A situation of deep concern recently came to light regarding a former Work and Income NZ (WINZ) Job Seeker (who, for identity protection purposes, we shall call “X”).
X reliably complied with all WINZ obligations to actively look for and apply for suitable employment, and declared income received from different ‘gigs’ from time to time. But when a former employer (who we shall call “E”) was late in paying X’s remuneration, the Ministry of Social Development’s (MSD’s) “Integrity Intervention Centre” implied by written correspondence that X was violating reporting obligations, and demanded proof of earnings.
E was unable to comply promptly with MSD’s time-frame, so X sought and was given a time extension. E finally supplied MSD with the earnings evidence which showed X was innocent of any wrongdoing. This led to MSD apologizing for the inconvenience caused.
Month’s later, however, WINZ notified X that, due to a “return to work”, (a) X had been overpaid resulting in X becoming indebted to WINZ for a very considerable sum of money (relatively speaking, for a 'precariat' with job and income insecurity), and (b) X’s WINZ payments had been retrospectively stopped (by two weeks). This left X in the perilous position of not knowing how the WINZ debt would be repaid, or how to cover living expenses. WINZ gave no detail as to how or why it had reached its decision, leaving X to speculate it could only have been in relation to the matter which MSD had been in contact about months earlier. Worse, WINZ’s first available appointment for X to request a review of the decision was over a week away. This all left X very distressed.
X calculated that with a WINZ weekly pay of $286.65, and any extra earnings per week capped at $80.00, this totalled a maximum allowable ‘Job Seeker’ income of $366.65 p/week. This was the equivalent of an appallingly low $9.16 p/hr – pitifully short of the lawful minimum wage of $15.75 p/hr (or $630 p/week), and less than half of a New Zealand living wage of $20.20 p/hr ($808 p/week). The ‘debt’ that WINZ now demanded amounted to a tax on X’s extra earnings significantly higher than 33% - higher than the highest tax rate for the richest income earners in New Zealand.
Demonstrably, WINZ is incapable of dealing fairly with Job Seekers in our modern “gig” economy. X had already suffered a litany of WINZ’s and associated government agencies’ repeated harassment, incompetency and abject failures to help provide a meaningful income safety net. So, in utter frustration, anger and disgust, rather than contest WINZ’s decision, X chose instead to cut all ties with WINZ: better to live freely and trust in a ‘safety net’ from the Universe than live as a slave under a dehumanizing, inept and oppressive WINZ regime.
Two points make this even more disturbing. First, is the knowledge that X’s story is just one of a vast ocean of others: each more/less deplorable; and all leaving an unnecessary and shameful stain on our Government’s score card, and on Aotearoa’s reputation as a compassionate, egalitarian nation of high values and ideals.
Second, one wonders how many like X have decoupled from WINZ and evaporated into the abyss of whānau who are off WINZ and employment radars? The concern, as economist Prof. Richard Wolff and other experts warn, is that Governments are then able to manipulate employment/ beneficiary statistics and present them in the best possible light (but misrepresenting the truth) to the public.
Shouldn’t we be doing better than this, New Zealand?
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