Three-tier welfare system ‘lacks dignity’

The line between the haves and the have-nots is more fractured now thanks to policies dividing up the have-nots as well, Dileepa Fonseka reports

The situation would have been different for Himari* if she had been a New Zealander stuck in Japan instead of the other way around. 

Japan hasn't historically been kind to migrants, but as the Covid-19 situation worsened, their Government included migrants and temporary workers in its stimulus payout of 100,000 yen ($1454) to every person in the country.

Himari is a Japanese citizen in New Zealand on a working visa who lost her job before lockdown and wasn't able to find another one. She is at the bottom of what Green MP Golriz Ghahraman terms a "three-tier" benefit system.

At the top of that list are those who lost jobs during the pandemic, making them eligible for a $490 per week benefit payment over 12 weeks.

In the middle tier are a class of welfare beneficiaries paid $250 a week because they lost their jobs before March 1 and their unemployment is seen as unrelated to Covid-19.

"The changes and the composition of the benefit system is a political decision rather than an economic decision in almost every regard."

Rounding out the bottom tier are unemployed migrants - many of whom serve in industries heavily affected by the coronavirus, can't access benefits or are legally barred from filling new jobs. They are eligible for almost nothing.

"They're not even getting what's on the second tier," Ghahraman said. 

"Our system has this extra bit of prejudice which says that if you're on one kind of visa here working that you don't qualify even for an emergency benefit when a pandemic happens."

Ghahraman and others, including former finance minister Steven Joyce, advocated for the Government to exercise powers available to it during a pandemic under s64 of the Social Security Act to grant a special emergency benefit, but it hasn't happened.

Equally, the Government hasn't exercised new immigration powers that would allow out-of-work migrants - many of whom are tied to their employers or particular industries - to take up jobs in areas of labour shortage like the primary industries.

Infometrics economist Brad Olsen said there was no economic reason to create a multi-tiered benefit system the way the Government had.

"The changes and the composition of the benefit system is a political decision rather than an economic decision in almost every regard.

"I certainly do see the system as the Government trying to dictate who seemingly is worthy of more support than others."

For starters, the line between Covid and non-Covid related job losses wasn't an easy one to draw even where highly publicised post-lockdown layoffs - like those seen at The Warehouse - were concerned.

"Are those Covid-related job losses?....or - because The Warehouse has said they were already going to restructure - are they just normal unemployment?"

'Go to your embassy'

A form of food parcel assistance provided during lockdown for migrants will be expanded to an in-kind form of assistance by July

Food parcel assistance has also been criticised as simply a less efficient way of getting help to people because it requires a large physical operation to package and distribute (in Auckland's case the entire Spark Arena was used) while monetary assistance could be wired straight into a person's bank account.

Ghahraman said handing out food parcels was the kind of "thing you do for children" and lacked dignity.

"That's why it really does reveal prejudice because it doesn't make practical sense."

However, even food parcel assistance has been difficult for foreigners to access in some cases. 

While citizens of Australia and New Zealand were able to access nearly $1500 in 'no questions asked' assistance from the Japanese Government - whether they had lost their jobs or not - Himari could barely pry open our Government's door to access beans and staple foods

When she phoned the local Civil Defence for food packet assistance they told her to call up the Japanese Embassy. They didn't suggest a food bank she could go to either. 

That reliance on embassies to support people who are tax residents here is problematic. The Japanese Government, like many others, views foreigners who pay tax in other countries as mainly the responsibility of the countries they are tax-resident in.

"I understand that we don't [have] access to benefits in normal times because it is part of the conditions. We are not citizens or residents. I'm very fine with that," Himari said.

"But this is a once-in-a-generation once-in-a-century situation and borders are closed everywhere. Even for transfer."

However, she also counted herself lucky because her work visa was an open one.

It meant she could apply for any job she wanted - without a labour market test - because her visa status wasn't tied to an employer, industry or region. 

She felt lucky to not be in the situation other migrants had found themselves in where they were unable to change jobs and were slowly burning through their savings. 

Himari was thankful she at least had a shot at being able to work legally and buy food for herself if she could find somebody to employ her.

"If something small had been different [I] could have been one of them. That's how I feel."

*This migrant requested an alias be used

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