No excuse for WINZ’s mistreatment of people in need

Yesterday one woman’s story blew the lid on our government’s treatment of beneficiaries. Sarah Wilson’s post on her ongoing struggles just to get Work and Income to do their job properly and give her the support she needs went viral, and as the comments flooded in, more stories emerged.

Stories about how humiliating it is to be sitting in a WINZ office when they ring the bell and applaud people who find jobs – even if they’re in a meeting with you at the time, and you’re in tears. Stories about literally having to record yourself delivering paperwork to prove you got it in on time, because it’s been lost, again, and your support has been stopped. Stories about puking on the floor because the next available home visit was four weeks away – so it was drag yourself in to the office, or starve.

It’s shocking, and yet unsurprising. We all know the stories of WINZ stuff-ups, the labyrinthine bureaucracy beneficiaries have to navigate to prove they’re worthy. But when the stories achieve a critical mass like this, it tells us unequivocally that there’s a bigger issue.

The best-case scenario is that Work and Income is staffed by people who are trying their darnedest to help but just have a massive blind spot when it comes to the realities of life for their ‘clients’ (and are really, really absent-minded with paperwork). The worst-case scenario is that every single one of them is on a satanic mission to make life hell for people like Sarah.

Obviously, the reality’s going to be somewhere in the middle. Some individuals are doing their best to help. Some individuals are doing their darnedest to get people off benefits, any way they can, because the numbers are how this government ‘proves’ that its reforms are ‘working’.

The big lesson to take away from this, though, is that stories like Sarah’s aren’t accidental.

There doesn’t have to be a big scary anti-beneficiary conspiracy to explain the mistreatment doled out to vulnerable people. There just has to be an attitude of ‘beneficiaries aren’t worth helping’. From that comes everything: a lack of basic processes (people have to record themselves handing over their paperwork!) a lack of basic empathy (ringing bells!) a lack of doing serious, constructive things which would actually help people like Sarah get back into work.

But if you want a conspiracy, think about this: one of the first changes this government made to social welfare in 2009 was to cut the Training Incentive Allowance. It made so little sense: why remove a benefit which helps parents upskill themselves to find better jobs to support their families?

Could it be the numbers? Could it be that when you help a solo mum through a nursing degree, you’re ‘letting’ her stay on a benefit for three more years – but if you make her life unbearable, until even an insecure, no-benefits job in a café, juggling childcare and hoping the power company’s kind, seems like a better alternative, you can get her off the benefit now?

In her post, Sarah says

I’m so tired of this. I almost want to force myself to go back to work because trying to stay on a benefit is more stressful than working fulltime with a debilitating chronic illness.

I have to ask: is that their point?

Sarah has now written a follow-up post.

Related reading: Frank Mcskasy has previously covered the epic piles of paperwork WINZ requires ‘jobseekers’ to fill out.

Happy International (Working) Women’s Day!

The official theme of International Women’s Day this year is “Inspiring Change”. It’s a little vague, a little aspirational, not too confrontational – fairly typical for this kind of awareness-raising exercise.

But it is 2014, and it’s an election year, and the way we talk about women, and women’s work, does have the potential to inspire change in New Zealand.

Right now Kristine Bartlett, with the support of the Service and Food Workers’ Union, is breaking new ground. She’s worked in elder care for years, doing incredibly important, physically and emotionally demanding work, for $14.32 an hour. I think everyone can agree those kind of wages are pitiful. But the argument is bigger than that.  It asks not ‘should a woman be paid the same as a man for the same work?’ – a question which, I’m sorry to say, is still not settled for some employers – but this:

Should a traditional ‘woman’s job’ be paid the same as a traditional ‘man’s job’ which involves the same skills and experience?

There are difficulties and complexities and all kinds of side issues which get raised – Kristine’s employer Terranova just wants to make the whole issue about how much funding they get, and a lot of armchair experts will opine that it’s comparing apples and oranges and this lets us ignore the fact that a lot of traditional ‘men’s work’ gets paid a lot better than ‘women’s work’.

But the fact remains that we’re talking about ‘women’s work’. We’re talking about the terrible wages a woman-dominated workforce is paid to do a vital job in our society. Take the gender issue out of the picture, and we’re talking about how capitalism exploits people who have such compassion and caring in their hearts that they’ll look after others for $14.32 an hour – and that’s not right.

And as Jan Logie has noted in her blog, our current government has a terrible track record on ‘women’s issues’ – along with everything else. On this International Women’s Day, let’s inspire a change – of government!

(I do note that the concept of a “women’s day” isn’t perfect.  There are still a lot of women who are marginalised or erased in discussions of “women’s issues”, and a lot of people who reject the man/woman gender divide.  Their lives deserve recognition too.)

How to build better beggars

In the United States, the street beggars have great patter.

Despite what South Park would have us believe, when you walk down the main street of a major city, you don’t get hordes of people shiftlessly shaking cups at you, asking for “change?”

There are a few.  But far more often, there’s a story.  I did two tours of Iraq and I just need to get my clothes dry at the laundromat.  I need 20c for the bus, or $5 to get the train to where my kids live. My girlfriend’s out in the parking lot, I just want to get us some chicken.  They are practiced, and polite, and very aware that they’re approaching a young white woman on the street and need to ensure they’re utterly unthreatening, because the lives of poor men and especially poor black men probably aren’t worth crap if a pretty white girl complains to the cops around the corner.

When a country has the kind of inequality the US does, people get really, really good at begging for money.

On the same rainy day I meet the Iraq veteran – and I have no reason to doubt that he’s served his country, and been tossed aside for his trouble – John Kerry, the secretary of state, is on MSNBC talking to Andrea Mitchell about what’s been happening in Ukraine.  He speaks in admiring tones about how the people of Ukraine have risen up against their oppressor, how they’ve had enough of a leader who sleeps in mansions and lives a life of luxury.  And to an outsider, it sounds so disingenuous.  Does Kerry not see the parallels with his own country?  Where a presidential candidate can forget how many homes he owns,  while the people who are fortunate enough to have employment waiting tables are entitled to just $2.13 an hour?

The United States is a nation thoroughly captured by the idea that we can all pull ourselves up with our own bootstraps.  That a government safety net, universal healthcare, even the right to vote is something some people just don’t deserve.

New Zealand has inequality, too.  But we still have some of the basics in place – our current government’s efforts notwithstanding – and I have faith we can turn things around with a strong progressive government, starting in 2014.

The politics of nastiness

Is this election year going to be the most vicious in recent history?

There’s always a bit of argy-bargy in politics, and sometimes it’s personal.  Despite the best of intentions, it’s impossible for people’s families and backgrounds to never be part of the conversation, because often they themselves bring it up – whether it’s John Key growing up in a state house or David Cunliffe being the son of a country minister, Holly Walker talking about her own experiences of motherhood, Darien Fenton speaking publicly about her past struggle with addiction, the personal story is everywhere in politics.  And sometimes this means it gets turned into a weapon by the other side (whichever side you’re on.)

But there’s surely a line between personal attacks which can maybe be excused by the political argument behind them, and, well, just plain calling someone an idiot, or a “sensitive wee sausage”.

And I don’t know why the National Party have decided to cross that line, multiple times, in the past week.  I really don’t know why John Key would cross it today after the Mean-Girls-style attack on Metiria Turei backfired, getting her pride of place on Campbell Live having a nice chat about how normal and inoffensive she is.

The first assumption is desperation.  Are National seeing bad internal polling?  Have they run out of policy ideas?

The second is more Machiavellian.  Is there some cunning long game in play?  Is it the political equivalent of a Guy Ritchie film where all the seemingly random threads will tie together in an astounding knockdown conclusion?

I honestly don’t know.  So let’s hash it out in the comments!

It’s past time for fair employment laws

After David Cunliffe’s state of the nation speech at the end of January, the spotlight was, appropriately, on the big policy announcement he made: the Best Start package for Kiwi kids.  (It wasn’t the friendliest spotlight, unfortunately.)

But there was a sentence at the end which hasn’t had a lot of pickup, and which could – I hope – point at a truly revolutionary policy on the horizon.

David said:

There will be opportunities in all our regions and decent work based on fair employment laws.

Fair employment laws.  We haven’t had a lot of that lately.  The ability of workers to organise and to bargain collectively – the best way in the world to raise wages and conditions – was shattered by the Employment Contracts Act, and while Labour’s Employment Relations Act repaired some of the damage, you can still see the effects today.

We’ve got a society where you have to be hush-hush about what you get paid because your co-workers are competition, not colleagues.

We’ve got a society where there’s a myth around individual agreements – they give you the chance to negotiate the best contract for you!  Maybe that works for the senior managers, or for people with really specialised skills, but for your average clerical worker or shop hand?  Here’s the agreement, take it or leave it – and oh yes, you’re on a 90-day trial.

And we’ve got a society where people don’t know their rights at work – or don’t have the power to stand up for those rights – and certainly don’t have the resources to hold bad employers to account.

National have introduced 90-day trials, youth rates, and now they have a bill going through the House which will take away the right to rest breaks, protection for vulnerable workers,  and weaken your ability to challenge unfair dismissals.

And let’s not forget Jami-Lee Ross’ private members bill – which was supported by National and Act at the first reading, but fortunately failed – which would have allowed employers to lock out workers and bring in temporary labour.  Effectively, starving the workers out until they accept whatever deal the employer deigned to offer.

National’s unfair employment laws benefit a few at the top – the bosses who are happy to turn a profit by grinding their workers down.  But that’s no basis for a happy, healthy society, and a strong, growing economy.

I think the argument’s simple enough: when people are earning enough to meet their needs, when they feel respected, when they’re getting ahead under their own steam, we all benefit.  Individuals benefit from less stressful lives.  Employers benefit from having a more productive team at work.  Our families and communities benefit.

A Labour-Green coalition in 2014 can build a completely new framework for industrial relations in New Zealand.  A framework where everyone gets treated with real fairness and dignity, and which recognises that there’s a basic power imbalance between workers and employers, especially in the hard financial times when unemployment is high.

And I can’t wait to hear more about how they’re going to make that happen.