by MICHAEL OTTO
AUCKLAND — Representatives from six political parties were challenged to respond to two young women’s testimonies about unemployment at a social justice forum in Auckland on August 14.
Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand social justice week coordinator Cathy Bi and Auckland Action Against Poverty’s Sarah Thompson each spoke about their experiences, at the St Columba Centre in Ponsonby, in a forum organised by Auckland diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission.
The forum’s title was the same as the theme for Caritas’s Social Justice Week in September: “Walk Alongside: Meaningful Work for the Young.”
Ms Bi told the politicians — representing National, Labour, Mana, Green, United Future and New Zealand First — and an audience of several dozen, of her disappointment at repeated rejection following her graduation with a degree in development studies from Victoria University last year.
“. . . [A]fter being told again and again, you are not what we are looking for, or not hearing back at all, it was very difficult to continue. And it was hard when you were trying to sell yourself to employers and you are feeling not particularly confident and sure of yourself.”
Ms Bi told the forum her time out of work gave her a chance to reflect on the meaning of work. She quoted from “Working for Life”, a 2010 pastoral letter from New Zealand’s Catholic bishops: “Work is not simply a matter of productivity or an exchange of labour for wage, there is a social element to work where through work we grow as people, and participate in society and contribute to our community around us.”
The increasing casualisation and insecurity of work for many young people is also a concern, she said. In 2008, 42 per cent of New Zealand’s casual workers were aged between 15 and 24.
Ms Bi called on the Government to protect the rights of young workers, who can easily be seen as disposable. But the responsibility for supporting young workers lies with everyone — employers, co-workers, unions and the state, she added. Ms Bi said young workers deserve to be paid a living wage. She cited her own organisation, Caritas, as having adopted this principle. “At Caritas, considering the principle of the living wage in the collective agreement negotiations last year meant that our organisation raised our lowest rate of pay from $14 to $16 an hour. Some of the people to benefit from this were the young mail-out workers we employed to mail out the Social Justice Week material.”
Ms Bi called for a long term and holistic response to youth unemployment.
“Speaking as a young person, we are hungry for a sense of purpose and meaning. We need caring and positive role models to walk us through the transitions into adulthood and the working world.
“In a disposable culture, the hope lies in commitment. Communities, businesses, families, churches need to commit to walking alongside the young people around them and young people need to commit to the opportunities and people that come their way.”
Ms Thompson shared her experience of searching for work after “bombing” out of university after one semester in 1998. The only work she could find at the time was as a waitress at a strip club.
“That, at the time, didn’t seem like the best option. But for me, however, it was the only option,” she said. She went on to find better jobs before resuming her studies when she turned 25.
Ms Thompson said youth, defined as aged 15-24, had an unemployment rate of 18 per cent in 2009. That has risen to 26 per cent now.
“In terms of income support, despite the odd person attempting to make out that living off welfare is a cushy choice, a single person who is 24 or under receives for their main benefit only $171.84c a week.”
Ms Thompson produced a brief budget for a young person on that benefit plus an accommodation allowance of $40 a week, who was renting at $130 a week. After power, phone, rent and other fixed expenses, only $29 a week was left for food, clothes, doctor’s bills and other spending.
“To top it off, the youth who are 24 or under, receive $40 less a week than someone who is 25 or 51,” Ms Thompson said. “How can we expect young people to be respectful, if the state is constantly treating them and telling them that they are worth less than everybody else,” she said, after detailing the harsh impacts of welfare changes on some young people on benefits.”
The politicians were given five minutes each to respond to the two young women.
Deputy Leader of the Opposition Grant Robertson (Labour) said jobs have to be at the centre of everything a government does in terms of economic policy.
“When we decide how the Government is going to spend the $30 billion a year it spends buying things, it is called procurement. We have to put jobs for us, for the New Zealand people, for young people, at the centre of that policy and say that we are going to make sure New Zealand firms get a go at those contracts, so that turns into jobs for New Zealanders,” he said.
Mr Robertson called for a hands-on approach to the economy from Government, saying a Labour Government would develop a plan for different sectors. Although acknowledging the Gateway programme that strengthens pathways for students from school to further education and training or employment, Mr Robertson called for further improvement in the transition between school and work.
National MP Alfred Ngaro spoke about his mother, who worked two jobs as a cleaner and his father who was a labourer on Auckland’s wharves.
“I know what it is when we deal with poverty and the struggle and the issues that we have to get ahead. I’m here today because I have become the dream and the aspirations of my Mum and Dad. I’m here today because we know that hard work and determination can get us to a place of success,” Mr Ngaro said.
There is a challenge for both the Government and community in how to make a difference for the 18,100 Pacifica people who are unemployed in New Zealand, he said.
“Here’s the one line I want to leave you with: ‘We [Pacific people] are not a problem to be solved — we are a potential to be realised.’”
Mr Ngaro said the Government’s approach emphasises more of community and less of government.
But the Green Party’s Vernon Tava said the rhetoric in the United Kingdom from the Conservative Party about the “big society” really meant small government, which is part of a broader neo-liberal project to decouple the state and society.
Being told how important communities are, in this context, really means that community will eventually be the only safety net around, he said.
Mana’s John Minto, who is running to be Auckland mayor, said that, if elected, he would demand council contracts only go to firms that pay a living wage. The higher cost would come from taking funds from higher salaries that some council staff earn, he said.