Depth psychology and New Zealand society
Centre for Psycho-sociological Development
Home PageE-mail

Letter to Prime Minister Bolger and the reply.

7 June 1997

The Rt Hon J Bolger
Prime Minister
House of Representatives

Dear Prime Minister,

The Centre finds disturbing the apparent inconsistency on the part of both yourself and the government you lead, with regard to the application of international agreements.

On today's noon news bulletin of National Radio, you were quoted in your address to the Institute of International Affairs, as saying:

"New Zealand wants to see negotiations this year on a treaty to halt the production of the materials used to make nuclear weapons."

The Centre considers that by advocating such a treaty the New Zealand government would then ratify such an agreement and would uphold it.

The Centre would like to draw to your attention an existing international agreement, the Forced Labour Convention,1930, with 129 countries as signatories, which the New Zealand government ratified in 1938.

The proposed legislation forcing the unemployed to work against their will is a breach of that agreement. Not only will future legislation breach the provisions of the Convention, but your government is currently in breach of that agreement by withholding unemployment benefits from those unemployed persons who refuse to work against their will at the direction of the New Zealand Employment Service.

Despite claims from the New Zealand Department of Labour that the Committee of Experts of the International Labour Organisation have held that such work is not forced labour, the Centre has obtained copies of the ILO's own records which prove that that is not in fact the case.

Article 2.1 of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, states:

"For the purposes of this Convention the term "forced or compulsory labour" shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily".

As a result of approaches to the ILO, the Centre has received faxes from that body of its own records of decision making in this area.

To quote from the Direct Request from the ILO to the Government of Chile in 1996 in respect of its "work for the dole" legislation:

"On several occasions the Committee has observed that the loss of the right to benefit under these conditions is equivalent to a penalty within the meaning of the Convention and it requested the Government to take the necessary measures to ensure compliance with the Convention in this respect."

The Centre would very much appreciate your response to the argument that, while you advocate international agreements abroad as a means of upholding civilised behaviour, you and your government are apparently in breach of at least one major human rights convention at home.

Please find attached a copy of the article disclosing the withdrawal of benefit from the unemployed in the Nelson - Motueka area.

Yours sincerely,




10 July 1997

Mr J M Stevenson
Centre for Psycho-Sociological Development
7 McCurdy Street

Dear Mr Stevenson

Thank you for your letter of 7 June 1997, which relates to the effect of ILO Convention 29 (Forced Labour) on New Zealand's current and proposed policies in relation to unemployment benefits.

You suggest that the proposed Community Wage Scheme (CWS), under which work will be required of people receiving certain benefits, will breach the provisions of ILO Convention 29.

I must stress that, at this stage, the final policy parameters for the CWS and the method of implementing CWS have not yet been finalised. It is therefore inaccurate to say that the CWS will breach the Convention. I can also assure you that the provisions of ILO Convention 29 are being considered in the formulation of the CWS, to ensure that it does not in fact breach the Convention's obligations.

Officials working on these issues are aware of the previous statements made by the ILO Committee of Experts, including the observations that have been made in respect of Chile in 1996.

The second point raised in your letter, is that although the New Zealand government advocates international agreements as a method of upholding "civil behaviour", it is currently in breach of international obligations as a result of the current obligations on recipients of specified benefits under the "work-test" provisions of the Social Security Act 1964. In support of your suggestion, you have provided me with a copy of a newspaper article which discusses action taken by the New Zealand Employment Service to require unemployed workers to take work that they have been offered or risk losing part of their benefits.

The powers held by the New Zealand Employment Service, in conjunction with New Zealand Income Support, are to reduce levels of benefits when a person refuses to take work that has been offered to them, without "good and sufficient reason". From the information contained in the newspaper article it would appear that the New Zealand Employment Service were merely warning job seekers that if they failed to accept the work offered to them, without a "good and sufficient reason" then it was possible the level of their benefits could be affected.

I do not accept, however, that the `work-test' provisions are in breach of any international obligations, as they only apply essentially when a person is voluntarily unemployed, ie they have failed to take efforts to find or maintain employment. This does not come within the definition of the term "forced or compulsory labour" as used in the Convention. Rather, it is an issue which is dealt with, and supported by, the contents of another ILO Convention, No. 44, which deals with the issue of entitlement to unemployment benefits. Convention 29 needs to be read in the light of Convention 44.

Thank you for conveying your concerns to me. I can assure you that the New Zealand government places considerable weight on the importance of international obligations, and will continue to do so in the future development of government policy.

Yours faithfully

Rt Hon J B Bolger

Prime Minister

7 McCurdy Street, Dunedin 9011, New Zealand    
Phone : (03) 476 7372       Fax : (03) 476 7372
Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.