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Taxpayers deserve better

Taxpayers deserve better

News stories this week exposed a critical shortage of fruit pickers in an area that boasts one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Kiwifresh, the largest citrus grower in Northland, had a half million dollar export order of mandarins put at risk because the unemployed workers sent to them by WINZ proved too unreliable.

When the growers were asked why they did not want the workers sent by WINZ, they explained that most were unsuitable for the job – they turned up late or not at all, couldn’t work fast enough, and lacked the commitment to make a proper go of it.

This situation, where the unemployed – who are quite capable of working but appear unwilling to swap a benefit for a basic job – is simply unacceptable. Welfare is there to support people while they are between jobs, but there is an inherent expectation that when a suitable job becomes available, they should be required to take it.

The view that a basic job done well leads to a better job, and so on up the employment ladder, is in sharp contrast to the rather elitist position espoused by the Government. Labour believes that unskilled jobs are ‘beneath’ beneficiaries, and condones people staying on benefits until more ‘worthwhile’ jobs become available.

In my mind, taxpayers deserve better. They need to be assured that beneficiaries who are not prepared to take suitable jobs will have their benefit withdrawn and will face voluntary unemployment.

The failure of WINZ workers meant that Kiwifresh had to rely on immigrant workers – some of whom, it turned out, did not have their work permits properly in order. To compound the growers’ problem the Immigration Department, which usually turns a blind eye to the permit status of professional immigrant pickers during the picking season, cracked down in what was described as a heavy handed and aggressive manner. They dragged the workers off in handcuffs, late at night, to Auckland for deportation.

In response to questions about the failure of WINZ workers, the Department of Work and Income Regional Commissioner gave a litany of excuses. She then explained how she planned to hold meetings with growers in order to organise pre-season work training courses for beneficiaries next year. Meanwhile, Northland organisations that provide free training in horticulture and other agricultural-based industries for the unemployed cannot fill their courses.

This is simply not good enough. Three years ago, the Minister of Social Services made a commitment to New Zealand fruit growers that WINZ would provide them with well-trained and motivated seasonal workers. Three years on, the Minister, who has developed a reputation for being soft on welfare, has failed.

In fact, he responded to the demands of the beneficiary unions to scrap Work for the Dole, replacing it with ‘Activity in the Community’. This programme is exactly the same as Work for the Dole – except that it is voluntary, meaning that when the sun’s up and the surf’s up, the participant doesn’t have to turn up!

Making employment-based welfare-to-work programmes voluntary fails to take into account the fact that the most effective way to teach people the work ethic is to get them to work. Imposing upon them the disciplines of the workforce helps them gain first-hand experience of the work habits and social skills that are needed in employment. That includes using sanctions – if someone turns up late, their benefit should be docked. If they don’t turn up at all, it should be stopped.

The most successful welfare-to-work programmes overseas are those that are modelled on the workforce. They require participants to be active for 40 hours a week, in programmes specially designed to help them overcome their individual barriers to work, using work, training, job search, adult literacy or numeracy, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, CV writing, interview skills and so on.

If support is provided for child care, transport assistance and the like, and participation is mandatory, when a real job becomes available, the choice for the beneficiary becomes: “should I take this job, earn more money, and create a future for myself and my family, or should I continue on a benefit doing full-time ‘stuff’ for the Government”? Overseas experience shows that when people are given this choice, real jobs usually win, and welfare rolls plummet.

If mandatory programmes based on a 40-hour work week were the core of New Zealand’s welfare strategy, fruit growers and other employers around the country who are crying out for workers – not to mention taxpayers – would be able to sleep more easily. This message has been brought to you from the office of Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand

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