Tuesday, February 28, 2017

WINZ Bureaucracy Failing

One of my governance roles for a not for profit organisation has connected me to WINZ in support of an employee and the experience has been hugely concerning. The people I dealt with were pleasant, and one in particular went beyond their job description to help me, but I am appalled at the callous and dehumanising nature of the system.

The employee (E) had been out of work while looking after a family member (with an increasingly debilitating condition) and when he/she recently moved out of the prime-carer role, had sought part-time employment. Our organisation has limited funds and to provide some certainty of income we gave them a short-term contract with a base level of hours (0.3). There are some weeks when E works the minimum but most weeks there are extra hours required. E is on the Job Seeker's Benefit and any extra hours must be accounted for each week and their benefit adjusted accordingly. While this seems fair and reasonable, the reality of adjusting the income can be fraught.

The employee is a mature person with a high level of interpersonal skills and living on a benefit or low income has been challenging. Until they found reasonably priced accommodation he/she was living in a basic hotel and this left them with $10 per week for food. A camping ground would provide cheaper accommodation but all are some distance from the city centre and, with no car and poor public transport, this was not an option. E has also found the seminars that have to be attended to access support are humiliating for someone of their maturity and capability.

There is an expectation that beneficiaries are self sufficient and can manage their benefits online. When ringing the WINZ 0800 number, and waiting the typical 20 minutes or so, there was constant encouragement to do this. E's laptop is too old to access any online services and he/she has resorted to using the computers at our public library. These are in high demand from many others on low incomes and there is a time limit on use. I was told that there have been a number of instances when a password isn't accepted or other glitches occur and it has taken more than the time allowance to rectify. The online system also assumes a reasonable level of literacy to negotiate it and this must be a challenge for many.

I wanted to provide some support for our employee by working out a less demanding way of paying them so that weekly adjustments wouldn't be necessary. The general 0800 number for WINZ assumes all callers are beneficiaries and there were no phone options listed for an employer. I hoped that the call centre might still be able to help me but after twenty minutes of music and suggestions to go online (without an answer), I gave up and followed their advice. There is a section on the website for employers but the specifics I wanted weren't there. There was only one 0800 number provided but this was under a section for those employing someone with a disability or health issue, I rang it anyway.

I ended up speaking to a lovely nurse who was very receptive and concerned, while she was unable to provide the information I required she sought support from her manager. I was praised for trying to support the employee and was informed that a new call centre was being established to help employers, but it wasn't active yet. I was intrigued that the employer's number I had used was much more user friendly than the one beneficiaries were provided with as it told me how many people were ahead of me on the queue and gave me the option of a call back without losing my place.

Unfortunately I was directed back to the beneficiaries 0800 number to get the specific advice I needed and after another 15 minute wait got through to someone who could explain the options. These were:
  1. Continue with the online adjustments and the challenges that clearly involved.
  2. Get the call centre to process the changes of income and by requesting "online support". I was told that a connection can occur a little faster if this was asked for. E told me that once he/she paid their SPARK bill to get back their cell phone service then they would try that. 
  3. Have a fixed income slighter higher than the minimum over the length of the contract but this would mean a reduced income for the weeks when the minimum is worked.
  4. Bank the extra hours over the contract term and pay it as a lump sum at the end. This would mean a reduced income for many of the weeks and once the lump sum was paid there could be a hefty bill from WINZ to manage the over payments (often referred to as fraud even when there is a legitimate reason for the over payment). 
For many beneficiaries with limited resources there seems to be a lot of pressure to be compliant and the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with the WINZ demands must be greater for those with limited literacy or having English as a second language. While benefits are strictly managed (overpayments chased up and hefty penalties for non-compliance), tax fraud is treated with greater leniency. There are many anecdotal stories of those eligible for benefits not receiving necessary support because the bureaucracy and WINZ culture is too challenging

I don't think that New Zealand has ended up quite as callous as what is portrayed in Ken Loach's award winning British movie I Daniel Blake, but I am sure many are falling through the gaps in similar ways. The fact that there are many people relying on food parcels and living in cars and garages should have rung alarm bells for the Government but it is only just beginning to realise the extent of need when it recently guaranteed emergency housing. The motel bills for housing genuine homeless has exploded to six times what was budgeted and may cost around $30 million a year based on current demand. One would have to wonder what all these people were doing to survive before the emergency housing was made easier to access. The Government obviously made little effort to determine the real housing shortfall earlier and I am sure there is huge unmet need in many other welfare areas too. 

Accessing a benefit for those who find themselves in challenging circumstances shouldn't involve a loss of dignity and even more stress. Our beneficiaries are treated as second class citizens by a system that appears to beat them down rather then giving them the real help they need. A broken and humiliated person is less likely to lift themselves beyond basic survival and our levels of youth suicide are an indication that many do not have the necessary resilience to get by. We can surely do better than we are.

This brings me to the logical conclusion that a Universal Basic Income (UBI) could provide a useful safety net and reduce the need for the massive levels of bureaucracy and stress. There are many views for and against a UBI but I think it is worthy of serious consideration. Either that or we invest in making the WINZ bureaucracy actually work.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Living Wage and corporate welfare dependency

Michael Barnett, CEO of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce revealed a lot when he was quoted in a recent Stuff article on the Living Wage. Barnett claimed that the living wage was "subjective and artificial" and would make businesses go under. He believed that rather than councils paying their staff liveable incomes, they should just ensure low waged employees get "their full government welfare entitlements". His thoughts are widely held by the business sector, especially large corporates who benefit most from low wages, and such thinking deserves to be challenged.

The belief that market forces should determine the value of a job and what it is paid is flawed. Market forces should have some bearing on wages and salaries but to use this as the main determiner is open to manipulation and abuse. In fact the evidence and economics behind the living wage is far more objective and rational than the excuses used to pay CEOs their exorbitant salaries.

We currently have the case of the CEO of the NZ Super Fund receiving a 36% pay increase and this has come after a 22% increase two years earlier. The usual argument to support skyrocketing CEO salaries is that the huge increases are needed to meet the market and to attract the best. This assumes that high salaries do attract the best and that financial considerations, rather than the job itself, is a key factor in recruitment and retention. A Dominion editorial exposes the flaws in this thinking and it is my belief that anyone who will only do a job for a highly inflated salary may not be driven by the sort of philosophies and ethics we would want in the role. What difference does it really make to quality of life if one earned $1.2 million a year rather than $900,000 and what different skills and attributes would be expected from a CEO paid more than $400,000 per annum? Who is to say that within any business or government department that there aren't other managers working at a slightly lower level who couldn't step up and do the same job just as well, if given the opportunity.  There is little evidence that I have found that supports the view that paying high salaries secures good performance and the opposite appears to be the case.

The current trend is for CEOs and senior management to receive increases well above the rate of inflation and to keep a firm cap on the wages of those at the bottom. In New Zealand our largest corporation would have to be Fonterra and despite 100 of the company's managerial staff earning more than our Prime Minister (17 staff earn more than $1 million a year) the company has struggled recently. Interestingly the dairy industry as a whole is also known for many workers earning below the minimum wage and enduring possibly the worst working conditions in the country.

Michael Barnett would promote the idea that if someone was prepared to work in a rest home or clean toilets for $15.25 an hour (or $12.20 as a training wage) then that is the value of the work. This is a subjective view that does not account for the real effort and skill involved in any low waged job and is also shaped by an historical bias that undervalues work predominantly done by woman. Some recent legal judgments have challenged this workforce discrimination.

Since the National Government introduced the Employment Contracts Act in 1991 we have seen a gradual change in how employees are regarded and represented. Only 20% of the workforce is now unionised and there has been a huge growth in casualisation of work and zero hour contracts became common. This is reflective of the thinking that labour is just a commodity and ignores any humanitarian considerations of income security and how workers and their families should be valued.

When a farmer buys a new tractor they generally ensure it is well housed when not in use and is regularly serviced. Many dairy farmers now track the production and health of every cow to ensure optimum productivity. It is interesting that many of the same farmers do not have accurate employment records for their workers and make little effort to ensure their health and safety or that their pay meets their basic needs. Accessing the supply of willing workers from the Philippines is possibly less problematic than replacing a cow or machine and instances of slave labour in New Zealand are a growing concern. Viewing the worker as a commodity rather than a person is becoming increasingly entrenched.

It should also be noted that large corporates employ the majority of the minimum wage workforce: supermarkets, rest homes, fast food industry, cleaning... most of these businesses are very profitable and could easily afford higher wages. It is also important to recognise that New Zealand is now regarded as a low wage economy and that our productivity is well down in comparison to other OECD countries.

When Barnett claims that businesses will go under if they have to pay living wages, this is quickly disproved by the many small businesses that have found the opposite. The article I first linked to had a number of examples where small business owners found that paying their workers well brought huge benefits to their business and many other examples to support this can be found. The Warehouse is one larger corporate that discovered introducing the living wage has had a positive effect on its sustainability and profits.

New Zealand does not really have a social welfare problem, we have a corporate welfare problem. Tax cuts and grants get continually handed out to profitable companies, tax fraud costs us hundreds of millions and yet beneficiaries are chased down and imprisoned for relatively small sums. Compared to other OECD countries we have relatively low unemployment and yet at the same time we have increasing inequality as the top 10% of earners have seen their incomes steadily increase but most workers have not enjoyed the same. Wages have not increased with productivity gains and this means that the wealth our country collectively generates is not being shared fairly amongst those who contribute to it. Concerns of affordability can quickly be parried when a CEO's $200,000 bonus payment could provide 40 workers with a $5,000 pay increase instead.

The living wage is based on what is needed to pay for "the necessities of life and participate as an active citizen in the community." When housing, electricity, transport, food and education costs increase then so should wages. The living wage is not based on a random figure plucked from the air, but reflective of the real costs of living and thriving in New Zealand.

We now have the bizarre situation where Barnett and his mates actually believe that the Government should subsidise wages to support their profits. While the salaries of his mates spiral upwards, the cost to the Government of the Working for Families tax credit and the accommodation supplement is probably around $5 billion per annum. Denying workers discretionary spending power also deprives the domestic economy. The growing number of families needing food parcels and income support means they are spending less in their local shops. Our current level of corporate welfare is unaffordable and (for the good of our country, our economy and our future) we should begin a weaning process immediately!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Making New Zealand great again...

Bill English has made much about the importance of stability since becoming Prime Minister and his own financial management, when Minister of Finance, did not involve major shifts in priorities. No Government sector can claim that they had a sudden influx of capital since 2008 and the mantra under both Key and English has been to deliver "more for less". Any extra spending generally meant changing priorities and shifting money from one area to another.

The consequence of this approach has been an under-investment in important infrastructure and a slow deterioration of government services over the past nine years. Gradual change is a cautious approach to governance that has been used defensively by both Labour and National over the last twenty years. The Douglas and Richardson eras had both involved substantial shifts in government investment that resulted in sudden changes of circumstances for large sections of society.  Both Clark and Key sought to avoid this to capture and retain the political middle ground. The approach doesn't frighten the voters and provides the impression of responsible governance. However, it has also meant that there has been no large re-investment back into the areas that had suffered huge cuts in the 80s and 90s.

Our rail network still suffers from under-investment, which has not helped Auckland's traffic problems and has seen a proposal to dump electric trains on the North Island Main Trunk Line. Lack of investment has also seen our social housing stock reduced while demand is steadily increasing and our health, education and welfare systems are becoming increasingly stretched to deliver quality services. After Richardson's Mother of all Budgets child poverty trebled from 5% to fifteen and it is now close to 30%.

I talked about the "new normal" in my last post, and this is what incremental decline causes. People quickly forget what used to be expected and slowly adjust to living in a country where poverty is common place, housing is largely unaffordable and a clean environment is an unaffordable luxury. Under this National Government we have learned to believe that substantial change is no longer possible; poverty is self-inflicted; addressing climate change is not our responsibility and clean rivers are not economically viable. Gerry Brownlee represents his Government's philosophy well when he castigates those who demand more and attacks reports questioning lacklustre performance.

It is important that the Labour/Green campaigns shift thinking and expectations with accessible and aspirational messages similar to those that rallied voters behind Trudeau and Sanders (in a New Zealand context). Obviously the messaging has to have substance behind it, so that there is a practical blueprint to follow once elected. It is clear to all that Trump was elected because he could describe a United States' utopia that resonated with many, but his planning hadn't progressed beyond the simple, Fox News informed, scribbles on his branded serviettes. We do not want to be caught by "show us the money" moments that are more likely to occur here than the US (evidence isn't needed there apparently).

We need to see strong Labour/Green campaigns this election that will convince voters that a change to a fairer and cleaner New Zealand is actually achievable and that both parties contain people who can make the vision happen. While the messages are important, those delivering the messages around the country need to come across as energetic, fresh and capable. The Mt Albert by election has provided a taster of what is possible. Roll on September 23!

Monday, February 13, 2017

"New Normal" Dangerous

It is amazing how quickly expectations of what is 'normal' can change.

Southland has experienced one of the windiest and miserable Summers I can remember. Our farmers market has only had one day outside all Summer and even then the canopies were blown around by the wind and some stall holders were forced to seek shelter. Every day I wake up resigned to another day of wind and cloudy skies. I have almost forgotten our usual habit of dining outdoors most evenings over the summer months and enjoying our long twilight hours. Northland has experienced the opposite situation. The region is experiencing its fifth drought in eight years. Despite the fact that all of this has been predicted by NIWA as a consequence of climate change the current Government is determined to continue with business as usual and a soft approach in dealing with our emissions. The RMA still does not address climate change and the Emissions Treading Scheme still excludes major emitters. Extreme weather is the new normal both here and overseas.

Ten years ago homelessness was not too visible in our major cities and certainly not at the levels visible today. It is now estimated that around 40,000 New Zealanders are homeless (one in very 100) and that we have a shortage of 60,000 houses. The Government is refusing to call this a crisis even though the shortage is currently increasing by around 40 houses a day. Much of our existing housing stock is also substandard with many rental properties lacking in insulation and basic maintenance. Rheumatic Fever is a third world disease that is related to poor housing and overcrowding and this is a growing problem because the causes are not being addressed. Homeless street people are common overseas and Bill English is treating homelessness as unavoidable and normal here too.

I can remember teaching at a small rural school that regularly took its children down to the local river for a swim during the Summer months. There was no concern about water quality and children never suffered from swallowing the odd mouthful. The water was clear, Didymo was absent and the rapid dairy expansion hadn't begun in Southland. Safe wading, rather than swimming, is now the new bottom line for quality and few would think it is safe for their children to swim in their local river. Dirty rivers are the new normal for this country.

The United States has recently elected its 45th president. While the previous 44 have had different levels of success and support, most have treated the office with dignity and have been measured and polite in their public engagement. The United States Constitution was adopted 230 years ago and for the first time the elected President, Donald Trump, is openly challenging the authority of the judiciary. Trump's ill-considered tweets, obvious lies and clear conflicts of interest have dramatically changed the previous expectations of what presidential behaviour constitutes. Petulance and ignorance define the new normal emanating from the Oval Office.

Normalising anything that is unacceptable is dangerous, it lowers expectations and severely reduces any sense of urgency to put things right. It worries the hell out of me that my children will suffer the climatic consequences of ignoring major polluters; are unlikely to afford a home of their own; will never enjoy swimming in a pristine local river; and will have to endure the global consequences of a tyrant leading the world's most powerful nation. We must not accept the unacceptable as normal!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Trump's Muslim ban exposes stupidity

Donald Trump won the Presidency because of his hardline approach to issues and simplistic messaging. In the business world, where he had operated previously, his success (largely exaggerated) was not achieved through diplomacy and managing complex and nuanced issues. It also appears that we have a man who is the emotional and intellectual equivalent of a bolshie, narcissistic, teenage boy leading the world's largest power.

President Trump exists because of the Post-Truth age. Not only was he elected because of the dominance of commercially and idealistically driven, popular media, his own knowledge and understanding of the world comes from the same sources. Research has revealed that watching Fox News is likely to make someone less informed about the world than watching no news at all. Lincoln's famous quote, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth" could be rewritten to reflect the reality: "Government of the ignorant, by the ignorant, for ignorant, shall destroy the earth."  Given that the US is one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and Trump is a climate denier, the world's environmental clock sped up when he took office.

The Executive Orders being signed with great enthusiasm are simplistic idealistic statements of intent that are not evidence based and will have far reaching consequences. His immigration and refugee ban is a classic example and the damage was instant.

The ignorance that lead to the immigration order is easy to understand. The fear of Islamic Terrorists came out of the horrific 9/11 (or 7/11 according to Trump) when United States citizens suddenly felt vulnerable to attack from outside. Bush's War on Terror was an attempt to allay those fears in a decisive way. An enemy had to be established and a show of strength in dealing to them was required. Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were identified as the enemy, but this was problematic as bin Laden was a Saudi and he led loose groups that existed in a number of countries. Iraq became a convenient excuse for concentrating military operations in a single state while a parallel, clandestine operation to capture and torture potential terrorists occurred across many states.

Despite ending the war in Iraq and killing bin Laden (a trial would have brought too much attention to the actual realities and illegalities of the US operations), the situation in the Middle East has actually got worse. The War on Terror is an impossible one to win because the US is largely attempting to aggressively manage the discontent of millions of Muslim people suffering from poor foreign policy and military decisions. The fundamentalism and extreme views that have developed in the Middle East have been mainly created by the volatile environments that many Muslims are being forced to endure. This is not a religious conflict but, as in many wars, religion is used to provide justification.

Under President Obama there had been a continuation of operations that flout international law as US drones operate and kill suspected terrorists, without trial, across multiple borders. Thousands of deaths have been officially recognised but many more are disputed, including the combatant/civilian status of many who have been killed. The countries where US drones have operated are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, LibyaPakistan, Philippines, Somalia, Yemen and possibly Mali.

There is no logic to Trumps executive order to protect US citizens from terrorism. None of the terrorists who have killed people on US soil come from the seven Muslim countries singled out by the ban (15 of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia). Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority nation, is a notable omission and it appears that no Muslim countries where Trump has business interests have been included either. Yemen, one of the named states, is one of the poorest and most disadvantaged countries in the world. Its citizens are suffering hugely from a civil war where the US supported Saudi forces have an active involvement and are linked to possible war crimes. These Muslim nations have more to fear from the US than visa versa.

The threat posed by Islamic terrorists is extremely overstated. Around 16,000 people are murdered in the US every year (over 40 a day) and that compares with the average of 6 deaths a year as a result of a terrorist act since 9/11. Having tighter gun controls would make a far bigger difference to reducing violent deaths than tighter border controls. All Trump has done is increase the suffering of innocent Muslim families, caused chaos at airports and border controls and provided further proof that he is totally unfit for the role of President.