Migrants plead for emergency benefits under lockdown

Union-affiliated groups are asking the Government to 'be kind' and use its emergency powers to grant migrants benefit payments during lockdown

Twenty-three year old Shivam Kanojia was driving trucks with his employer in Auckland when the country hit Level 4 and his employer fired him.

"Everything was going good before the lockdown," Kanojia said.

"We were receiving good money as well, but now it's all f****d up," he said.

He started lockdown with $1000 in savings, but even though the country went into hibernation the bills kept coming. Kanojia is on a work visa and isn't eligible for any welfare benefit to pull him through. So he has to rely on the kindness of his friends and his landlord.

Kanojia owes both groups around $3000.

"Even they're not having money, but still they're supporting me," Kanojia said.

He doesn't want to think about what will happen if lockdown stretches on for too long and he's forced to sleep on the street. 

"It's getting cold now. It rains twice a day over here," Kanojia said. 

A spokesman for the Union Network of Migrants, Mandeep Bela, said another migrant he helped had spent his first night in lockdown sleeping on the side of the road after he travelled from Wellington to Auckland for a job, then discovered that job no longer existed.

Bela has been pleading the case of unemployed migrants to anybody who will listen.

Shivam Kanojia is $3000 in debt. Photo: Supplied

Not just for the benefit of the migrants themselves, but for the public health issues involved in helping people to stay in one place and not spread disease.

More than 2000 people have signed an online petition asking for Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni to use s64 of the Social Security Act to grant temporary migrants an emergency benefit.

The law allows the minister to "grant emergency benefits to people who would not otherwise be entitled to be granted emergency benefits" after a domestic epidemic management notice has been issued.

It only applies for the period a domestic epidemic management notice is in force, and for any period afterwards that the minister thinks is "reasonable".

Bela said he had not received a response to his letters or the petition from Sepuloni's office.

A spokeswoman for Sepuloni said Cabinet was "actively discussing" the issue of benefits for migrants.

"These are discussions that go across portfolios, and require collaboration, and consultation," she said.

Green Party immigration spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman said she raised the issue from the very early days of lockdown.

"We've kind-of learned through the crisis that we are capable of making really big changes really, really quickly," Ghahraman said

"And [we've learned] just how important it is to make sure everyone is taken care of," she said.

What about wage subsidies?

Wage subsidies are one form of assistance migrants are eligible for, but there are ways people can slip through the cracks on those too.

Kanojia's employer told him he had decided not to apply for wage subsidies. Which meant Kanojia couldn't claim those subsidies.

Another migrant, Jot*, isn't eligible for the subsidy for a different reason.

Jot found a job in Browns Bay after a long ordeal with his former employer where he and another migrant alleged exploitation, then tried to get their lost wages back.

His employer sold the business while the case was going on, which effectively nullified Jot's ability to seek damages.

Mandeep Bela is confident there'll still be jobs for these migrants after lockdown. Photo: Supplied 

Despite that setback Jot managed to work his way to a new job which he was due to start a few days after lockdown. Because that job never started he is not eligible for a wage subsidy.

Like Kanojia he is now reliant on the goodwill of cash-strapped friends to cover food and his rent bill of $150 per week.

He said if the Government could find a way to give him $200 a week for a short period it would cover his groceries, rent, and help relieve the burden on his flatmates too.

"They're struggling as well, but I have no option at the moment. That's why they're helping me out," Jot said.

Ghahraman described ingrained resistance to giving benefits to temporary migrants like Kanojia and Jot as "one of those last old world gaps in the system that we've held onto". 

By 'old world' she meant 'pre-Covid' world. A mentality from a time before the state started doling out billions in subsidies to keep people safe and employed during lockdown. 

"It [the mentality] absolutely needs to change. People are stranded here," she said.

'I need a job'

For the second time in six months Manisha*, a healthcare student, has been left in the lurch.

The first was when the Kiwi Institute of Training and Education (KITE) was shut by NZQA last year.

"The college closed suddenly at midnight. So we just heard the news in the morning that [our] college is closed," Manisha said.

It was a tough time. Manisha's visa was tied to her educational institute. She moved to Whangarei., spent more money enrolling in a different course then moved to Hamilton in March to study and take up a job there.

"Suddenly the lockdown. I didn't get the job in Hamilton," Manisha said.

Her husband can't work because he is in New Zealand on a visitor's visa. They have a five-month-old child.

"So I need a job, and I'm looking for jobs in Hamilton. It's a very big city and all the agencies are closed at this time so I'm suffering because I'm a jobseeker at the moment," Manisha said.

Sepuloni's spokeswoman said migrants like Manisha could access help through local Civil Defence units and community operations being run in local areas. They could also go to their consulate.

Civil Defence Emergency Management Director Sarah Stuart-Black said groups were able to provide assistance to migrants on temporary visas. The CDEM groups were allocated $30m on Wednesday, which would go towards things like food parcels and temporary accommodation.

Stuart-Black said some migrants were also being checked-on and called by health authorities.

None of the people on temporary visas Newsroom spoke to had received a call from the Government or knew about the CDEM groups.

Bela said he had also never heard of calls being made to temporary migrants. The emergency centres too, were news to him.

He said that was the problem. Most temporary workers wouldn't know where these CDEM groups were or how they could reach them, while a benefit could be accessed easily online.

'I can't even go back to my country'

Few migrants have the ability to leave. With travel bans at the New Zealand border and lockdowns of some sort in most countries, getting a flight out of the country is nearly impossible and may remain so for some time.

Bela said petitioners were asking for emergency benefits to be made available for up to six months to allow migrants time to find new jobs in an uncertain economic environment. 

He remained confident there would still be a need for migrants to fill many jobs after lockdown, despite forecast figures of double-digit unemployment. 

Gharaman said retraining huge sections of the population quickly would be difficult. So too would be moving people from one area of the country to the other if regional shortages in industries like horticulture popped up. Temporary migrants could fill that gap, she noted.

Even if that gap were there to be filled that might not stop some from leaving. Manisha said she has had too much "bad luck" in this country to stick around too long. If she can serve out her open work visa she'll try to earn enough money to pay off some of her debts and then leave.

For Kanojia any decision to leave New Zealand might be more time-dependent.

In the second week of lockdown he learned his mother in India had been diagnosed with cancer.

Doctors did not expect her to make it past July, he said.

"I can't even go back to my country", Kanojia said.

*These migrants requested that either their first name or aliases be used

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