Risking the hours

If nothing else, the steep and unexpected rise in unemployment figures to 7.3% - comprising in large part the young - should give us an indication that all is not well out there in the jobs market.

I've heard tales of a number of young graduates, the proud owners of honours degrees with three, four or five years of tertiary education behind them, and debts the size of a generous down-payment on a house, unable to find even casual employment.

I've heard others about the difficulty school leavers and students have had finding traditional summer jobs.

Disappointingly, I have heard, too, about some people who are taking advantage of the situation.

I was talking to a friend the other day, about the usual stuff: the job, the house, the weather, the Black Caps . . . and, because we have this in common, the offspring.

He was saying how his son - incidentally a good lad, a bit unworldly, bookish, but polite and conscientious - had lucked into a job up north, part-time, mind, but better than nothing.

So, he must be pleased, I said, to have at least one of them relieving tension on the family budget.

And he said, yes and no.

Yes and no? Well, yes, he was delighted that his son, 18, was out there in the work place learning about life, learning the discipline required to earn a living, finding out a bit about the value of money, how long on the minimum wage you have to work to earn a dozen beers - and so on.


He was a bit concerned about the employer.

Good people, apparently, but he was concerned and he wanted advice.

The other morning, he said, about 4.30am, he had a call.

His son, drunk with exhaustion, had just got home, having begun work at 9am the previous morning.

He had worked, on his feet, for 18 hours straight, with barely a break.

He was having trouble thinking straight and more to the point, could not unlock the door of his flat.

The key was a difficult fit, so this required patience and a cool head, neither of which my friend's son possessed at that moment.

Finally he had slumped on to the steps and tearfully rung home.

After a calming conversation, the lad finally cracked the lock, and stumbled off to bed.

Eighteen hours straight, I said: surely that's illegal?

I suppose it is, my friend replied, but the boy did agree to do a double shift.

What's more, he's keen to prove himself, and when I asked him if he had some breaks, he said they were too busy for that, and it wasn't the done thing.

No-one else was complaining - at least not to the bosses.

"No-one else", my friend added was a group of good kids from good families.

And you could argue, he said, that what they are learning, the life lessons and the general experience, are priceless.

Or, I interrupted, you could say that a bunch of young people, eager, vulnerable, naïve, on casual work for the minimum wage - just raised 25c to $13.75 - and not eligible for overtime rates, are being dangerously exploited.

How would he feel, I asked, if his son, in such a state of exhaustion as he apparently had been on the night in question, at 4am, having gone out to the road to hail a taxi, had tripped and fallen into the path of an oncoming car?

Unfair question, he said.

Yeah, well, maybe, I said, but you get my drift?

Yes, he said, but what do I do? Tell the company what I think of its workplace practices and ruin my son's chances of further work? Or just let it go?

There is another option, I said.

If the company is not forthcoming on such matters, he must pluck up the courage to request from it a schedule of the hours he is expected to work on any one shift, and the breaks he is entitled to along the way.

Then he must take them. In return, rather than a group of accident-prone zombies, the company will have a more alert, capable and productive workforce.

And, good people or not, if his approach bears no fruit, he could always seek advice from the appropriate union.

I'll think about, my friend said.

Although I already sensed I wouldn't be hearing anything further about it.

My friend after all is a "good" person, too.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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