Yesterday, National MP Jami-Lee Ross’s bill to fine car window washers passed its first reading in Parliament. This got me thinking. Intersection window-washers are an annoying – yet constant – feature of urban life here in Auckland [and, no doubt, in other parts of the country]. It’s seemingly impossible to come to a major traffic-light interchange in some parts of the city at rush-hour without finding two or three of them, armed with their trusty pump-bottles and squeegee-wipers and hoping for a pittance of pennies or a cig.
Some regard them as a pest; and certainly, seemingly every friend-circle has an account of a window-washer getting quite intimidating in their errant pursuit of your precious portions of carefully hoarded spare change. But does this mean that fining them between $150 and $1000 is necessarily the right way to counteract this issue?
A reality check is plainly needed here.
The people engaging in window-washing are, for the most part, unemployed and to a certain extent possibly unemployable. They may be subsisting on a benefit [which, let’s remember, even the Minister of Social Development herself implicitly stated one couldn’t survive on without engaging in criminal behavior]; and one has to wonder – if prevented from attempting to earn a bit of extra cash window-washing, where else might they go in order to try and make ends meet.
If these people are literally only taking in two hundred dollars per week from official and legitimate income sources (assuming they’re even able to get a benefit in the first place) out of which family, living costs and utilities must be paid, then what does imposing a fine that might be as much as five weeks’ income do? It either forces them further into poverty [thus providing an additional impetus for other extra-legal conduct – potentially of a more harmful and anti-social nature], or WINZ takes pity on the level of hardship which such a crippling financial obligation would inflict and allows them to come up with a payment-plan of a few dollars a week, whilst putting up their benefits by an amount slightly less than that in order to pay for it. Either way, at best the problems involved are simply shifted around – and at worst, magnified in scope.
There is a stereotype of some long-term beneficiaries that they’re lazy and would prefer to loaf around on a run-down couch rather than getting out into the world and attempting to scrape a living. I would respectfully contend that the ongoing existence of window-washers on our streets goes some ways to proving that this perception is definitely not always accurate. It’s not exactly the most comfortable way to earn money – standing around an intersection all day in the hot sun or the driving rain, at the mercy of both the elements and the relative kindness (or occasional insults) of car-mobile strangers.
I do not say this to romanticize the window-washer or what he does; but instead to suggest that there must be SOME form of driving work-ethic in there somewhere if they’re genuinely up for putting themselves through such a daily experience in pursuit of a few coins. At least street-busking is often a sit-down job.
And to those for whom the solution is inevitably and always “na-na why don’t you get a job?” … well, like I said above, a goodly number of these folks are quite possibly unemployable [we do, after all, live in an age wherein having a criminal record appears to make it very difficult to even find work as a supermarket trolley-boy]; and in any case, with the way our economy is fairly deliberately set up to maintain a constant level of unemployment high enough to keep a lid on inflation, there just simply aren’t enough jobs (particularly *accessible* jobs) to go round.
I’d be very interested to know, if you asked them, how many of these window-washer folk would be pretty keen on actual employment if given the chance. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine how putting in several hours of work a day in occasionally somewhat arduous conditions for literal pocket-change could be preferable to even a minimum-wage or part-time job.
But to return to our general analysis of the situation – what we can adduce from all of the above is that we have a group of people large enough to necessitate making a law about, living in poverty (or pretty close to it), possibly drawing a benefit, and who have the evident wherewithal to work in some capacity – yet who’re obviously not participating in the labour-market for some reason.
Passing a law to penalize these people financially for getting out and about and attempting to be low-key entrepreneurial, then, doesn’t actually solve any of the above list of problems. Indeed, as previously argued, it might well wind up making some of them worse. I’d also question whether our already wildly overstretched Police [for which you can, once again thank National] would actually be in a position to effectively enforce the law – what’re they going to do, divert cops who could be (not-) responding to assaults on dairy owners or other crimes to stand vigilant watch at intersections every rush-hour? Even if that WAS the plan (and honestly, knowing this Government, I have a depressing feeling that’s exactly as much thought as has gone into enforcement of this potential new law), window-washers would simply keep a lookout, observe patterns in policing deployment, and set up shop at non-covered intersections on a rotating basis. But I digress.
If we are serious about addressing the issue of intersection window-washers, whilst also improving our communities and helping out the people driven to window-washing in the first place … this punitive non-solution is NOT what is needed. Not least because it’s simplistic annoyance masquerading as serious policy, which won’t even address the surface manifestation of the issue – let alone the root cause.
Instead, as soon as I thought about all of this, and properly construed the issue as more than just something for motorists to get annoyed about … it became abundantly clear that a very different approach would be needed.
In specia, something like the “New Kiwi Deal” policy-set which New Zealand First announced back in 2015.
A more detailed write-up can be found in my earlier article linked above; but for the sake of ease, I’ll run through the basics again here.
New Zealand has a serious problem with long-term, endemic unemployment. Obviously, this doesn’t affect ALL beneficiaries – but for a substantial number, once they’re out of work for awhile they tend to *stay* out of work for quite a lengthy period. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the difficulty of finding a job in some areas of New Zealand [and people not being in a position to uproot their lives and move to another part of the country in pursuit of work], through to the cumulative effect of long absences from the workforce causing an employer to be less likely to hire you, or the acquisition of a criminal record which functions as a serious barrier to employment.
However it happens, it’s a reality for thousands if not tens of thousands of New Zealanders. And it represents a serious waste of New Zealand’s human potential and labour force. Because at the moment, these long-term unemployed are effectively paid a pittance to jump through endless regimens of WINZ-provided quasi-bureaucratic hoops under the guise of nominally searching for often straight-up nonexistent (for them, anyway) work.
What New Zealand First’s ‘New Kiwi Deal’ policy package proposes to do is seriously reduce this waste and improve our communities in the process, by instead employing these beneficiaries on a fair wage to engage in community works projects. This makes use of the surplus labour which these people represent, whilst also providing a sense of purpose to the workers thus employed far in excess of anything a WINZ seminar would be able to manage, and turns a swathe of our social welfare from its present situation of effectively subsidizing poverty and iniquity through to a new purpose of funding much-needed public works and community development.
There’s even quite some precedent for such a scheme both in New Zealand – in the form of the Ministry of Works, and the Works Progress Administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” in America. (You can probably tell rightaway where Winston got the name from).
Now, the reason why I’m citing this in connection with our present postulated “plague” of window-washers is simple. These people are in poverty, have the wherewithal to engage in at least some form of labour (even if what they’re doing at present is not especially socially beneficial nor productive), and are doing so in a form we *don’t* like in order to supplement whatever (presumably welfare-based) income they DO have.
If we actually want to help these people and solve this situation – whilst generating a positive result for the taxpayer – then it seems patently obvious that instead of leaving them to languish at lamp-posts with squirt-bottles in pursuit of narry enough coinage to procure a loaf of bread … we should be employing these folks for fair renumeration to actually do something *productive* with their time for all of us.
This idea will, sadly, never have occurred to Jami-Lee Ross, the National MP behind this present bill – because in his rich person’s world, the problem of “poor people” [and, more especially, *visible* poor people] is one which can simply be swept back under the neoliberal rug through the imposition of ruinous fines upon them should they DARE disturb the car-owning class’s daily commute to and from their labours.
But if we’re interested in solving this issue – GENUINELY solving it rather than simply beating it back and covering it up – then something like what I’m proposing is probably the best way forward.
Anything else which you might happen to hear from the National Party on this issue … is nought but simple Window Washing.