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Dr Muriel Newman

Will migrant workers take our jobs?

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4 November 06

Will migrant workers take our jobs?

As predicted the latest benefit statistics show that welfare continues to increase with almost 2,000 more people claiming they are either too sick to work or can’t find jobs, than three months ago. That takes the total number of working age beneficiaries to 282,000. This includes 41,000 people who are on the dole, 100,000 able-bodied sole parents who are paid to stay out of the workforce until their youngest child is 18 years old, and 123,000 beneficiaries who claim they are too sick or disabled to work.

To put this into perspective, back in 1973 the equivalent figures, adjusted on a population basis, would have been just around 40,000 working age New Zealanders received benefits, including 16,000 sole parents, 12,000 invalid beneficiaries, 10,000 sickness beneficiaries and fewer than 3,000 unemployed.

The main reason the numbers back then were so low was that the system was well designed and managed. Welfare was available to help those in need but the assistance was not overly generous and for those capable of working, it was temporary. People on the dole were required to find jobs, sole parents were only given a benefit to support them out of violent relationships, those on the sickness benefits were expected to get well, and many on an invalid benefit worked in sheltered workshops. In other words, the Kiwi work ethic underpinned the whole welfare system, with self-sufficiency and independence from the state being key objectives.

I’ve been on a benefit myself and can confirm that a common sense approach is the best way. Extended periods of time on welfare can be very is demoralising.

Helping beneficiaries to regain their dignity, by assisting them to earn their living and support their family, should be the key goal of welfare. That means providing support while they get their lives back in order. Whether it’s help with child care, transport, financial planning, or relocation, welfare case managers should be empowered to facilitate their journey back into the workforce.

If the programme is to be effective, it also means requiring beneficiaries to do something in return for their benefit. The most effective programmes have been shown to be those that require a full time contribution of work experience, job search and training so that the choice each day becomes: “Do I want to work full-time on this government programme or would I prefer to get a proper job with prospects and better rewards?” Experience shows that most prefer a job!

And for the minority of beneficiaries who are on welfare as a lifestyle choice and have no intention of working, their benefit should be stopped. If the able-bodied are not prepared to make an effort, taxpayers should not be forced to support them.

None of this is rocket science. It is the way New Zealand’s welfare system used to run and it is what has made the reforms in the USA so successful. But, in spite of their rhetoric, it is not Labour’s way.

The Prime Minister, in the clearest signal yet that Labour’s welfare reform plans are simply cosmetic, has decided to prioritise jobs for Pacific Islanders ahead of jobs for unemployed New Zealanders. In response to calls from the World Bank and Pacific leaders for New Zealand and Australia to set up seasonal migrant Pacific Island worker schemes, Helen Clark has pledged her support. In contrast the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, has rejected the scheme, fearing it would disadvantage poorly educated unemployed Aborigines who have traditionally used unskilled jobs in rural industries as a stepping-stone from welfare to work.

Helen Clark, however, sees this migrant worker scheme as a way of achieving important personal objectives. Not only will it reinforce Labour’s commitment to their Pacific Island voting base and improve her international reputation, but it will also get rid of a highly irritating annual embarrassment.

Every year her government is forced onto the back foot by the high levels of publicity that surround the failure of the Department of Work and Income to successfully fill seasonal fruit picking and horticultural jobs. Stories of apples rotting on trees while beneficiaries turn up only for a day or two before quitting to go back onto a benefit, does nothing to help Labour’s poll ratings and nor does it engender support from its traditional worker voting base. So rather than solving the problem of getting unskilled beneficiaries – almost a third of who are Maori – successfully into such entry-level jobs, the Prime Minister intends to import migrant workers from the Pacific.

Professor Helen Hughes, a senior fellow at the Australian based Centre for Independent Studies has looked at the question, “Should Australia and New Zealand open their doors to guest workers from the Pacific” and co-authored a report which is featured as our NZCPD guest commentary this week. Helen’s conclusion is that such a scheme is not only ill advised for Australia and New Zealand, but for the Pacific Islands as well. With 1.5 million people unemployed and underemployed in the region, a migrant worker scheme for 10,000 to 38,000 would be a ‘cruel deception’, which would shield Pacific governments from need to pursue economic reforms.

In her report (click to view ) she provides an interesting comparison between Australia and New Zealand’s approach to Pacific immigration, noting that while 24 percent of Australian residents were born overseas, only 2.4 percent were born in the Pacific, whereas of the 19 percent of New Zealand residents who were born overseas, 34 percent were born in the Pacific. She states that too great a reliance on immigration from the Pacific has given rise to serious social problems. She says,

“Many Pacific islanders in New Zealand are less well integrated into the economy and society than Pacific islanders in Australia . In New Zealand, they remain geographically segregated into the second and third generations. Most live in highly concentrated communities in Auckland. Welfare dependence contributes to young Pacific Islander gangs, notably in Auckland. Compared with 16% of the total population, 26% of Pacific islanders receive some form of government benefit in New Zealand. The experience of Pacific migrants in New Zealand diverges from that in Australia because Australia has preserved selectivity of its migrant intake”.

She further warns that the proposed Pacific migrant worker scheme will create a huge “temptation to overstay”, noting that Australia already has 50,000 overstayers and New Zealand 25,000, and she describes how some countries have addressed this problem.

“Despite large numbers of temporary immigrants, Singapore has a minimal overstaying problem because employers are subject to severe fines and threatened with custodial sentences if they break the laws governing immigrants. An authoritarian regime would be a high price to pay for a guest worker programme not to spill over into illegal long term migration. It is unlikely that Australia and New Zealand would wish to emulate Singapore in this respect.”

Since Helen Clark first announced the seasonal migrant worker scheme, details have emerged that $7.8 million is going to be spent on policing measures including immigration compliance officers and labour inspectors. Under the proposed scheme, employers will not only face serious penalties if their workers overstay, but they will also have to prove that they have done everything they can to “train and upskill the domestic workforce” before being able to recruit migrant workers.

I can’t help feeling that if a proper probation period for new workers was re-introduced so that New Zealand employers can hire applicants without experience knowing that if it doesn’t work out there would be no legal claims, and if the government did its job of insisting that all beneficiaries capable of working get jobs, then I suspect a misguided Pacific Island migrant scheme would have little appeal.

The poll this week asks whether you support the concept of an unskilled Pacific Island guest worker scheme for New Zealand? Click here to vote

Reader’s comments will be posted on the NZCPD Forum page click to view .

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