30 Apr 2020

Covid-19: Migrant workers desperate for more help, but govt denies benefit access

From Checkpoint, 5:10 pm on 30 April 2020

The Minister of Social Development is under growing pressure to do more to help migrant workers in desperate circumstances after losing their jobs due to Covid-19 lockdown and who are unable to access benefits.

One migrant worker had asked a budget centre for adult nappies because he was sleeping in his car after losing his job and home. He does not qualify for a benefit because of his immigration status.

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni has been urged to activate a special epidemic provision under Section 64 of the Social Security Act, to give benefits to people who do not normally qualify.

But Sepuloni is not activating the clause, and told Checkpoint the government is offering appropriate support through Civil Defence and Emergency Management.

Darryl Evans of Māngere Budgeting Services told Checkpoint a young migrant worker had come in asking for food and help. They were able to find emergency accommodation for him.

"He had no children but he had asked for nappies. Not only did he lose his job through Covid-19, he also lost his rental property. He was unable to pay the rent and therefore was sleeping in the back of a vehicle.

"The reason he asked for nappies is he's very shy, quite humble and was scared of looking for public toilets in the middle of the night, especially here in south Auckland."

Sepuloni said the situation was not acceptable, and those cases needed to be referred to CDEM.

'This is a similar situation to the plight New Zealanders found themselves in, in Australia'

Māngere East Family services social worker Heidi San Juan told Checkpoint she was working with a migrant family who were basically all out of options for help after the father, who has worked in New Zealand for the past six years on a visa, was caught between jobs when the lockdown happened.

The man, who worked in a high-skilled job, is now five weeks behind on rent and relying on food parcels to feed his family of five. He is also not eligible for a benefit.

San Juan said the family had been in touch for help filling their gas bottle so they could cook meals. She said she thinks the only thing keeping the family in their home right now is that it is illegal to evict a tenant under Covid-19 alert level 3. 

"They are very, very desperate... The other complicating thing is they are Hindu, so it has to be stated in all referrals we make to the food bank, they don't eat beef or pork." 

Two days before lockdown the father was interviewed for a new job, but that is now on hold, San Juan said. 

"We asked [Work and Income] for support but the response was always that the family were not eligible for anything due to their residency status. We requested they reassess the situation under section 64 of the Social Security Act, which states that an emergency benefit can be granted to people that would otherwise not be entitled... during an epidemic in New Zealand. But their response remains the same.

"It is so sad that people who have worked and invested their lives in New Zealand don't get the support they need," San Juan said. 

"The father [a machine operator and directional driller] obviously has skills that we need, otherwise the visa would have been extended for as long as it has been. Two of their kids have also been born here so they consider New Zealand home.

"This is a similar situation to the plight New Zealanders found themselves in, in Australia, which led to our Prime Minister asking the Australian government to allow New Zealanders to be able to access the benefit.

"There's this whole thing about being kind throughout New Zealand at the moment. This is definitely a situation where we could be kind."

First Union has written to the ministers of Finance and Social Development asking for the epidemic clause to be fired up urgently.

Sepuloni silent on whether epidemic clause was raised with Cabinet

The government has provided $30m for welfare and food support through local authorities and Civil Defence Emergency Management, which can be accessed by migrant workers and non-citizens in need.  

Regarding Section 64 of the Social Security Act, Sepuloni told Checkpoint it is not a matter for her solely to make a decision. She would not say if she had floated the idea with Cabinet.

She said Civil Defence and Emergency Management [CDEM] are providing the essential support.

"It's not just a food grant they can get through CDEM's efforts, they can get support for accommodation if they've lost their job and are experiencing hardship, and support with a range of other things," Sepuloni said.

"My biggest concern is for the welfare of these people, and after discussions across government, with CDEM, I feel assured that CDEM is well-placed to provide them with that broad-ranging support."