when this policy is extended to people who need government support because of their health (and this is happening, right now, in the UK and I think in Australia) it is just disgusting.

  3. Tamara says:

    Interesting post Deborah. I agree with your second to last paragraph. I do want to add though that both Auckland’s rubbish and recycling collections are fully automated. In fact, I have noticed that our local driver can only use one arm, so it’s great to see modern technology used to allow him to do this job.

  4. violet says:

    I think the government is trying to turn the NZ workforce into something like the American one. Bastards

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