Unemployment in New Zealand, 1875-1914 : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Philosophy in Economics at Massey University

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Unemployment, although a common feature of economic and social life in colonial New Zealand, has received little attention from historians or economists for the period before 1920. While construction of a reliable index of unemployment is not possible from available data, an intensive analysis of published and other official sources establishes the significance of unemployment. The decade of the 1880's, following as it did years of large scale immigration and marked as it was by little overall economic growth, drew attention to the insecurity of employment for many skilled and unskilled workmen. Agitation, though evidenced frequently enough was not sufficient in the absence of an organised labour movement, to move policy. Nevertheless as part of an overall move towards a regulative role in many economic and social spheres, Government formalised procedures for coping with unemployment. The activities of the Labour Bureaux in assisting unemployed to find jobs became an important part of the labour market, and assisted the co-operative works scheme of completing necessary public works. The thesis suggests that it is this regulative approach of Government which is the significant feature. Other periods and societies have had a more welfare-oriented approach to unemployment. The ideology of work in a growing colonial economy was fiercely against any form of pauperisation, or even long term support. Unemployment, apart from apparent cyclical influences in the 1880's and less certainly 1903-1907, was largely of a seasonal or frictional variety. Availability of seasonal work in areas surrounding most towns absorbed even skilled workmen who lacked employment for summer months. However, winter and any slackening of public construction works, brought high levels of unemployment to many towns. Often, these problems were exacerbated by new immigrants entering the job market. Because the fluctuations in employment were so localised, the efforts of the Labour Department in developing a national labour market were appropriate though not uniformly successful. These efforts were not geared to find skilled employment where this was desired in many cases, nor was female unemployment adequately catered for. Assisting mobility and identifying employment opportunities were important contributions of the Department of Labour. Government also played a limited role as an employer of unemployment workers. No government of the period, central or local, was clearly and unambiguously in favour of providing work as a means of combatting unemployment. Although the co-operative works system had as one of its functions the provision of a "buffer" for male unemployment, the system cannot be considered purely as a relief work mechanism. The last two decades of the period are marked by the articulation and implementation of the problems and policies identified during the 1880's.
New Zealand, Unemployment, History