Sunday, December 2, 2012

Suitable employment

Recent changes to the Social Security Act require that sole parents on a benefit must now accept any offer of 'suitable employment' (15 hours per week when the youngest child turns 6 or 30 hours per week when the youngest turns 14) or have their benefit cut off because, you know, work is good for people in every way, and the job market is - ahem - bouncy
Cropped cover of Steely Dan's 1972 classic "Can't buy a thrill"
It's been a concern for some time that some Work and Income staff seem to think 'suitable employment' includes massage parlour/escort agency work for women. More telling is the fact that dealing with WINZ has proven so onerous some mothers have gone into parlours - or worse, just out onto the street - of their own accord. Prostitution has probably always included mothers among the profession's ranks, but as a trend this seems like a zero-sum game from a societal point of view - a bit like shoving people off benefits to only have them turn up panhandling on Queen Street the next day. Parlour/agency/street hours aren't exactly child-friendly and the work is potentially dangerous and damaging to ones physical and mental health. Still, any job's a good job, right?
Facing a different set of obstacles, a young tradesman friend with a teenage daughter has recently been found 'suitable work' by the nice folk at WINZ. Except that:
  • it's not an actual waged job. The tradesman is a subcontractor and submits an invoice at the end of two weeks. No room for disputes there, then. Oh, and the pay comes at the end of the following fortnite, in other words there is no income for four weeks;
  • the pay is low and out of this comes tax, ACC and an allowance for holidays and sick days;
  • because the tradesman is a subbie there is no holiday or sick days: if you don't work you don't get paid, hence the need for pay to cover these costs. Which it doesn't;
  • this assumes people will pay their taxes and have an accountant, or can do the paperwork themselves. What was that about a tax shortfall in the last fiscal update?
  • there is no guarantee of 40 hours a week work. This extends to tradespeople the idea widely used in the junk food industry that workers must be on site but are not guaranteed any work. The so-called employee just has to wear any shortfall;
  • if our young friend comes off a benefit he will be eligible for Working for Families tax credits but if it all goes pear-shaped he will find it very difficult to get back on a benefit. Opportunities for fathers are somewhat limited in Auckland's massage parlours and escort agencies so we could think of this as a double disadvantage.
How is anyone supposed to budget under these conditions? How is the stress of not knowing whether there will be enough income to pay the rent good for anyone? How does this gel with the government's stated concern for vulnerable children?
This is not the bright, shiny, prosperous economy we have been promised for 30 years. This is a sharecropper society, and like the sharecropper society of the South the only constants are insecure income and debt. Not the flash debt of white-collar criminals, but the petty, grinding debt of overdue rent, overdue power bills, and money borrowed to keep the car on the road. 'Suitable employment' should mean people can live with some measure of dignity. Pity about how that seems to be increasingly reserved for the rich in New Zealand.