Sanctions, Sanctions, Sanctions

Work and Income has developed a culture of punishing beneficiaries, in most cases unlawfully.

Recently, a story emerged of Work and Income issuing a sanction on a woman after she went on a couple of Tinder dates in which her date paid for dinner and a movie. After the allegations were raised with Work and Income, they stated the reasoning had been miscommunicated by the case manager, and her benefit had actually been stopped due to allegations she had been living with a partner and had failed to attend two meetings which they had arranged. The beneficiary states she never received any communications from Work and Income regarding either meeting, an investigation, or the upcoming sanction. She also affirmed that she keeps on top of her communications with MSD, and makes sure to keep track of any mail, email and phone calls which come in.

There are standards Work and Income need to meet if they wish to institute a sanction against somebody. The Social Security Act lays out the requirements for notices which must be given prior to the commencement of a sanction. A notice must be given:

 

(a) stating that the beneficiary has failed to comply with a specified obligation under this Act; and

(b) specifying the nature of that non-compliance; and

(c) stating that, on the basis of that non-compliance, the chief executive is reducing, suspending, or cancelling the benefit payable to the beneficiary; and

(d) specifying a date on which the reduction, suspension, or cancellation is to take effect, and, in the case of a reduction or suspension, the nature and duration of the reduction or suspension; and

(e) stating that the beneficiary has 5 working days from the giving of the notice to dispute the reduction, suspension, or cancellation; and

(f) advising the beneficiary to contact the department if the beneficiary wants to dispute or discuss the decision to reduce or suspend or cancel the benefit; and

(g) containing a clear statement of the beneficiary’s right, under section 10A, to apply for a review of the decision, and of the procedure for applying for a review.

 

Despite how clear this section of the Act is, I’ve never seen a sanction notice which complies with it. Primarily, sanction notices fail to meet the requirement of subsection (a), which requires the failure to meet an obligation under the Act to be specified. This means a reference to the Act, not a vague description of what the case manager believes to have happened. This is particularly relevant to the Radio NZ article, as Work and Income do not, in the article, specify the sections of the Act which the beneficiary is alleged to have contravened. If they had identified these sections in a notice to her, they would have them easily to hand and would be able to justify the sanction.

However unlawful, this is normal behaviour from Work and Income. I have spent weeks arguing this exact point with Service Managers right across the North Island. Despite their clear contravention of the law, these managers inevitably refuse to lift their unlawful sanctions until the very last minute where the review process requires further investigation by another section of MSD. This refusal results in weeks and weeks of limited or no income for beneficiaries reliant on Work and Income to survive.

When these sanctions are imposed unlawfully, and the decision is overturned, the people responsible for their imposition face no penalty. All that happens is the sanction is reversed, and the beneficiary backpaid. However, in this period typically the person suffering the sanction has had to run up debt, and has incurred further costs as a result of their loss of income.

In order for our social security to be fair, either service centres need to suffer penalties when they break the law, or they need to have the power to issue sanctions removed. While the unchecked ability to issue unfair and unlawful sanctions remains, we will continue to hurt beneficiaries and make life even more difficult for those struggling on already insufficient benefits.

WINZ Misusing the Otago Food Cost Survey

The Department of Human Nutrition of the University of Otago produces a yearly food costs survey. It’s intended to provide a statistical measure by which the cost of living can be inferred. As a tool for showing trends in food costs over time, it’s invaluable. However, Work and Income offices have been using this survey as a yardstick for how much should be given to those applying for food grants.

This is reflected in the methods used by the university, packaged items surveyed are suitable for a small family, so provide a steady benchmark for the costs which could be typically expected. The cost per gram is then calculated and this is multiplied by the average amount each person should be expected to consume in a week.

Shelf prices only are used (not specials/promotions). If more than one brand is available, then the lowest priced item (including in-house brands) is recorded. The package sizes surveyed are appropriate for a family of four. If the specified package size is not available, then the price and size for the next closest size is recorded. Some produce items such as broccoli and avocados are sold per item rather than weight. For these foods, five to six items are weighed and the average is used.

Survey averages and actual costs can differ significantly. A family of 4 might be expected to consume 840g of cheese in a week, so the cheese surveyed is in 1kg blocks. A 1kg block of cheese currently costs around $8.50, so the survey assumes the cost per gram of cheese is $8.50/1000g = $0.0085/g and the cost calculated by the survey for the same family of 4 is 840g x $0.0085/g = $7.14. For a single woman, the cost would be 210g x  $0.0085/g = $1.79.

These costs clearly do not reflect the reality for a single woman. Perhaps, on average, over the year she’d spend $1.79/week on cheese. However, if her pantry is empty, she’d more than likely spend $6.20 on a 500g block.

The practices of these Work and Income service centres do not reflect the differences between the survey and reality, somebody applying for a food grant will have almost completely empty cupboards. In order to be given a food grant, you need to have an immediate and essential need for food, which means you must have almost none and no money with which to purchase more. This makes application of the Food Cost Survey entirely inappropriate, its usage is not at all reflective of its purpose, and it falls flat as a result.

To make matters worse, Case Managers often like to perform a further calculation to reduce the amount of food grant given to the applicant. They will multiply the amount supplied by the survey by the proportion of the week remaining until the next benefit payday. A solo mum with a 5 year old would be expected to pay an average of $96/week for food at the absolute minimum, so if there are 4 days remaining until next payday, the food grant amount will be calculated as $96 x 4/7 = $54.86. This is clearly ridiculous, as it assumes the two would buy 4.6 eggs, 2.6L of milk, 120g of margarine, 160g of sugar, and 57g of tomato sauce.

Additionally, the Food Cost Survey has 3 different bands which can be used to estimate food costs; basic, moderate, and liberal. Work and Income consistently use the basic band, which assumes that all food is cooked from scratch, and doesn’t allow for any take-away or pre-prepared meals.

Further, the section of the Food Cost Survey covers standard ingredients costs, but not all the ingredients required to make a meal. A family so short on money that they have to apply for a food grant likely won’t have enough dishwashing liquid or seasoning for food. They might also lack the cooking facilities required to produce a decent home-cooked meal.

There is only one person who knows how much money is needed for a food grant, and that’s the person applying. The questions I always ask when doing advocacy are “how much money do you spend on food for a week?” and “how much money do you need?”. These are really the only questions Work and Income should ask when somebody comes in to apply for a food grant. The costs could be more or less than what they calculate from the survey, but they will accurately reflect the real need of the applicant.

Clearly, Work and Income have misinterpreted and are misapplying a good piece of academic research. The Food Cost Survey is fantastic for showing historical trends of food costs, and shows how these differ by region and age/sex demographic. It might have a place, if correctly interpreted, to set a benchmark for the absolute minimum that is allowed to be given out in food grants; but it is currently being abused as a tool, causing further suffering for those who need the most help.

Accommodation Supplement: A Decade of Negligence

With a liberal government back in power, we can all now breathe slightly easier. But the ruthless commitment to austerity of the previous National government is still felt among our most vulnerable communities.

Just before they left power, the National government, for the first time, increased accommodation supplement rates. These changes have just come into effect as of the 1st of April. While any increase is better than none, this is no saving grace. The increase in accommodation supplement levels still has not kept up with the increase in rents.
Accommodation supplement was last varied in 2007, when it was increased to levels proportionate to 2005 rents by the previous Labour government. Between 2005 and 2017, overall house rental prices rose from $268/week to $437/week, an increase of 63%. This increase is only partially accounted for by the accommodation supplement increase, with the largest increases being given to families with children living in the regions. These families are to receive a maximum of $120/week, up from $75/week in 2007; an increase of 60%.

Those receiving the lowest increases are single people living in major cities with maximum increases of $5 or $20 for those living out of and in Auckland respectively. This accounts for a pitiful 5% increase for some.

In total, these increases average out to about 37%, nowhere near the nationwide increase in rents of 63%. A lot of people who rely on these supplementary benefits will not feel much better off as a result of the increase, and will still be hurting a lot more in comparison to 10 years ago. This is to say nothing of those of us languishing as tenants in Auckland, where rents have increased significantly more over the past decade.

The news is not all bad, however. A lot of suburbs have moved from Area 2 designation to Area 1; this increases the maximum accommodation supplement significantly. Prior to these changes, south Auckland, west Auckland, several towns in north Waikato, Tauranga and Queenstown were in Area 2. This will have a dramatic impact for some families, a solo mum with one child living in South Auckland will see her maximum accommodation supplement increase from $125/week to $235/week. This is a change which has been badly needed for a long time.

The danger, of course, is that these increases will be swallowed by landlords and property managers as has happened to students in Wellington. One of the great contradictions of accommodation supplement is as it gives beneficiaries the capacity to afford greater rents it also gives landlords the capacity to charge beneficiaries more. With such great demand for homes, and such short supply, we’re in a seller’s market; rents are only limited by what tenants can afford to pay.

While it’s great to finally see an increase in accommodation supplement, they don’t go far enough to fixing the issues in our system. What we really need is a comprehensive solution, with rental controls for runaway rents, a proper capital gains tax to remove the incentive to invest in property, regulations around quality of rental housing, a radical re-build of state housing and on top of all of this, a further increase in accommodation supplement to cover the actual increase in rental costs over the past decade.

Some Thoughts on Migrant Abuse

Newsroom published a piece this morning on Labour’s plans to launch an inquiry into the abuse of migrants by eduction institutions and businesses. The piece reads large numbers of migrants are essentially having their livelihoods held to ransom, as employers and education institutions exploit their economic situations. Migrants looking to immigrate to New Zealand and achieve permanent residency must submit themselves to the will of their employers; it is only with the approval of an employer and a stable job that permanent residency can be attained.

Iain Lees-Galloway says Labour is working to end the “shameful exploitation of international students”, but he also shows his concern for the industries exploiting these workers by “[slowing] down work on removing these in-study and post-study work rights after the international education industry argued it would hit revenues”. The interests of the workers and these industries directly contradict each other; migrant workers come to New Zealand in search of higher pay, but employers hire migrant workers in order to lower expenses, and education institutions offer courses to migrant workers in order to make money.

New Zealand workers are also negatively affected by this exploitation of migrants. The unemployment rate is currently 4.5%, which is not full employment. The labour market is currently a buyer’s market, so workers who are willing to work in sub-standard and illegal conditions have an advantage in finding a job. Workers willing to be bonded to a specific employer are also more highly sought after. This is, of course, a race to the bottom; workers who will work in the worst conditions have the best chance of finding employment; this disadvantages both them and other workers.

Newsroom highlights this point, “fixing the problem of migrant abuse will be difficult for both the international education industry, which has estimated it creates economic value of $4.5 billion, and many small businesses, which are effectively subsidised by either underpaying their workers, or by receiving money from their workers”. This is the crux of the matter, employers and education institutions seek to profit from migrant workers, so it is in their best interest to hold power over them. Giving migrant workers stronger rights will hurt the industries which exploit them.

We should, however, look critically at the proposed solutions. Auckland migration lawyer, Alastiar McClymont suggests “[we have] got to have the ability for these people to swap employers with ease”. This, on the face of things, solves the issue of migrants being bound to one employer for the period of their work visa as they apply for permanent residency. But, in reality, workers will still be competing against one another for occupations which can lead to permanent residency. They will still be beholden to their employers, but with slightly more mobility.

Hopefully the government’s inquiry will lead to some real steps forward for workers in New Zealand, both citizens and migrant workers. But the necessity of this inquiry highlights the real issue, of employers playing workers off against each other in a race to the bottom. The only way we can shield ourselves from this is to stand together. Support migrant workers, and join your union!

Parliament Won’t Save Us

In 2014, 22.1% of people didn’t vote (http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/snapshots-of-nz/nz-social-indicators/Home/Trust%20and%20participation%20in%20government/voter-turnout.aspx). This election, I’m going to join their ranks.

I see a system failing, people being consciously made homeless by mohair-suited politicians, and laws being broken by everybody, the most petty crimes being rewarded by the harshest punishments.

The typical response I receive to telling people I won’t vote goes something along these lines: “no vote is the same as a vote for National”. This reaction comes from the idea that the staunch blue under-belly of New Zealand will always turn out to vote, so the only way to combat it is to hold your nose and vote Labour, Greens or Mana.

Surely, the other side of the coin is also true, “don’t vote, it only encourages them!” This is the path I follow, the path of burning down the old to allow the new to flourish. We must clear the weeds from the garden before we can once again plant our kūmara.

The first weed that must be cleared is the illusion that our current system is working. We’ve known for years of our housing shortfall, and our politicians continue to commit to inaction. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=11799625

Our political and economic systems are clearly failing to provide one of the most basic of human needs. We are not living in a social structure which provides for people.

The second weed to be cleared is the illusion that this system can be fixed. While this is usually a long and drawn out argument, there are a couple of easy examples which can be looked at. The easiest is the “new deal” which is the name for all the labour and social welfare changes which were made at the end of the great depression in the 1930s. These have all but been removed, as the drive to gather more profit has outstripped the ability of workers to maintain decent working conditions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Deal

The third weed to be cleared is the idea that capitalism is the natural state of things. Capitalism is the system under which workers sell their labour. A few hundred years ago, we had a feudal society in which workers were bonded to the land, and were forced to give a certain amount of what the produced to the lord of the land. Under feudalism, the lord took a portion of your produce, rather than paying you for your time.

Given that we haven’t always had capitalism, it’s incorrect to assume that we always will have it. We can imagine other systems, and we can make them work.

It’s hopeless trying to save our current system. Years ago people were struggling to get by on minimum wage, and today we still struggle. Years ago Māori were disproportionately incarcerated, and are still today. Years ago the bosses got away with not paying their fair share, and today they still do.

There’s only one way forward, break down what has been built, and start again with better ideals.

Why think inside the box, and vote for a non-solution? Instead, let’s come together and work to build our own solution, one which doesn’t care for the empty promises of politicians. Let’s shape the world into what we want, rather than what our landlords and bosses want.

Fuck voting, it’s time to make something new.

Unemployment Is Not The Fault Of The Unemployed

I had a discussion recently in which the person I was speaking with suggested that unemployment is the fault of the unemployed. While this may be true in certain individual cases, this post argues it is not the general rule.

 

To set the scene for this argument, I need to define a few things. First is the concept of full employment. Full employment is a term used in macroeconomics which means the maximum number of people who can work are in work. It’s generally somewhere near 0% unemployment, but is never 0%, as there are always people between jobs, unable to work due to their circumstances, or who are wealthy enough to not need to work. In New Zealand, I suggest an accurate level for this is maybe around 1% unemployment. I draw this figure from Treasury records which put unemployment at a bit below 1% in the 1970s when New Zealand had arguably more jobs than people.

Second, the process I’ll use in my argument. Since I am arguing against the position that unemployment is the fault of the unemployed, I will draw some conclusions which should be seen if this is the case. These conclusions will then be checked against the data.

We can assume that an individual’s desire to work remains constant across years. We can also assume that any variation across a lifetime averages out across individuals. So given our assumption that unemployment is the fault of the unemployed, we should see a relatively flat line in the unemployment rate:

Source: Statistics NZ (http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/snapshots-of-nz/nz-social-indicators/Home/Labour%20market/unemployment.aspx) – Table created by Jeremy Roundill

We don’t see the flat line we expected, so there must be some other factors more greatly affecting the unemployment rate than workers’ desire to work.

The obvious counter-argument to this is that it’s a generational shift, where people from different generations have different work-ethics. If this is true, the variation should come primarily from the retirement of previous generations, and the emergence of newer generations into the working population. The result we should see is a fairly flat line for each generation, perhaps decreasing as fewer members of each generation are able to work.

 

Source: Statistics NZ (http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/snapshots-of-nz/nz-social-indicators/Home/Labour%20market/unemployment.aspx) – Weighted averages calculated and table created by Jeremy Roundill

Instead of seeing the flat lines we expected, we see lines which quite closely follow the same trend. In fact, any large change in unemployment seems to show up across all generations in the graph.

An interesting aside: from the data, it appears that younger generations have a much harder time in finding employment, even when comparing those who were 15-19 in 1986 to those who were 35-39 in 1986. However, it’s worth noting the data is slightly skewed in the older two generations for the last 5 or so years in the table.

Conclusions:

It appears that unemployment is not a result of generational differences, and it’s not a result of the desire of a certain group to not work. The question which surely follows is what causes unemployment?

The general answer is relatively straightforward: government policy. In the 1970s, governments across the world began to adopt neoliberal policies, destroying workers’ rights and thrusting our economies into a global market. The result of this is we now have a workforce beholden to a global class of bosses. The financial wheelings and dealings of these business elites have a far greater effect on our markets and employment rates than they did before.

Source: Treasury (http://www.treasury.govt.nz/publications/research-policy/wp/2014/14-01/04.htm/twp14-01-02.gif)

Global economic trends hugely influence our unemployment rates. The crises of the 1970s, including the oil shocks of 1973 and 1978 pale in comparison to the huge jumps in unemployment as a result of the recession in the early 1990s and the great recession of 2008.

The New Zealand economy of the 1970s shows what a full employment economy looks like. While the oil shocks of that decade certainly affected the unemployment rate, the overall trend was one of recovery and certainty. Our economy in recent decades paints a far different picture. Unemployment is never stable, and the job market is hugely affected by global crises.

Since we have shown that the actual desire of the unemployed to work is not borne out by the employment rate, we can safely say that our economy is one which does not provide jobs for everybody. It’s a conscious choice we’ve made, to shift our economy to one vulnerable to the ravages of the global economy.

The Official Information Act Doesn’t Work

Over the past few months, I’ve made several Official Information Act requests. Official information is our information, it is data held by government; an institution which is, in principle, beholden to us. However, the standard practice of government departments almost completely disregards the law. It is standard to have requests declined on spurious grounds, to have requests ignored, or to have responses delayed past the maximum limit set in law.

A good case is my first request, asking the Ministry of Social Develpoment for all performance indicators for roles at Work and Income. Under the OIA, a decision must be made on a request within 20 working days following the day of receipt. The initial response I received was days late, and did not meet the standard of being a decision on my request, so I complained to the Ombudsman, our government watchdog.

I am informed your request was received by the Ministry on 1 July 2016. By my calculation, a decision should have been made and communicated to you by 29 July 2016 at the latest.However, no decision was made on your request by that date. While the Ministry did write to you on 1 August 2016, I have found that response did not amount to a ‘decision’ for the purposes of the OIA. A decision must be clear as to whether an information request is to be granted, in full or in part, and, if not, provide reasons why the agency cannot or will not release information, having regard to the public interest. Accordingly, MSD’s failure to make and communicate a decision continued until a substantive response was provided to you on 19 August 2016.

The Ombudsman is not mandated to do ensure compliance with the law, they can only issue statements to government officials requesting that they comply with the law. As such my complaint was upheld, but the Ombudsman was unable to do anything more than inform the Minister that her ministry was not complying with the law.

In these circumstances, although I have found that the Ministry’s actions were in breach of the requirements set out under the OIA, I do not consider it necessary to make a formal recommendation in this case. However in writing to the Chief Executive of the Ministry today, I have reminded him that I regard timeliness, and compliance with OIA, as a fundamental obligation. The Chief Ombudsman is commencing an ongoing programme of proactive investigations into agencies’ OIA compliance and practices, and drawing public attention to cases where there is demonstrable non-compliance. Although it is inevitable that the work that the Ministry is doing at present to improve its processes will take some time to reach its full effect, it must be progressed as a priority.

This sort of response is adequate for a once-off issue; if the government departments were not explicitly violating the OIA on a regular basis. However, these violations are commonplace. A cursory look over my other requests reveals almost every single request has some sort of unlawful behaviour on the part of the government:

I sent an OIA request to Gurpreet Arora following his contribution to Radio New Zealand in which he said Indian students “could be getting involved in crime as well, committing crime, getting involved in activities, prostitution” as a result of debts incurred studying in New Zealand. He has yet to respond at all, despite being far past the legislated deadline.

I also requested from New Zealand Police a set of data requesting the locations of Police checkpoints. This was responded to late, and the response did not address the request I had made.

A watchdog with no teeth works only when those being watched are afraid of its bark. Government departments have long since realised the Ombudsman does not wield the power to really ensure the law is followed, and they’d prefer to break the law than provide potentially embarrassing information.

Open Government Partnership Action Plan: Weak Commitments

I participated in an Open Government Partnership (OGP) workshop held by engage2 earlier this year. The purpose was to “consult” with civic society in order to “co-create” our next National Action Plan. Today that Action Plan has been released.

A key point I made during the workshop was that we needed to give the Ombudsman teeth. Currently, if a government department decides not to comply with our Official Information Act (OIA), which is to say they decide to act unlawfully, the only consequence is a slap on the wrist from the Ombudsman, if that.

I complained to the Ombudsman that the Ministry of Social Development had not met the timeframe for response defined in the OIA, and received this in response:

In these circumstances, although I have found that the Ministry’s actions were in breach of the requirements set out under the OIA, I do not consider it necessary to make a formal recommendation in this case. However in writing to the Chief Executive of the Ministry today, I have reminded him that I regard timeliness, and compliance with OIA, as a fundamental obligation. The Chief Ombudsman is commencing an ongoing programme of proactive investigations into agencies’ OIA compliance and practices, and drawing public attention to cases where there is demonstrable non-compliance. Although it is inevitable that the work that the Ministry is doing at present to improve its processes will take some time to reach its full effect, it must be progressed as a priority.

The Ombudsman has no power to make government departments follow the legislation they are mandated to enforce. It is this lack of consequences which enables these departments to act unlawfully, the only way to ensure the OIA is followed is to enforce it.

Instead, the State Services Commission (SSC) has come back with a weak commitment to increase the OIA performance of government departments. Let’s be very clear here, the SSC is committing to only reducing the amount government departments break the law, they are not planning to actually enforce the law at all.

This is a positive thing for media outlets and people who are only vaguely interested in one topic or another. However when government departments deny OIA requests of people like Ti Lamusse, from No Pride In Prisons, they prevent advocacy organisations from acting as the watchdogs they are supposed to be.

Overall, the commitments are far too weak. We need stronger commitments from the government to ensure our existing official information law is complied with.

Spencer Family Mansion

On the weekend, the New Zealand Herald ran a story about a mansion which is to be built in Stanley Point on the North Shore. The Devonport section is so big it covers 16 separate street addresses. With the current housing crisis in Auckland, it’s shocking that such a large property so close to the city is to be home to a single family. Or at least it would be shocking if this family didn’t have such a long and outrageous history.

The mansion is being built for Martin (Berridge) Spencer, on land the Spencers have owned for a while now. Berridge is the 4th generation inheritant of the Spencer family fortune, generated in 1890 when his great-grandfather Albert Spencer built the Caxton Printing Office in Auckland.

The Caxton Printing Office was founded with a Mr. Probert, who was bought out of his share in the business by Spencer five years later. It was eventually inherited by Albert Spencer’s son, Berridge Spencer Sr., who expanded the business following World War I, eventually establishing a monopoly on a wide array of paper-based household products. This was inherited in 1981 by his son, John Spencer (Berridge Jr.’s father), who sold it off 7 years later to Carter Holt Harvey for a tidy $300M. John Spencer’s wealth was estimated during the mid ’80s at around $675M, making him New Zealand’s richest man at the time.

Land owned by John Spencer on Waiheke island contains the Stony Batter Historic Reserve, a Category 1 Historic Place with a series of gun emplacements from World War II. Apparently annoyed with the public’s interest in our shared history, he launched a legal battle and eventually dumped a load of dirt to block a public road in an attempt to keep the rest of us out. After almost two decades of protest and legal battles with a $1.5M cost to Auckland ratepayers, the legal battle made it to the Privy Council, where Spencer lost.

Apparently unhappy with only costing the communities around him money, John Spencer along with his son Berridge, decided to try their hand at tax evasion. For 14 years they were, together, majority shareholders in TrustNet, a company specialising in setting up maze-like company structures to facilitate tax evasion. They both placed money in companies set up to hide their true locations and owners, ostensibly to evade tax themselves.

Having cost Aucklanders millions, and skimped on their own contribution to society by way of tax evasion, The Data Centre, owned and directed by Berridge Spencer installed a motion-activated sprinkler outside their premises. This has been at the entrance to The Data Centre, next door to the Starbucks on Queen St for over a year now, and is still visible and working. The sprinklers are an absolute disgrace, from a family who refuses to fund the social services we rely on to ensure people aren’t forced to sleep in Queen St doorways to begin with.

New Zealand hasn’t got as long a tradition of landed gentry as countries like Britain, but the Spencers certainly act with the impunity of English lords. The Spencers refuse to pay their fair share, and have no qualms about pissing on those who suffer as a result. That they’ve decided to build a mansion on a section, the likes of which the rest of us could never even dream, is just another slap in the face from our horrible, burgeoning upper class.

The Baddies of Agriculture: Employers or Employees?

A couple of days ago, John Key launched an attack on employees, labeling kiwi workers as lazy drug abusers. Key suggested immigrants were needed for seasonal work, as they are more reliable and harder working than local workers. While there are obvious arguments to be made here challenging the validity of his statements, this article instead aims to provide some context around industry practice.

Our agricultural sector is big, harvest seasons typically cause huge influxes of workers to those regions of the country. It’s not unreasonable to expect upwards pressure on the wages of seasonal work, workers are in high demand, but short supply. It’s surprising, then, to see the first results of a Google search for “fruit picking jobs” to result in a list of companies offering minimum wage for fruit pickers.

Jobs in agriculture are even worse. New Zealand Farm Source, a major farm labour recruitment website, advertises jobs with dubious conditions. A cursory search of the site reveals one promising a measly $40,000 per annum, while demanding an average of 56 hours a week, putting the pay rate at about $14 an hour, far lower than the minimum wage. Helen Kelly, former president of the Council of Trade Unions, has been tracking jobs on NZ Farm Source, and regularly finds jobs requiring dangerously long working hours, offering low pay (often below minimum wage) and necessitating illegal employment contracts.

Employment contracts are never provided to large tracts of agricultural workers. One in five workers are employed, illegally, without a contract. Agricultural employers are far less likely to comply with employment law when hiring workers.

In saying New Zealand workers are lazy and drug dependent, John Key is providing thinly masked defence of an exploitative and abusive industry. Kiwis expect to be treated better, and they demand their employers act lawfully. Immigrant workers face the threat of deportation if they ever challenge their employers, and uncertainty about whether their visas, which are linked to their employers, will remain valid if they complain.

Abusive employers should expect stroppy employees. We should be celebrating the kiwis who take their less-than-minimum-wage paycheck and stand on a shovel all day. Key’s statement is clearly untrue, but provides the reader with a good course of action for combatting bad employment practice; get high and stay home.