Working yourself off the couch

All those who have been in employment will understand to some extent what is meant by the "dignity of work''.There is that warm feeling, at the end of the day, when something worthwhile has been achieved, not just personally but also when part of a team working towards a greater goal. And that what you have done will make things better for someone else. Such a sense of accomplishment is not limited to paid work and can be felt even more keenly when engaged in voluntary work.

People temporarily "between jobs'', or out of work for a long time due to particular circumstances, or who are re-entering society after a spell in prison, clearly may need a hand to find employment. But there are also those who make a career out of avoiding work, and in these cases it is not unreasonable to consider strong disincentives to encourage them into the workforce. They can be a drain on the economy and, with too much time on their hands, may easily fall into bad ways of crime and other anti-social behaviour, and be tempted into joining gangs. Long-term unemployment is also a trigger for mental illness.

Regional Development Minister Shane Jones' proposals to cut welfare payments if beneficiaries refuse to participate in a new work programme are, therefore, worth closer inspection. Couched in typically colourful style by the New Zealand First MP, it is difficult to disagree with the broader intentions of his plan.

Mr Jones says he wants "ne'er-do-well nephs'' around the country to work on several projects. If they are unwilling, he says, ``then I will spend every thinking and waking moment ensuring they do not fall back on the dole and be permitted to do 'jack' while the rest of us are out there working.''

Strong words indeed.

The minister's scheme includes four large-scale projects such as tree and riparian planting, and building regional railways, in which beneficiaries are able to work for at least the minimum wage. He hopes to take these four to Cabinet before Christmas as part of his Working For Your Country package, and stresses they still need the endorsement of his ministerial colleagues.

But how new really are Mr Jones' proposals? On RNZ yesterday morning, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pointed out Working For Your Country is basically the same as the Labour Party's Ready For Work programme and that Employment Minister, Labour list MP Willie Jackson, is also labouring on the issue.

Unsurprisingly, National Party economic and regional development spokesman Simon Bridges is excited about what he sees as a rift in the coalition government, saying the Prime Minister's comments are "completely at odds'' with those of Mr Jones, and that New Zealand First will be ineffective in championing the regions if Labour keeps kneecapping its policies.

Mr Bridges is going too far, as might be expected. Ms Ardern made her support clear and said she was not interested in quibbling over the names of the schemes, although it is possible Mr Bridges will be right in assuming the Cabinet will not back something as blunt as a work-for-the-dole programme.

The Opposition spokesman also raised the unlikely spectre of friction between Labour and the Green Party if mining or irrigation projects formed part of the scheme. Comments from other groups include that it would be better for all if it involved a living wage of $20.20 an hour rather than the minimum adult wage, of $15.75 an hour.

If the proposal does get people off their couches, it could have widespread benefits nationally. Who else, realistically, is going to plant millions of trees around the country?

Mr Jones' hard line may end up being moderated. This kind of approach needs to be carefully regulated and delivered justly. We need to remember and look after those whose health means they simply cannot work.




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