Bernard Hickey is one of New Zealand’s leading financial journalists. His latest article, published by Newsroom, lays bare the cruel treatment of hundreds of thousands of workers stranded since the lockdown.
Our Prime Minister is lauded overseas for her compassion, but her Cabinet is refusing to properly support tens of thousands of jobless migrants and beneficiaries struggling through the Covid-19 crisis, Bernard Hickey argues
Over the last year since the March 15 attacks, our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has become a paragon of virtue for many on the centre-left around the world: a symbol of compassion and competence in a leadership landscape dotted with clownish buffoons and would-be dictators more interested in themselves than the welfare of their citizens.
Ardern has featured on the front pages of The Guardian, The Washington Post and Time magazine as a beacon of kindness and sensitivity in the wake of her instinctively authentic and literal embrace of New Zealand’s Muslim community in the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shootings. Her decisive and clear leadership almost a year after to the day to “go hard and go early” in locking down New Zealand’s ‘team of five million” in late March to “squash” Covid-19 has sealed the deal in the eyes of many, both overseas and here.
She is the anti-Trump, a mirror image of Boris Johnson’s calamitous decision to initially opt for ‘herd immunity’.
Our Prime Minister is clearly a master communicator able to convince more than 90 percent of New Zealanders that one of the toughest lock-downs in the world was the right thing to do. Now it seems to be paying off, not just in public health terms and an earlier loosening of restrictions than in other countries. And opinion poll support for both her and the Labour Party has surged to record highs.
So why is our Child Poverty Reduction Minister allowing her Cabinet and Government to ignore the advice and pleas of both official advisers and her coalition support partner to properly support tens of thousands of stranded and jobless migrant guest workers and over 350,000 people on benefits?
Why would a paragon of compassion allow tens of thousands of children to live in crowded, unhealthy shacks, garages, vans and motel rooms without enough food to eat?
A team of five million?
In recent weeks the Prime Minister has taken responsibility for Cabinet decisions not to use a clause in the Social Security Act to pay benefits to migrants on temporary work visas. It means that thousands of people in the tourism, hospitality and construction industries are now stranded here with no way to earn a living to pay for food and accommodation.
Their visas restrict them to working for a particular employer, which means when they are sacked they can’t work for anyone else, unless and until their visa conditions are changed for a new employer. The Government has changed the law so the Immigration Minister, Iain Lees-Galloway can do that, but he again signalled on Tuesday the Government is still looking at whether to free up migrants to work for other employers, or whether to help them with extra benefits.
Lees-Galloway even agreed with Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters that these jobless guest workers should go back to where they came from, even though most either can’t find flights, couldn’t afford them, or legitimately hope they can gain full permanent residence, as was suggested to them by Governments of both flavours over the last decade.
The Prime Minister has pointed to token relief offered by Civil Defence and Emergency Management (CDEM), which includes cans of food.
Newsroom’s Dileepa Fonseka reported last month how CDEM assistance consisted of two cans of baked beans, two spaghetti tins, along with onions, potatoes and canned chickpeas. Rice, flour, and sugar were provided in small ziplock bags.
He reported how one migrant worker’s family of seven – three children and four adults – worked their way through the rations in one day while locked down in a cold and mouldy two-bedroom $350 per week converted Auckland garage. When she called up a couple of days later for a food parcel top-up, she was told the pack was meant to last her the entire length of lockdown.
Over 300,000 guest workers and students on temporary visas are ineligible for the benefits. Many have been sacked by employers who retained a government wage subsidy and did not pass it on. They are now destitute and stranded without funds to pay for food and accommodation. Read more