- Date published:
12:02 pm, June 20th, 2021 - 59 comments
Categories: benefits, Economy, grant robertson, Politics, Social issues, unemployment, Unions, workers' rights - Tags: business nz, CTU, social unemployment insurance
Budget this year delivered in ways that many of us have been waiting for. Community groups, Iwi, beneficiaries, environmentalists and more, all agreed on Budget Day that they were quietly pleased to see groups they represent receive funding. For many, that funding is just a first step. One of the details announced in the budget was funding to explore a ‘social unemployment insurance’ scheme. This scheme has been pushed by the Council of Trade Unions and Business NZ, which will work with the Government in a newly set-up Tripartite Working Party.
The pandemic and lockdown last year put the thinking around this scheme in motion. Advocates for this scheme will state that it will give temporary protection to workers who have lost their jobs. On presentation it is a social security net.
Grant Robertson, as the Minister of Finance, praised the intention of the scheme: “Like ACC for accidents, a Social Unemployment Insurance scheme would cushion the impact of a job loss. It would give workers the financial stability to find the right job for their skills, or to retrain for a new, fulfilling career path.”
This is by no means something to be against.
When we dig into it though, we realise it is no safety net. It’s a parachute that slows our drop, giving us time, before we hit that real net – down so far below. Social Unemployment Insurance is a temporary relief from vertigo. Like any insurance, it comes with its pre-requisites and pages of conditions in small typeset that are all too easy to ignore. This insurance seduces the policy-holder by playing into your fear of uncertainty, which it offers protection from. Like any insurance there are ifs, buts and maybes.
As a Union Organiser, I was surprised that this scheme had not been discussed within Union circles. As I go around worksites, ideas are talked through in office tea-rooms, corridors or storerooms. Ideas are tested, questioned – require strategic thinking and may require campaigning. I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard much about social unemployment insurance either. All too quietly, this scheme will set up a two-tier unemployment system.
The scheme would ensure workers retain up to 80 percent of the income they were receiving for a period after they lose their jobs. When I was growing up, I saw a similar scheme in place. It was not universal and did not provide that long-term security we should be asking from our welfare state. I grew up in Spain, where unemployment entitlement is calculated on the length of employment and salary rate of the income the worker received prior to becoming unemployed. My mother during the mid-2000s lost several jobs due to the changing job market. What I learnt was that schemes such as the one that the Tripartite is designing did nothing for those on low-paid precarious jobs/. I learnt that when there are two systems, and one works for most, it is easy to forget about those on that system that doesn’t work.
If you are unemployed today you may be receiving as little as $202 a week – this rises based on age, accommodation supplements, or children. No matter- benefit levels are too low for rising rents, expensive winter bills, medical bills, fluctuating fuel costs… If you are employed and lose your job, your standard of living, what you eat and who you live with, could change quickly. Social Unemployment Insurance protects the privilege of the employed against the compromise and struggle of weekly budgets on a benefit. The scheme has been put forward so workers who have lost their job are given time and income to find a job that fits their skills, or to re-train. The same opportunities are not afforded to Kiwis on a benefit.
By setting up the Tripartite group, the Government unashamedly admits that benefit levels are not good enough. It then focuses its attention elsewhere.
Social Unemployment Insurance is not addressing the elephant in the room – we collectively agree that our benefits are too low – even after the increases set out in the 2021 Budget. Instead of increasing these benefits, the Tripartite group formed by the Government, Council of Trade Unions and Business NZ will set up a two-tier system for the unemployed.
We should be focusing on raising the floor.
This is something that workers collectively in unions have a proud history of doing. It’s not just at work where we are active, but this is where you will be most familiar with what we have won for all of us. Together we push for safer, fairer, more inclusive workplaces. We have increased annual leave, improved Health and Safety laws since the Pike River disaster, we have achieved new leave for victims of domestic abuse and expanded bereavement leave so that losing a baby during pregnancy or childbirth is a given, not something that has to be asked for. In the last month we pushed back against the government’s intended Pay Freeze in the Public Sector. Outside our workspaces we should be advocating for beneficiaries the same way we as union members are front and centre in climate marches, at Waitangi Day, at Pride.
When it comes to benefits, we should be raising the floor instead of closing the door behind us. Raising the floor looks like a benefit system where benefit levels are liveable and so that beneficiaries can live with dignity while they focus on their health, or their family, or their study, without compromise.
I need to be clear- this project has not yet received funding and it is a long way from being implemented, but knowing that the Government has committed to sitting down and nutting this scheme out with the Council of Trade Unions and Business NZ says it all.
This scheme, by building an alternative to the benefits that WINZ pays, risks creating a small tear in our shared social net, it privatises the risk of unemployment and erodes our advocacy to increase benefits and improve beneficiary rights. Future decisions regarding unemployment will be split into two with a risk that benefit levels will stagnate or reduce.
Conditions outside of employment should concern all of us.
As a Union member I, with many others, hear the waiata and stand: ‘E Tu, Kahikatea’! and repeat the last line: ‘Tātou, Tātou e’.
is a union member and organiser based in Ōtepoti – Dunedin of Catalan origin.