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    Debate on The Community Wage

    from The Jobs Letter No.81 / 30 June 1998

    Associate Minister of Work and Income
    The Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre

    By Peter McCardle, Associate Minister of Work and Income

    I AM SURPRISED that the Auckland District Council of Social Services at this stage appears not to support the Government's strategy in getting jobseekers active. It has misunderstood the detail and intent of the changes I am making, but that is in contrast to the support the policy has gained nationwide.

    Fundamentally, there is simply no point in having people between jobs sitting at home doing nothing. I believe there will be enormous benefits in having them take part in constructive and positive activities.

    After the Community Wage is introduced on October 1, no one will be forced to take up work, to train, or to take part in an organised activity if that activity is unsuitable, or if there are reasonable impediments, such as child care obligations.

    An increasing number of schools and organisations across New Zealand are benefiting from our jobseekers doing community work. Community Taskforce numbers have increased at any one time by around 200 per cent in the last year, and those numbers are expecting to continue to grow rapidly into next year.

    The Government is laying the groundwork for job creation by businesses through its economic policies, but it also wishes to help jobseekers use their time between jobs as productively as possible.

    The Community Wage projects will upskill people, and give them essential skills to prepare for future paid work. No one will be allowed to use jobseekers on the Community Wage, nor to take over paid work, or displace paid workers.

    Although I plan to get as many people as possible at any one time into some kind of work or other activity, that will only happen if something suitable is available locally.

    And work will only be one option under the Community Wage. The other alternatives are training, or organised activity which will benefit jobseekers. Contrary to what the Council appears to believe, the Government intends to put jobseekers into genuine training and work experience opportunities during which they will maintain or improve their current skill levels. The Community Wage encompasses good quality training, including TOPS courses, which have proved their worth over many years.

    Often what prevents an individual getting work is a lack of basic and useful skills which large numbers of jobseekers lack, such as knowing the most successful techniques of looking for work, how to make the best impression in interviews, or how to write a CV. Learning those skills will be among the activities that jobseekers may be required to take part in, and it may be for only a small numbers of hours.

    Anyone taking part in work will be covered by health and safety protection.

    While the Council objects to the sanctions which are part of Community Work projects, they are not new. Sanctions have been part of earlier work schemes including Community Taskforce. And of course sanctions exist for paid workers also. Anyone who does not turn up for work as required will face repercussions.

    Sanctions will only be used where there is clear refusal to take part in what is considered to be a suitable and acceptable activity, and which will benefit them improving their work and/or personal skills.

    I have travelled extensively around the country talking to community leaders and found overwhelming and enthusiastic support for the Community Wage. Just this week, the mayor and senior managers of Manukau City Council gave their personal support, and told me how much they it will contribute to their region.

    An increasing number of schools and organisations across New Zealand are benefiting from our jobseekers doing community work. Community Taskforce numbers have increased at any one time by around 200 per cent in the last year, and those numbers are expecting to continue to grow rapidly into next year.

    Source "Overwhelming Support For Community Wage" Media Release from the Office of the Minister Of Employment Hon Peter McCardle, June 25 1998

    By Sue and Bill Bradford of the Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre

    DEBATE AROUND the community wage is showing some disturbing trends from the point of view of our organisation. This article is an attempt to engage with those who believe there are positive aspects to the scheme and would like to see community organisations embrace it.

    We have been part of developing a campaign to encourage community organisations to boycott the scheme and will actively organise resistance and non-cooperation among beneficiaries.

    However, there are a number of questions and misconceptions which need to be discussed as part of this campaign, because a number of individuals and groups around NZ are putting up arguments as to why we should use workfare rather than oppose it.

    Some of these arguments include:

    1. Work needs to be redefined and the introduction of the Community Wage is a first step towards this.

    The Treasurer is quite clear on this one. He is adamant that the Community Wage is about making sure beneficiaries do their bit, that it will ensure beneficiaries keep good work habits and that it can act as a stepping stone to a "proper job".

    People forced to work for wages which do not meet their basic needs and without the protection of labour legislation are little more than slaves.

    The introduction of workfare is part of an international trend. Nowhere is it being presented as part of a process of redefining work and recognising the non paid work contribution to society we all make. There is no doubt that a public debate on the nature and future of work needs to take place. We have been given the Community Wage instead of the debate, not as part of it.

    2. We should see the Community Wage as a first step towards the introduction of a UBI (Universal Basic Income) which will legitimise voluntary community work carried out by beneficiaries.

    AUWRC has supported the concept of a UBI for a number of years, despite criticism from some supporters that it lets the Government of the hook and would be used to further weaken unions. Our support of the UBI has always been on the basis that it should be a basic right of residency, a recognition that we are all stakeholders in society and that it would provide choices and flexibility for people to participate in and contribute to society.

    The Community Wage is the opposite to our vision of UBI - it is about controlling the lives of people who already have the least, and removing choices.

    The idea that we need the state to legitimise voluntary community work is scary. Is the next step to make community work that is not legitimised by the state through the Community Wage scheme illegal ? At the most, the scheme provides recognition of work done by community organisations that are prepared to cooperate with the application of "sanctions" to people who do not carry it out in a satisfactory manner.

    3. The Community Wage will provide a means for beneficiaries to gain self esteem by providing benefit to the community.

    Voluntary work has long been one of the few ways beneficiaries can regain and build self esteem by feeling they are contributing to the common good. For many, taking on voluntary work has also been the first step back into paid employment. Forcing people to take on community work devalues it so that it becomes like periodic detention, a form of punishment. We think it unlikely that people carrying out periodic detention gain in self esteem or a sense of participating in and contributing to society.

    4. We should use the Community Wage and subvert it for useful purposes.

    We have heard this one before! Over the years Governments have introduced many different work schemes, each more exploitative than the last. Each time a new scheme has been introduced communities have justified their "buy in" by talking about subverting the scheme for the benefit of the unemployed and the community. We have seen many community organisations grow and prosper through the use of schemes. We have seen the number of poverty industry jobs grow.

    We have not seen any organisation (including our own) subvert schemes. The best that has been managed is minimising exploitation and assisting a few individual unemployed people. The Government is experienced at getting compliance from community organisations and there is no reason to suppose it would not succeed in doing so again this time. Once community organisations have a stake in the new scheme they will do as they are told.

    Workfare already exists on a large scale overseas, especially in the US, and we are in regular contact with fightback groups there. We have yet to hear of a group successfully `subverting' workfare. In our experience when community organisations start talking about subverting a scheme it is the beginning of a process of rolling over and complying with the latest attack on beneficiaries. There is often a strong conflict of interest between the interests of community-based poverty industry bureaucrats and the unemployed.

    5. The Community Wage is not workfare because it is only part time.

    Some argue that the Community Wage is not really workfare because participants only have to work part time, and therefore earn the equivalent of the minimum wage of $7 an hour, thus making people on the community wage the same as any other worker. However, people on the Community Wage will not have the same rights and protection as other workers, as the Government has made it clear there will be no `employee-employer relationship' for Community Wage workers. For example, they cannot negotiate a pay rise and are subject to a range of sanctions that do not apply to other workers. Nor do Community Wage workers have access to the other limited protections currently granted members of the employed workforce.

    Secondly, a part time wage equivalent to the dole, even topped up by $20 a week, is nowhere near a livable wage. We believe that if people are to be forced to work, the job involved should be at least full time and at the minimum wage. Even this is barely livable in a city like Auckland.

    People forced to work for wages which do not meet their basic needs and without the protection of labour legislation are little more than slaves.

    6. We could offer our volunteers protection by putting them on the Community Wage.

    No matter how tempting this looks, we believe it is dangerous to sign up even one person on the Community Wage scheme. Once you have done this, you have become part of supporting workfare. Don't we truly value our volunteers more if we continue to take on beneficiary supporters as genuine volunteers, supported with bus fares etc where possible, rather than colluding with the Government's slave labour scheme?

    Offering to take volunteers on the Community Wage to protect them is a very individualistic solution to a problem that affects tens of thousands of people. In a slave owning society, should those opposed to slavery own as many slaves as possible and treat them well, or should they refuse to own slaves and fight against slavery?

    7. The Community Wage is just a mad idea of Peter McCardle's and will never be fully implemented - therefore we don't have to worry about it.

    Workfare has been introduced in a number of countries and has actually been functioning in NZ as Community Task Force since 1991. Mr McCardle has been a driving force behind its extension into a mass scheme this year. He may be seen as naïve and silly, but he is not alone in supporting it. Winston Peters has supported work for the dole for many years. Jenny Shipley has a deep hatred of the poor and will do anything to put the boot in. Tau Henare openly applauds workfare.

    As the economic situation deteriorates beneficiaries become even more important as scapegoats for policy failures, as we can see through the current shocking advertising campaigns. Some organisations have already committed themselves to using community wage slaves, under both CTF (Community Task Force) and the Community Wage. It will take a determined effort to stop the scheme. It will not collapse of its own accord. The Government plans to have 63,000 beneficiaries on the Community Wage this coming year - this is hardly a tiny programme which can be ignored in the hope that it will go away.

    8. It's negative to oppose workfare - why not take a more positive approach.

    This is a variation on the "let's subvert it" argument.

    Opposing nuclear weapons is negative. Opposing environmental destruction is negative. South African Blacks opposed Apartheid for many years. Should they have found a positive way of working within it? The truth is that the Government has been viciously attacking a large group of New Zealanders for a number of years.

    This is not going to stop unless enough people apply enough pressure to make them stop. If you don't think this is happening, or you don't mind it happening, or are too frightened to oppose it, then be honest. Admit it. Don't pull out that old argument about it being negative to oppose evil.

    AUWRC has always worked hard to put forward many positive solutions to unemployment, and plays and active part in grass roots initiatives which support local economic development and job creation. Our ultimate goal is full employment and a living wage for all, and this is what we have always worked for.

    However, this does not mean that when it comes to the crunch, we should sell out unemployed people and beneficiaries by trying to find the `positive' within a programme which forces people to work for their meagre benefit or face Government-imposed sanctions. This is a time when we must all choose whose side we're on.

    Source _ "Common Misconceptions about the Community Wage (Workfare) by the Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre (AUWRC), PO Box 3813, Auckland 1, phone 09-302-2496, fax 09-377-4804, email <>

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