The new scourge of over-employment

For the past 6 years I taught at a secondary school in Otara.   This is the Otara of urban legend which hits the news – or is hit by the news – for all the wrong reasons.  

It’s a suburb of working class New Zealanders of predominantly Maori and Pacific backgrounds and for all the problems it’s the closest to a genuine community I’ve ever experienced in New Zealand.

It’s a suburb filled with bright, lively kids, intelligent, boisterous teenagers and struggling families.

I had taught in Otara previously in the 1980’s but when I returned in 2000 it was a very different suburb.

In the 1980’s unemployment was higher but the jobs that employed breadwinners were skilled and semi-skilled jobs in the manufacturing sector. These jobs were relatively well paid and secure and families in work were able to “get ahead”. There was the feeling that the current generation could do better for its children and despite the difficulties this was the prevailing mood and the main reason for the Pacific immigration which began filling Otara from the 1960’s.

However by 2000 cheap imports had stripped away well paid jobs in the manufacturing sector to be replaced by low paid, part time jobs in the service sector. Instead of making quality shoes for example the work now is in stacking warehouse shelves with cheap, low quality imports. Unemployment is down but this hides an even greater scourge on the community – over employment – and the impacts on children are often worse than with unemployment.

Three years ago I taught a very bright Samoan student in a Form 5 science class.   He was focused, studious and had a passion to go to university. Half way through the following year he was getting behind, failing to hand in assignments and he looked dejected and unwell.  

It turned out he had begun a job at the local supermarket working from 4pm to 10pm on 4 nights a week. Doing 24 hours work on top of full time study was wrecking his education. Probing a bit deeper he explained to me he was working to get money to help his family and to save for university. His father had been made redundant from a relatively well paid manufacturing job and had only been able to get a low paid, part time job. In fact there were four family members – mum, dad and an older brother as well – all working low-paid, part time jobs at all hours to get enough income to keep the family above water.

Don’t think this is an isolated example. Similar stories are the rule rather than the exception.

This is the new burden for the low paid. A single income earner may work as many as 70 hours a week in these sorts of part-time, casualised jobs to get the income needed to support a family.   More usually this is now shared around several family members working a variety of jobs at odd hours. It’s small wonder that community workers complain of fewer parents able to take sports teams or help in community building activities.

The huge family stresses and social dislocations can only be imagined until there is an outbreak of appalling violence among the young whereupon the moral outrage and lazy prejudice of the middle class is unleashed via the media.

Over-employed workers never show up on the unemployment statistics so while the government boasts smugly of low unemployment the figures hide a multitude of appalling injustices.

More generally it is since the Labour government’s infamous reforms of the 1980’s that wages for the low paid have dropped dramatically with job security tenuous at best. In relation to the average wage, the minimum wage has dropped by more than a third to stand now at just 45% of the average wage. Internationally a poverty income is regarded as one which is below 60% of the average wage and herein lies the reason we have one third of our children living in families below the poverty line.

Surely the most fundamental measure of an economy is whether a breadwinner is able to work 40 hours a week and have enough money to maintain a family above the poverty line. If that’s not the best measure of an economy then what is? Yet after 6 years of Labour governments and supposedly wonderful economic growth we are further from this than ever.

Don’t tell the Samoan student that the economy is working – it’s a shallow, profit driven failure. Let’s get rid of it and have a real debate about the alternatives in our land of plenty.