Damien Venuto: New Zealand about find out the real value of ‘low-skilled’ workers

OPINION:

Those who look after our elderly, serve us in restaurants, check out groceries, move our goods, pick our fruit and clean our messes will bear the brunt of the Omicron outbreak.

As the highly transmissible rips through New Zealand, these workers, deprived of the privilege of working from home, will start to get sick.

We’ve already been warned that the peak of the outbreak could see as many as 350,000 New Zealanders isolating at home at the same time.

And the findings released last week by Te Pūnaha Matatini modellers indicate that with a three- to four-month outbreak and assuming low transmission, a total of 1.5 million infections can be expected, including 386,400 cases, 11,500 hospitalisations and 460 deaths – if 90 per cent of eligible Kiwis were boosted. (Infections refer to the total number of people with Covid-19, while cases refer to Covid-positive people picked up through testing).

The lower the booster percentage, the higher those extrapolations become and the more devastating the impact on businesses. Recent data suggests that 1 million eligible New Zealanders are yet to have their booster shot.

Industries are already preparing to have workforces decimated during the outbreak, with Auckland Airport saying it was planning for a quarter of its staff off and Foodstuffs expects the number to sit closer to 30 per cent. Prominent members of the wine industry have also warned that this year’s harvest could prove an enormous challenge due to the impact of the virus.

As a country, we will quickly come to see the true economic value of workers politicians love to disparage as ‘low skill’.

New Zealand has the advantage of looking at other Omicron-ravaged countries around the world to see what’s coming our way.

In a piece penned for the World Economic Forum website in January, writer John Letzing noted that the percentage of US workers not working either because of coronavirus symptoms or because of caring for someone was nearly triple what it was a month earlier and 32 per cent higher than it was a year ago.

The clincher in this analysis is that employers need to consider not only the Covid status of their workers but also the families of those workers. If kids or other dependents are ill, then the parents often won’t be able to go to work.

This is complicated even further by the long self-isolation periods that workers will have to undergo if they are in close contact with a positive case. Given the impact of these circumstances, it’s little surprise the Government last week offered critical businesses the opportunity to enter an exemption scheme that would negate the need to close contacts to self-isolate.

In a macroeconomic sense, absence from work isn’t something to be scoffed at.

A whitepaper published this month by New Zealand firms Footprint Connect and Umbrella Wellbeing pointed to data from the Southern Cross Workplace Wellness report suggesting that the New Zealand economy lost $1.85 billion to workplace absenteeism in 2020 off the back of the average worker missing only 4.2 days per year.

With the ominous fog of Omicron steadily encroaching over the country, we can expect the loss in worker productivity to be enormous in the coming months.

If anything, it will provide a reminder that the daily moving parts of the economy aren’t all that interested in what we call a skilled or low skill job.

Economic forces are instead usually driven by whether there’s a job to be done and whether there’s someone available to do it.

As our frontline workers begin to get ill and are isolated at home in the coming weeks, the impact will become apparent in empty shelves, undelivered packages and fruit rotting on branches.

The growing awareness of the importance of these workers over the last two years has led to some serious questions about who we have the audacity to refer to as low skilled workers.

In an essay for online magazine Vox, writer Jerusalem Demsas calls on politicians and commentators to stop referring to workers as low skill. A better phrase, he argues is “low wage” – because that’s really what’s at play here.

While it is common in economics to refer to labour that does not require extensive specialised training or certification as unskilled, Demas argues the word doesn’t provide much clarity beyond academia.

“There is no absolute inherent measure of skills that determines whether a worker has what it takes to sit in a corner office,” Demas writes.

“Skill is dependent on the context of supply and demand for specific tasks and roles.”

There’s nothing unskilled about caring and feeding for an elderly person whose family don’t have the time to be there, just as there’s nothing unskilled about standing in a scorching kitchen for hours on end turning around perfectly prepared meals that don’t give customers food poisoning.

The binary idea of some jobs being skilled and others being unskilled simply doesn’t play out in practice.

To borrow Demas’ excellent metaphor, if I headed into the office tomorrow to find an Elon Musk-created robot sitting at my desk doing my job, this wouldn’t render me any less skilled than I currently am. It would just mean the market had found a cheaper way to deliver my workplace objectives, and NZME simply wasn’t willing to pay for my keyboard tick-tacking any longer. My degrees would still be hanging somewhere in a picture frame. It’s just that market would have decided that it wasn’t worth paying for any longer.

The problem is that New Zealand’s political discourse still uses the concept of ‘low skill’ workers, with politicians like Minister for Economic Development Stuart Nash last year telling business leaders the country must move away from a reliance on a low-skilled migrant labour force.

In fact, this phrasing is also being used to justify legislative changes.

In a pre-Budget speech last year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern flagged upcoming changes to New Zealand immigration law that would see the Government “looking to shift the balance away from low-skilled work, towards attracting high skilled migrants.”

For a Government so careful in its use of words, it’s remarkable how easy it is to shift toward disparaging the jobs that hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders do on a daily basis.

In his excellent analysis on the modern labour market unapologetically titled Bullshit Jobs, anthropologist David Graeber drew a distinction between “shit jobs” (namely those that aren’t enjoyable) and “bullshit jobs” (those that don’t add much value to the world).

The thing with “bullshit jobs” is that if these job titles disappeared overnight, we wouldn’t really notice a tangible difference.

“There are all these industries, that if they basically disappeared it wouldn’t make any difference,” says Graeber.

“Telemarketing, for instance, if it disappeared most people would not complain. They’d be pretty happy actually. [Another example is] corporate lawyers. If you talk to corporate lawyers … the vast majority say it’s completely unnecessary. If I didn’t have this job, the world wouldn’t change in any way … [Corporate lawyers] are like armies. No country needs an army unless other countries have an army.”

The thing with low-wage jobs is that generally fall into the other category in Graeber’s analysis. They’re jobs that aren’t necessarily enjoyable but the world tends to notice when they’re not being done. Normal people will be able to notice the work going undone and the impact will be felt by society.

That’s exactly what we’ll see in the coming months. We’re about to run a real-time experiment on what happens when there’s no one available to do the jobs no one wants to do.

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