The office: a workspace of my own

The battle for decent working conditions has been one of the PSA’s most enduring concerns.

Hot20desking OJO20Rex20500For most of its 100 year history, the PSA has battled governments and business groups who begrudged the money spent on public services and public servants. Public servants were not only poorly paid but often forced to work in overcrowded and unhealthy offices.

In Remedy for Present Evils, the history of the PSA, historian Bert Roth writes about the infamous “Tomato House” where many Wellington public servants worked in the 1930s. It was “described as 'a compromise between a hot-house and a tin shed erected by amateur carpenters'.”

It wasn’t only Wellington public servants who were badly housed. In 1949 the PSA Journal reported that public servants in Rotorua were forced to work in ugly, ramshackle, overcrowded buildings.

“The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research occupies rooms on the top floor of an old clubhouse of Motutara golf course. Public confusion is illustrated on the office door by a notice reading: “Green fees not, repeat not, paid here.”

The situation was no better in the 1950s. In 1954 the journal ran a cover story on the appalling working conditions for Hamilton public servants. In one office, 41 staff were crammed into one room where in summer the average temperature was 27°C “and this in in spite of open windows, two exhaust fans, a ceiling fan and a couple of portable fans operating continuously”

One clerk had his desk in the strong room – “ventilation comes from a hole as big as a brick nearly the ceiling and from the door which must remain open”.


Hostel life

For young public servants living in public service hostels, overcrowding was just as bad when they left work. In 1965 the Public Service Journal reported that “in most cases the residents are sleeping in multiple bedrooms. In one case, as many as eight beds are crowded into one room.”

The average age of the public servants was 18. They earned on average 10 pounds a week, of which 60 percent went on hostel fees.

In 1966 the PSA started working with the State Services Commission to develop a Standard Code of for Physical Working Conditions. However, as the journal observed: “The big problem concerning the Association is how the code, when completed, is to be policed.”

By the 1990s, a standard code was obviously still not being followed. PSA members in Gore reported in 1994 that in the Children’s and Young Person’s Office was overcrowded and like an oven when the sun poured in, making work for the six staff well nigh impossible.

“It would be no surprise to see the office appear in TheGuinness Book of Records under one of two listings: as either New Zealand's most crowded office, or the greatest number of failed attempts to do something about it.”

However, in a following issue of the Journal, State Insurance members working in their flash new offices in Lambton Quay disputed Gore’s claim to be the most overcrowded.

“When sitting doing work here, there is approximately one foot between you and the person behind you, and we do not get any blazing sun; we get no natural light at all!”

Still, they did have a desk. With the trend to save money by hot-desking, future public servants may well have no personal space at all.


This article is from the June 2013 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.