23 Oct 2019

NZ's low unemployment rate is hiding huge inequity

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 23 October 2019
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Photo: 123RF

The unemployment rate is at an 11 year low – 3.9 percent – virtually non-existent, some would say, when you consider that a certain percentage of people will never get a job.

However when you look more closely the numbers are disturbing. There are still 109,000 people in New Zealand on a benefit, out of work. Fifty-two percent of those people have either a disability, health or mental health issue; or are caring for someone who does.

They often have complex needs, and need to be supported when they do get jobs.

They can’t just all go and pick fruit.

Social Development minister Carmel Sepuloni says the issue of disabled unemployment has been overlooked for too long.

“It’s our responsibility to ensure that we are breaking down the barriers and providing opportunities to work,” she says.

Issues range from mental health issues, to sight or hearing impairments, intellectual disabilities and autism.

It’s also not a stagnant group – people are going off and on the benefit, many taking up employment for a short time. Sepuloni says 74 percent of them do want to work.

“We want them to thrive, and they want to thrive,” she says.

On top of those figures, Sepuloni says new surveys suggest many people who haven’t shown a medical certificate to gain a benefit are accessing mental health services, or prescription medications that indicate they might have a mental health condition.  “Far more than MSD had identified,” she says. “Over 50 percent of those, for two years previously had actually been working, but because of their mental health condition had fallen out of work. So there’s so much more that we can do in this space between the health system and the welfare system that we need to continue to explore.

“But it also highlights the importance of that $1.9 billion investment in mental health and the positive spin-offs that could potentially have with respect to supporting people to stay in employment, or take up employment.”

MSD is working with local government in this area, with many councils moving to a model of social contracts that look at more than just lowest price when engaging contractors.

In Auckland, the council is making use of its massive contract tendering power (more than $1b for the council alone in capital works and maintenance – over $3b when you factor in the Council Controlled Organisations such as WaterCare and Auckland Transport) to give people who would otherwise be stuck on the benefit, real jobs.

It tells potential contractors that if they want the job, they need to employ people who need a hand up.

The council’s procurement general-manager Jazz Singh says the language of contracts has changed – it’s more about value now,” he says.

“I think we realised that the lowest cost doesn’t always get us the right outcome.”   

Photo: RNZ