Thursday, December 21, 2006

Maia vs WINZ Part 1: WRK4U

I'm soon finishing up working at the union, which means I'm going to have to deal with WINZ. I've decided that the best way to deal with this is to re-tell all contact with WINZ as an epic adventure on my blog.

The first step in this story is the WRK4U seminar. As many of my readers probably know before you can apply for a benefit (at least in Wellington) you must go on a Work4U seminar. The main goal of a WRK4U seminar is to kill people with boredom before they get the chance to apply for the dole.

My seminar was very much what you'd expect at a Wellington seminar at this time of year: mostly pakeha, mostly young, mostly men. There were five women, including me, and all the other women were students, as was the only Maori guy there.

The first thing the guy running the seminar asked us was if we had a partner. I was very pleased to see that everyone said no. While I'm not suggesting any specific person was lying (and in case there are any WINZ employees reading this I'm not in a relationship in the nature of marriage) - lying to WINZ about the nature of your relationships is an important rite of passage in this country.

Relationships in the nature of marriage have a funny history. Women on the DPB were one of Muldoon's many targets, and in the late 1970s (the DPB only became a statutory benefit in 1972) there was a real campaign against women on the DPB who knew any men. One cabinet member was explaining what a relationship in the nature of marriage meant, and he said that the woman didn't necessarily have to be having sex with a man for the man to be financially responsible for her, because he knew lots of married people who never had sex. At the time they tried to get a woman to sign an agreement that specified that she wouldn't have dinner with the same man more often than three times a week, or have sex with him more than once a fortnight. Whether their ideas of relationships in the nature of marriage are weird or accurate probably depends on whose marriage they were using as a basis.

The rest of the seminar involved a WINZ employee showing us over-head projector slides and explaining them to us and, as time went by, people arguing with him. The guy asked us who the major employers were in Wellington, of course everyone said the government. He agreed but then said restaurants, and then mentioned McDonalds and KFC by name (which is complete rubbish, I know the person who organises for fast-food outlets in Wellington, and they're not that big in terms of total hours). Just in case we were thinking we should be looking for actual jobs, with fixed hours.

Then he put up a chart showing how much money we'd get on the benfit compared with how much money we'd get in a full-time job. He explained further that if you got into a job the employer would see how well you were doing, and give you a pay rise (I looked sceptical and giggled a bit at this, since this cheery picture doesn't match either my personal, or union experience of employers' attitudes towards pay rises). Then he said that the benefit would stay the same amount forever, and ever and you'd never get any pay increases. When I said "surely the benefit gets inflation adjusted" - he wouldn't even answer my question and say 'yes the benefit is inflation adjusted.'

I think the idea of the seminar was supposed to be that you sit there and listen to the WINZ guy talk. It should come as no surprise to readers (and certainly not to anyone who knows me), that I wasn't very good at that. I can't remember where I started butting in, but I do know that by the time he got to the working for families package entitlements I was explaining it (after that he said he thought I should get a job working for WINZ, which shut me right up).

The really good thing is that once I started, everyone else started putting their two cents in. One of the guys there didn't have the two forms of ID they claimed to need, and another woman said 'it's just another stupid hurdle to try and persuade us not to apply.'

After this we had to go away again, make another call to the 0800 number and set up another time wasting appointment. Apparently you used to make the second appointment at the end of the first appointment, but they don't do that anymore. Presumably because if just 1 in 20 people don't have a phone and find it just too hard to ring the 0800 number, that's many benefits they don't have to pay each year.

The whole thing was in essence creating opportunities to shove people down the cracks. What makes me so angry is that it won't be the people who need the benefit least who don't get the benefit under this system, it'll be the people who need it most. I'm fairly certain that I'll get the benefit, and I'm also fairly certain that the woman sitting next to me, who'd been on the student allowance and was wearing a Gucci bracelet, will too. But the guy who'd been on the independent youth benefit and didn't have a passport or a birth certificate, he probably won't.

What bothered me most is how any form of paid work was again and again portrayed as the solution to everyone's problems. There were posters on the wall with photos of happy workers and inane quotes such as "I love my job so I always give 100%."

Even in a half hour seminar (well it was supposed to be half an hour), the guy took the bosses side against the workers on a number of different occasions. He was talking about Targetted Assistance, and used the example of someone who bought a stereo on hire purchase one week, and the employer put him off the next. This implies that bosses can just get rid of people at will.

I'm not saying that having a job can't be good for someone's life, of course it can. But they're not necessarily; employers have a very real power over workers, and particularly in an unorganised workplace, where employees have absolutely no power, that power can make someone's life much worse.

Just this month I've talked to workers who were trying to fight back against really awful sexual and racial harassment, another worker who was made to work so many hours that she fell ill, and someone else who was driven out of her job. A few weeks ago I walked past an accident on the street - someone had been crushed to death at work.

There is more to this life than having our labour exploited.


  1. You weren't, by any chance, at the same seminar as a South African couple I'm friends with, were you? They told me there was a fabulous woman at their seminar who gave the WINZ case worker a hard time, and oddly enough I immediately thought of you!

    Those seminars are total bullshit, and so are all the other hoops WINZ makes you jump through. When I was on the dole, they kept doing things like "accidentally" cancelling my payments the day before I had to pay rent, and "accidentally" sending me letters to say they wouldn't pay me any more because I had a job, which meant that I had to book appointments with a case worker and show up with bank statements to prove I had no money, and the appointments were total bullshit and had to be made two weeks in advance, during which time I got no payments, and when I showed up to the appointment I had to wait an average of two and a half hours before anyone would see me. (I was like, "Um, will someone tell me what/where this mysterious job is, so I can show up to do it? Because I'd sure love to have a job right about now!")

    I'm really glad someone as well-informed as you is standing up for your, and all New Zealanders', rights on this issue. Good for you.

  2. Anonymous12:45 am

    Spot on Maia, you've nailed what almost everyone I know comes up against repeatedly when dealing with WINZ - technocracy manifested as petty, beaurocratic, willfully dumb obstructiveness.

    Also the hypocrisy of beaurocrats in asserting over and over that work is an unconditional good when we all know, including them, that for the vast majority of us, it consists of being on the sharp end of unbalanced work relationships with exploitative, arbitrary, unreasonable, petty fascists called Bosses.

    Other arrangements, favoured a decade or two ago, before Rogernomics succeeded in purging all such socialistic ideas, like cooperatives, Ohus, or Workers Shares no longer seem to be deemed possible or supportable. Short of social revolution, there's no apparent way out.

    The one option that this system seems to favour, self employment, every woman and man their own Bob Jones or Annette Presley, can lead, as it did for me, to permanent injury, the aftereffects of a stroke brought on by the incredible stress of this lifestyle. Sorry to sound so down & good luck with your future tussles with the machine, maybe you'll have more luck than I did.
    Grant (ultra blog)

  3. Anonymous10:36 am

    Maia, once again, makes an excellent point - there is more to life than having our labour exploited.

    Like Maia, I have always been a strong believer in the importance of unions and the role they play in protecting us from exploitative employers.

    Which is why, I suppose, I have always been able to accept the enormous amount of tax that the government takes out of the money I make in wages.

    After all, tax is just membership fees for a country-wide union of New Zealanders. WINZ is, therefore, supposed to be union-provided support for people who have been injured, fired, or otherwise put out of work and who need a little help getting back on their feet.

    Unfortunately, as Maia so rightly points out, the entire system is a failure - the very people who need it most miss out, whilst those who need it least (the ones who have no intention of finding work and rejoining the 'union' or who are simply trying to squeeze more money than they are is fairly entitled to from the 'union' by lying about their situation) are the ones who benefit.

    Why do we pay our 'union fees' to scabs?


  4. Anonymous7:05 pm

    Hi Maia,

    Attendence at WRK4U is voluntary. Work and Income can't require anyone to attend anything until they actually start receiving income support. Unfortunately from about the middle of next year this is going to change.

  5. Mikee, have you ever been unable to find work?

    I have. And every time I've needed to go to WINZ and apply for the unemployment benefit. And every time I've been treated like a complete fraud. It's easier to get $100,000 from the bank than it is to get $180 a week for a few weeks. The requirements for documentation are pretty intense. I used to think that it was just me being a whinging bastard until I talked to others, who described the same stress, frustration and depression brought on by these experiences, and having to get heavily into debt while waiting for WINZ to pay a meagre allowance. And if you happen to find work (as I have) in the 3 or so weeks it takes to get anything, you'll likely not see any benefit at all, despite having rent, food and bills which don't pay themselves.

    Unfortunately, Labour MPs dont seem to understand/care about any of that. I've tried to explain, politely and clearly to several, and been rebuffed with rhetoric about looking for work (I was looking for work - that's what the bloody benefit is for!!!) , and assurances that the system is working. This Government hates beneficiaries... you're welcome to try and change my mind.

  6. I should mention that the delays experienced are of the type Maia and Sofiya mention... you aren't allowed to make an appointment to apply for the benefit until you've had the Wrk4U seminar, and you're not allowed to go to the seminar until your current job has finished. Applying is only another hurdle however, as you'll need to provide a litany of documentation and evidence, and until you've provided the lot you won't receive a benefit.

    I truly expected that the richardsonist anti-beneficiary attitude of WINZ would go with the election of a Labour Government. The institutional culture of the organisation is still one where beneficiaries are treated as leaches, rather than genuine people who can't find work.

    Mikee, the welfare system is a form of social insurance. I'm sure you'd like it privatised or non-existent so we could have slums and extreme poverty, but your vision of paradise is not one shared by sane people.

  7. MikeE - you are not welcome to post on my blog anymore.

  8. Anonymous10:36 am

    A really awesome post.

    For some reason I just thought of the Little Britian sketch with Pauline who works for 'Jobseekers', heh. It's awful, but great at the same.

    Oh and it was lovely to see you :)

  9. Anonymous8:42 pm

    Well said. WINZ are a waste of time and money.

    Solution: scrap the unemployment benefit and replace it with unemployment insurance.

    The UB is a drain on those of us who work and pay for the thing.

  10. Maia, great post. The thing that stands out for me is your comment that those who most need assistance are least likely to get it - that's really disturbing. It's one thing for a young person to be forced into the awkward situation of having to ask parents for money, it's quite another to have no family, bugger all English, few friends and crappy housing and THEN to also be discouraged from applying for a benefit.

    I was on the unemployment benefit for 8 weeks between 3rd and 4th year at Uni. It was frustrating but no real hardship - it was well before many of the current reforms.

    Too many people simplistically think that because it's a tight labour market, there's jobs aplenty but the truth is that many of the vacancies are for skilled labour and therefore there's a cohort that can consistently miss-out - these are precisely the people that need and deserve assistance and the reason why we pay tax.

    That said, I do think WINZ have a responsibility to provide reasonable encouragement and advice to assist people into work.

  11. Anonymous10:34 pm

    I am 35 years old, married with 1 child, and another one on the way. I can say some people like myself have ended up on the sickness benefit because the stress, & possibly resulting depression that has been incurred by the Government by using the WINZ department, to harrass, harang, bully, pickon etc. I am not what some people who have always had been in permanent work, would would call a dole bludger or long term unenmployed. I have worked every crap job under sometimes up to 10 a year. All the winz department has offered me is there solution to keep people in the poverty trap & screwing with there heads through the brainwashing work & 4 you seminars. Perhaps the real phrase that the government uses under there breath is work or otherwise we'll fxxx you with our policy.

    This is brief reaction to this blog for further comment please contact

  12. Anonymous8:42 pm

    Hi there, what you have said is so true! Even people with kids fall through the cracks in there system :( (me) and its not fair when there are so many on the benefit who arent in need of it. I now have a partner and another child we went to winz for help but according to them one income was enough but after bills etc its all gone how do they figure that? Winz are a waste of time and prefer to push people back to the poverty depression ages. I now am looking at working instead of looking after my newborn baby because financialy one income is not enough so i loose out on my time with my baby because they refuse to help anyone that really needs it


  13. Anonymous9:01 am

    Oh dear. I can see this from both sides, having worked for WINZ for many years before being ditched by them under Christine Rankin's Obergruppenfuhrership in the 1990's.

    Why did I ever join? I was not enjoying a miserable existence at Victoria with no money, then a holiday job with WINZ showed up, and it was actually fun. I got to talk to people and find out about them, while dealing with benefit applications. I met a lot of very interesting people. I joined up for real, then the real work started, learning how everything worked, gradually climbing the corporate ladder, and leading a team. From the late 80's onward, there was an increasingly robotic atmosphere, with dress standards, scripting for interviews, then appointments for interviews. Each step further separated staff from customers, until all the power lay with staff, and none at all with customers. What was once enjoyable became a chore, and staff could do little to alleviate the frustration and anger of customers. Security had to be brought in to cope with the violent outbursts.

    In recent years I had become a PSA delegate, so naturally I was targeted when redundancies came about. Not long after, I got sick, and I've been on a benefit ever since. Only my many years on the job, and latterly being able to use the internet to check out the WINZ site, have kept me from exploding at several points. I only ever go in to the WINZ office if absolutely necessary. Not being able to see your customer service officer without a two week appointment means they are of almost no use, as in an emergency you have to deal with someone who's never met you. If you have unpredictable health, you can't make any long term plans.

    So, overall, WINZ staff do a thankless job in a hostile environment. The faintly disorganized department I first joined, gave a lot more scope for personal service and simple courtesy, which no longer exists. All of the corporatization of the late 80's and 90's has sucked the soul out what was once a fun and rewarding workplace. The pity of it is that the current staff think that this system better fits them for work in the real corporate workplace. It doesn't. They're just basically equivalent to prison officers in suits. The business world (staffed by the moneyed products of private education) won't touch workers tainted by contact with the riff raff on benefits. Yes, I include myself in that group!