OPINION

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National and Welfare Reform

Friday 15 August 2008, 8:53AM
By J. James
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There is no argument that the NZ welfare system is in need of serious reform, however, what is also in dire need of discussion are the continual draconian and authoritarian ways that politicians on both sides of the floor continue to stereotype and punish those who are on benefits.

 

What is also in need of serious discussion and contemplation are the desk top policies these politicians conjure up that when applied in real life don’t actually work and place people in positions of incredible stress and poverty. These desk top politicians and their middle class bureaucratic advisors often have no real life experience at that level of society and so continue to fail spectacularly in understanding and addressing the needs of those seeking help from WINZ. There is also the arrogant perception and social stereo typing of the types of people applying for benefits.

Lets get real - when you devise an economic system that requires every man woman and child to pay to exist - i.e. the cost of living - then its only fair that some sort of support is provided for times when ‘working’ is not an option. We know the outcome of not having a welfare system and we know the outcome of having a mean spirited one like the US whose policies seem to be Nationals role model

I hereby offer my unemployed self to Mr Key’s office to help draft a humane and fair system that sees the necessities in supporting people in need rather than seeing people as bludgers and in need of punishment which is exactly what the National Party’s welfare policy not surprisingly revealed.

If Nationals concern is only a matter of finance then lets get real – when the dairy/agricultural sectors, to name just two report double digit million dollar windfalls why are taxpayers still subsidising them to the tune of hundreds of millions a year. The welfare bill pales into insignificance at the amount some multi million dollar industries are subsided, it also pales into insignificance when one becomes aware of all the tax many of these million dollar companies continue to dodge on a regular basis.

Why don’t we hear more about them in the news instead of targeting the most vulnerable?

Why are these filthy rich tax dodgers not pursed with the same equal vigour as beneficiaries whose benefits barely covers basic needs of rent, food and power? (and whose money circulates in the community and not sent off shore)

And what about all those NZ companies chucking people out in the street jobless as they greedily eye more lucrative Isles for the lowest of wages to expand their increasing profits.

When politicians talk about the responsibilities of the unemployed the question needs to be asked what responsibly does government take in providing a level of employment for its citizens?

The underlying perception of those in receipt of benefits has for years been one of looser, low life, bludger – when it comes to women however the real talons come out and its revealed that the role of motherhood is somehow less valuable than that of wage earner – in attacking sole parents, its nearly always forgotten that mothering is ‘work’ and that for many women the DPB has been a haven from domestic violence and from economic destitution

Nationals predictable assault only reveals old school deeply entrenched beliefs about motherhood as seen through the eyes of a patriarchal state. Key needs to realise that most sole parents by choice and economic need, gravitate to either education or work as natural progression when their child goes to school.

In this view which many short-sighted and arrogant people/politicians hold, motherhood on the DPB has never been one of value, and its revealing that those who have no other choice but to seek government assistance are targeted as bludgers whose worth goes up immediately they get paid work. Caring for children is still not seen as ‘working’ mothering has no value in that system of beliefs, unless she puts her kids in day care, goes to school and gets a degree that enables her to go ‘care-give’ other peoples kids for money – then her worth goes up – she has value – and has contributed to society

In terms of the financial burden - if men shouldered their responsibility of fathering children and financed their share of the costs, the situation might be different but today just like yester year this responsibility is still lacking and worse, women are following his lead and abdicating their responsibly leaving him with the kids. Currently child support payments by errant parents stand in the billion$

The Inland Revenue Department has more than doubled staff to 214 to deal with the defaulters since 2004, but is under fire for the debt, which has soared from $30 million in 2000 to about $1.2 billion. "

Little is said about this

Little is also said about the way the government via WINZ subsidies large firms who refuse to pay fair wages or uses the ‘causal’ rate to rob workers of their entitlements while forcing them to continue to seek govt assistance in order to make ends meet. The multi million dollar pip fruit industry spring to mind where long hard hours – standing - often times being exposed to toxic chemical residues (sprays) are the only way to achieve some sort of liveable wage at mostly minium wages. There is a reason why the pip fruit industry can’t find workers and it’s not because people are lazy.

And what of all those on the wrong side of 50 who for what ever reason are forced to find work, who are finding that jobs are harder to get at this time in their lives – ageism does exist - are they to be punished also?

What about those workers burnt out by the jobs they are doing or others suffering acute stress and depression and other health issues that come with some jobs?

What about all the refugees who NZ has committed to take that come into the country with no income having lost everything in the war torn countries they have fled from , should we abandon them in order to lighten the welfare load?

What about working for the dole by doing volunteering work?
Why does ‘working’ have to be ‘paid’ work when many have found rewarding roles working part time within community groups who without such ‘free’ support would never be able to do such important community work or offer vital community support.

Way back in 1998 someone in the Nelson/Tasman region calculated the labour of all the volunteers in the district and sent an invoice to the govt for $9 million dollars. This was based on what was then the minimum wage of $7 an hour – imagine that cost today !

Why then could people not ‘work’ within the community and their entire benefit not just a portion be seen as ‘wage’?

This is an area where politicians need to take their blinders off

The current series of hoops that the unemployed have to jump through is demoralising, degrading, insulting and out of touch with reality - yet the staff do it with vigour which is one reason why there are so many on the sickness benefit - the stress of having to jump through the continual hoops in order to be able to continue to pay your rent and buy a little food and pay for luxuries like power can be over whelming especially after continual job rejections in a tight job market. Even WINZ employment brokers struggle to find jobs to offer those unemployed and yet it’s inferred that there is something ‘wrong’ with someone who can’t secure paid employment.

And then there are the attitudes of WINZ staff, a catch 22 in some places as the frustration of people seeking assistance spills over - the constant with holding of information to what is available or what one is entitled to

Jenny Shipley may have cut benefits in the 90’s but they have never fully been reinstated and there are first hand accounts of individuals on both unemployed and sickness benefits left to languish by uncaring staff on $7 a week after basic essentials are paid.

Temporary Additional support is a farce and often very hard to get causing more stress and worry than help

And what of the abatement rate. Every beneficiary knows that the minute any extra money is earnt – given that one fronts up and tells them - because the system forces people to withhold information in order to make ends meet – money is lost, - for instance if $80 is earnt money comes off the accommodation supplement instantly – if in part time work the more hours worked the less income all round – If one were allowed to earn $100 before any part of the benefit was cut then one would have more of an incentive - given that actual work is available

Given that in areas like Nelson/Tasman the weekly job pages are getting smaller and smaller punishing someone for not being able to get a job becomes more than punishment it become an abuse of their human rights.

Article 24 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states

“Every one has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing”

Speaking of rights what about the right to be able to choose your own job?

The NZ government is a signatory on the International Covenant on Economics, Social Cultural Rights

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.

2. The steps to be taken by a State Party to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include technical and vocational guidance and training programmes, policies and techniques to achieve steady economic, social and cultural development and full and productive employment under conditions safeguarding fundamental political and economic freedoms to the individual.

NZ is also signatory to the International Labour Convention which states in article 1.
 

Each member of the ILO which ratifies this convention undertakes to suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour in all its forms within the shortest possible period.

In Article 2 it 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.


Our government is also signatory on The Convention of the rights of the child, in its preamble its states
 

“Recalling that, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations has proclaimed that childhood is entitled to special care and assistance, - Convinced that the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community,


NZ is also a signatory to the International Bill of Human rights which states
 

Article 22. Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
 

Article 23. 1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
 

And from the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights Article 8 sec 3a
3.
(a) No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour;

Given that our economic system demands that each person pays to exist the above rights are essential in order to support those who for whatever reasons find that they cannot secure employment or loose their employment through illness or other means – it is a marker of a humane society even though its freely admitted that the abusers of these rights are in most cases the governments themselves.

The above rights and freedoms came from an article I wrote in early 1998 which showed that by ratification of various articles people in NZ did have rights, however I am not versed in the law so am not sure why or how these rights have been superseded with the employment contract one is forced to sign at WINZ on receipt of a benefit - people do have obligations to WINZ but they also have rights as outlined above.

Are the government abusing those rights outlined above?

The threat of penalty if one cannot secure a job within an allotted time seems out of step with the rights outlined in the International Labour convention for instance – and ones basic rights outlined in the Bill of Rights and the UN human rights - those more versed in law may be able to explain how obligations to WINZ supercedes ones rights as outlined above.

The Welfare system in NZ does need an over haul - it needs to be bought into the real world where supporting people, treating them as people as opposed to bludgers and ensuring that their needs and basic human rights are met – in other words changing the abusive climate of WINZ and political stereo typing will ensure that giving the best will result in the best outcomes for all. Note - (not all case managers are abusive - however most are constrained by a set of codes and policy)

Liaising with those already on benefits especially long term ones, to see what is really needed is a priority if real change is to be made rather than the desk top policies each govt continues to implement.

Key’s ‘unrelenting focus’ on getting people back into paid work is a two way street – it starts and ends with the governments responsibly to provide good conditions for business to flourish and keep them in the country in the first place.

If NZ is to have a welfare system lets make one that works because it is investment in people that mark the true success of a society not simply the GDP