A garbage collection truck came down our street today. One guy driving and three fit, healthy men running behind, hoisting bins up to the truck then back to the kerb. A wave and bit of a smile as they did so. It’s Christmas week, I must put a little something in an envelope for them for a bit of Christmas cheer. Oh no! wait…..that was five years ago. Almost a lifetime ago. Today there was only one man driving the truck from which protruded a mechanical arm hoisting the bins off the kerb. And we all know that even the driver’s job will be gone in the next five years as driverless vehicles become a reality.
So what happened to that happy, energetic team of busy workers? Are they lying by themselves on their couch? Eking out their unemployment benefit to the detriment of their family’s well being? Getting less and less healthy and spending more and more time getting medical support? Getting more and more depressed as they cannot fulfil the dreams that they promised their children on the day they were born? And with helplessness comes frustration; and with frustration comes anger; and with anger comes violence. And with violence come the political platitudes from the opposition side of the House, regardless of which parties they are any particular year: “Someone needs to do something.” But the only something they ever do is shuffle countless millions of dollars between the various ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, depending on which way the political wind is blowing on any particular budget year.
We could blame the employer for putting profits ahead of people, but deep down we know that they live in a viciously competitive free market country. If they don’t take advantage of the mechanical / digital technology that they buy from overseas manufactures in order to collect refuse as cheap as their competitor, then they will simply go out of business. Then there won’t even be a job for them, their office staff and the mechanics.
Ironically, it was the fourth Labour Government that introduced deregulation and created this rampant, free market, dog-eat-dog system to New Zealand. Between 1935 and 1984, successive New Zealand governments had fiercely protected our businesses and their labour force from the competitive attacks of foreign companies. That included 20 years of Labour rule and 29 years of National rule. Not even the National Party tyrant, Muldoon, would bring in marketplace deregulation. But, under Labour’s Lange/ Douglas government, our workers became fully exposed to the competitive aggression of overseas suppliers who employed millions of low paid workers, women and children working in horrific conditions, just so we could get lots and lots of cheap stuff. Overflowing trundlers were dragged around the Warehouse, the Warehouse where everyone gets more bargains in a year than they need for a lifetime. And once the genie was out of the bottle……. Well the next phase was that even the Warehouse, the Warehouse were not cheap enough as technology showed these overseas suppliers that they can bypass the local retailer and sell direct online. And if the duty/ gst portion of the purchase price is under $60, then the overseas supplier doesn’t even have to pay that. So then the young guy who lost his job and who started to shop online to make ends meet, suddenly finds his missus loses her job at the Warehouse.
David Lange certainly tried to reign in the beast he had unleashed, but it was too little too late. As political commentator Colin James wrote in his paper to the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University in 2004, “in late 1988 Richard Prebble and Sir Roger Douglas departed in high drama. But by then there was no way back: Lange was stranded in the hard glare of market economics and efficiency and his titular leadership died there in 1989.
The competitive marketplace took us into a state of manic consumerism. The masses demanded more and more cheap stuff like it was an addiction. The business people found it was cheaper to build robots than pay even the lowest paid humans. Read my words: current trends predict that, in China, 77% of jobs will be lost to automation within 20 years. And so today I saw what, twenty years ago I could never have imagined; one man in the cab of a truck operating a mechanical arm to collect household refuse. A social cancer was created by that fourth Labour Government, a cancer that targeted the very workers that the Labour Party was established to protect.
Dog eat dog. It’s New Zealand Jim, but not as we knew it.
It happened in the USA as well. Now they have what they refer to as the “Rust-Belt States”. Do you think the inhabitants of those states don’t want revenge on the global free market? Just watch that Reality Pawn Shop show based in Detroit; it’s the most depressing show on TV. Do you think they can’t take revenge? They just voted in Donald Trump! And that was working people turning their backs on the Democrats and voting Republican. The equivalent of our working people voting National. They voted Trump because, although a billionaire capitalist republican, he promised he would protect America from the outside world. It was the rust belt states that saw Trump elected. Do you think they care if he was lying? They do not! Do they care that his election may bring the whole country down to the level of their sorry state? They do not. They have nothing more to lose!!!! It was how the French peasants felt when they rolled the guillotine out. It happened in Europe and its happening now in the new industrial zones throughout Asia. Mass unemployment is coming to a town square near you. Man the guillotines.
I am a believer that there is no point complaining without actually proposing a solution. Howling to the moon is a waste of energy. I am no economist (only got a C in Economics 101, might have been a C-) but even blind Freddy can see that, at government level, we do need to protect our people from the cyber takeover. That we as a community need to go cold turkey 0n our rampant consumerism and think: lower volume, better quality; less reliance on machine-made and more balance for hand-made. And I think we need to change the tax regime to achieve this: balance less tax income from businesses with less tax expenditure on social welfare.
This is how I think it could work: currently payroll cost is a normal business expense that gets deducted from revenue before tax is paid. So effectively 28% of the wage bill is subsidised by taxation. But if, say 35% of the employee wage bill (non-managerial and staff unrelated to the employer) was deducted from their tax bill, then employers would be financially encouraged to employ more people at the hands-on end of their business and pay them a reasonable wage; particularly if, on the other side of the ledger, robot-workers were heavily taxed at customs. For government, more employment saves unemployment benefits; creates healthier lifestyles; increases social interaction; reduces demand on health services; people with busy lives create fewer social problems/ costs , including law enforcement.
That’s all ‘back of an envelope’ accounting so needs a bit of refinement, but I hope it’s enough to get the people in positions of elected social responsibility coming up with more and better ideas. Protecting our local industries from foreign aggression on one hand and ensuring meaningful work and fair wages for our people on the other, so that the disenfranchised in our community can once again contribute to our economy, earn their own money, provide for their families and restore their dignity. Full, sustainable employment should be the catch cry for the 2017 election year.
At government level we still have the opportunity of finding a peaceful solution with both major parties in effectively an embrace in centre ring. But history has shown, and countries in crisis around the world still show, ours is a fragile peace. It won’t take too many more families living in the powerless, stressed and violent conditions they are in today, before what happens in the homes today happens in the streets tomorrow.
And since it just doesn’t feel right giving a bit of Christmas cheer to a mechanical arm, why not drop a gift off at Women’s Refuge? There is never any more frustration-turned-anger than at this time of year when men are supposed to be able to give their children the best family Christmas ever. So there will be vulnerable and unloved women and children sheltering there over Christmas who really need a random act of kindness from the community.