7 Apr 2020

Broke and desperate: Govt accused of hypocrisy over jobless immigrants

4:33 pm on 7 April 2020

Immigrants say they are facing life on the breadline after losing their jobs and being unable to claim benefits or return home.

Asylum seeker

There are 400,000 people in New Zealand on temporary visas who are facing hardship through job losses, an immigration adviser says. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

An advocacy group says it is hypocritical of the government to criticise Australia for not paying welfare to unemployed New Zealanders when it is doing the same thing to its foreign workforce.

German immigrant Irina, who does not want her surname made public, lost her job as an executive assistant last week - although the firm she worked for is still operating.

Her visa conditions restrict her to working for that company and she has not been able to get through to Immigration New Zealand to discuss her options, nor to Work and Income to ask about benefits.

While workers are meant to get the wage subsidy, some employers had not been passing it on to immigrants, she said.

"We are being fired because we are the immigrants, we are easy to get rid of," she said. "I lost my job - and there's so many others of us. I heard of someone, he is nearly homeless, he can't pay his rent anymore.

"I've heard stories of people who are like, 'well, I'll be fine for four weeks but then I'm broke'."

She felt in limbo without information on what would happen to work visa holders.

Her flat and possessions are in Auckland, and under lockdown she cannot sell them and leave, she said.

Meanwhile, four asylum seekers who have been released from detention at Mt Eden Prison are among those who need more money to survive.

The Asylum Seekers Support Trust said they were let out of detention before the lockdown so the prison could minimise the spread of Covid-19.

The trust is accommodating some of them in its hostel.

General manager Tim Maurice said each asylum claimant had been given a weekly allowance and the trust received government money as a one-off, but it was not enough long-term.

They were not asking for a lot more, but enough to cover rent, food, transport and communication costs, he said.

"There's still one [of the released asylum-seekers] in the community who's trying to live on $120 a week and that's just paying his rent. It's just impossible and forces them into bad situations.

"We're really hoping Immigration will be able to come through and raise that, we've asked them to raise it to $250 a week."

Auckland Action Against Poverty said unions Migrante and Unimeg have been inundated by overseas workers who have lost their jobs here.

They want the government to offer income support to immigrants, especially as it expects the same for New Zealanders in Australia.

Immigration adviser Katy Armstrong said workers here were stranded in a foreign country with no means of supporting themselves, and they needed answers.

"There's 400,000 people in New Zealand on temporary visas and those who are facing hardship through job losses they do need clarity, extremely quickly.

"At the moment we are only able to give them very limited clarity on a very restricted number of issues."

For New Zealanders, base benefit levels increased last week by $25 a week on top of a 3 percent increase, in line with changes made in last year's Budget.

The government initially said immigrants would be able to access the emergency benefit, but has since said its agencies are still exploring the options.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Immigration New Zealand said asylum claimants may be eligible for welfare support in certain circumstances.

"If a claimant is unlawful under the Immigration Act, but released into the community, Immigration New Zealand may provide a basic living allowance of $120 per week," she said.

Questions about whether immigrants who have lost their job were also eligible for benefits were not answered.

The Ministry of Social Development is advising those in financial difficulties to approach their embassy.

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