by (Guest Contributor) Pink Panther

The unemployment rate in New Zealand depends on who you ask. Different organisations have their own ways of calculating who is, or isn’t, unemployed. However, the Ministry of Social Development informs us that, as of September 2017, the unemployment rate was 4.6% of the labour force and 11.8% is underemployed.

In order to address the problem of unemployment Regional Development Minister Shane Jones proposed a work for the dole scheme where the unemployed would plant trees (RNZ, December 3rd, 2017). Within a day or so the Prime Minister Jacinda Arden announced there would be no work for the dole schemes (NZ Herald, December 4th) as those doing them would be paid at least the minimum wage.

For the first time in living memory I have heard a Prime Minister come out and say that there were compelling reasons for why work for the dole schemes didn’t work including “that you’re undercutting people who are in paid employment”.
Work for the dole schemes are nothing new. In the 1990s the dole was renamed the Community Wage and a scheme was drawn up to get the unemployed into work under this scheme. It proved to be a complete waste of time.

Jeff Borland, Professor of Economics at the University of Melbourne, remarked in an article on the subject (Work for the Dole doesn’t work – but here is what does. The Conversation, January 30th, 2014) that:
“There are good reasons why public sector job programs such as Work for the Dole do not have a positive effect on employment outcomes. First, the programs do not increase the long-term availability of jobs. It is only when extra jobs become available that people who are unemployed can move into sustainable employment. But these programs are only providing a limited period of employment.
Second, the programs are not providing a sufficient opportunity for skill development to make a big difference to employment prospects for the unemployed. Many people who are unemployed have low education and skills, as well as other sources of disadvantage, and hence require a substantial increase in skills to be able to obtain and retain employment.”
In essence, Dr Borland is stating a simple fact: work for the dole schemes don’t provide people with the skills and experience they need to enter the job market because the jobs don’t last long enough for their skills and experience to reach the standards demanded by employers.
However, while this is undoubtably true, there are other reasons why work for the dole schemes such as those proposed by Shane Jones don’t work.

Key among the other reasons is that the goals of these programmes are often confused and contradictory. In Australia, where work for the dole schemes have been a feature of unemployment since 1997, the work for the dole schemes have come under criticism because:
“Work for the Dole is not a labour market program. It does not have an explicit goal of helping people secure paid employment. Its official goals are mixed. They range from fulfilling a ‘moral’ requirement that unemployed people should ‘give something back’ for their benefits, to discouraging people from staying on benefits, to building soft skills and raising self esteem, and undertaking work of benefit to local communities. Depending on the audience and political mood, it has been portrayed either as punishment for ‘bludgers’ or a balm for the psychological harms of prolonged unemployment.” (“Does Work for the Dole Work?”, Need To Know blog, May 10th, 2015.)

As a result of these contradictory goals the problem arises that there is no way to determine if the schemes achieve anything at all. The author of the above-quoted blog, Peter Davidson, made the remark that the litmus test of any work for the dole scheme is whether or not the scheme actually improves people’s chances of getting employment. As there is no way of measuring this it is impossible to say how successful such schemes are. Of the few studies that have been done they have been hampered by the lack of any independence and, even within the government studies that have been done, only one or two programmes have been evaluated. This was admitted as much by the Ministry of Social Development in its paper “Evidence to date on the working and effectiveness of ALMPs in New Zealand” (Ministry of Social Development, September 2004).

Even the Ministry of Social Development admitted the evidence showed that work for the dole and other schemes that were meant to assist the unemployed into employment reduced the ability of unemployed people to gain paid employment in the job market because they were unable to job hunt while undertaking these programmes. By the time the programmes had ended the unemployed had lost most of the all important contacts and networks that would’ve helped them get off the dole.

However, it is the experience of the Anarchists in the United Kingdom who have been dealing with their version of work for the dole called Workfare who best summed up what is wrong with these programmes from an Anarchist perspective:
“Workfare is just one part of a massive programme of welfare reform, backed up by an unprecedented ideological attack on the ‘undeserving poor’. This attack was launched by the Conservative-LibDem coalition and Blairite allies (such as Frank Field) as soon as they came to office. The ideological attack had two prongs. In the first place, there was the attempt to create division through a campaign around so-called benefit fraud. Second was the propaganda stirred up against those supposedly getting large amounts of benefits compared to the wages of those in work. Instead of this being a narrative about appalling low wages, the government ideologues sought to class ‘greedy’ claimants alongside the hated greedy rich bankers – both were getting ‘something for nothing’ – in relation to the ‘squeezed middle’, who were encouraged to link their predicament to the lifestyle of their neighbours on benefits (many of whom, ministers said, didn’t open their curtains till the afternoon).
“In this ideological attack, and even in the face of global recession, explanations for unemployment in terms of economic conditions, which were accepted in the 1980s, were displaced by individualistic and hence moralistic explanations. This focus on the unemployed individual – whether as victim, beneficiary or moral reprobate – is part of bourgeois ideology, accepted as common sense, which hides our relation with each other as a class, through the wage relation. Many of the justifications given for workfare are built upon this ideological individualism. Thus, while some of the schemes may serve to move the occasional unemployed individual from the dole into (very often low paid) work, these examples are taken by supporters of the scheme as indicative of the way that the problem of mass unemployment might be addressed, buying into the myth that unemployment is caused by the unemployed, rather than by the current crisis.” (“The ‘new’ workfare schemes in historical and class context”, libcom.org, August 3rd, 2012)

In essence, work for the dole schemes are based on the notion that the unemployed are lazy, welfare bludging parasites. By pushing the unemployed into such schemes it is hoped these lazy people will get up in the morning, go to these jobs and learn some basic skills. The only problem is that the skills they learn are mostly useless in the modern work place and they fail to address the root cause of unemployment: these people are out of work because of a Capitalist economic system that has decided these people are no longer needed nor wanted in the work place.

Whether here in New Zealand or in countries like Australia and the United Kingdom work for the dole schemes are a waste of time and resources. Time could be better spent on providing apprenticeship schemes, on the job training and actual jobs that pay proper wages that people can really live on. Longer term we should be moving towards establishing work places that operate more like a democracy than dictatorships and where people are in control of their own lives, not treated like objects of derision by grandstanding politicians like Shane Jones.