Significantly Raising Welfare During Covid-19 Will Save Lives
‘Just been made redundant.’
Those are the words that hospitality worker Littoria Glancy wrote in a hospitality support group on Facebook on Tuesday morning. She and half of her co-workers were fired less than 24-hours after Jacinda announced on Monday that the wage subsidy is available to every employer and the $150,000 cap has been removed. Employers are now also able to apply more than once for the subsidy. In theory no employer will have to make their workers redundant in the next three months in response to Covid-19 and the looming recession. Jacinda’s message to employers on Monday was clear:
“Use it. Use it to keep your staff with a wage. There is no need to... make someone redundant. You can continue to pass on that wage subsidy.”
I guess Littoria’s employer missed Jacinda’s memo.
Already in the past week tens of thousands of workers have been fired at will or made redundant in industries such as agriculture, hospitality and tourism which are historically already precarious industries. I’ve spoken to at least 40 workers in these industries who’ve been fired in response to Covid-19, who said they’ve one to six weeks before they'll need to apply for state support. Following Jacinda’s announcements workers are still being fired en masse as I type these words.
Clearly, there is a gaping hole in Ardern’s bailout plan for businesses and it’s our lowest earning and most precarious workers who are falling through it.
I asked Littoria what she will do now.
“There are no jobs at the moment, so I am forced to go back on the benefit. It is the only way to get an income.”
I asked how she’d cope on benefit payments,
“At the moment I live with family, who are also beneficiaries and how we get by is we share what income we have with each other. Just to pay for the power; to pay for the rent, we share what we have. Rent prices are so overpriced that we can barely afford a loaf of bread at the end of the week.”
Littoria went on to tell me that because benefit levels are set so low she and her family are forced to skip meals even when she was employed.
“Come Sunday if you are a beneficiary, you don’t have anything to eat. You don’t eat on a Monday; you don’t eat until your money comes through.”
This is the stark reality that hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed workers will be facing in the coming weeks and months. Many people will have to skip meals and go hungry so they can pay rent and other bills.
I commend Jacinda for the steps she’s taken to keep us safe during this pandemic. She’s moved faster than any world leader to escalate us to level four. Many lives will be saved. However, those on welfare and fired low waged workers are being left behind with little option other than to apply for WINZ and attempt to survive on welfare payments that leave people in crippling poverty. When poverty levels spike, suicide levels spike.
What I’m about to say will be hard to hear but I feel it needs to be said. Some of the lives that’ll be saved during our isolation period, will be lost to suicides in the coming months and years if we don’t drastically raise core benefits. I know this because about five months ago I lost my best friend to suicide. He often skipped meals because he was poor. He avoided going on welfare when he could because the process of applying was so humiliating. I know that poverty played a role in his suicide. Poverty is deeply depressing.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better. We have to do better. Welfare payments need to be doubled effective immediately and a lump sum of at least $1000 must be paid to beneficiaries, so they can survive this lockdown period with dignity and kai that’s nourishing. If Jacinda implemented these two things she’d be lifting tens of thousands of people above the poverty line. She’d ensure that no one during this recession has to go hungry and make impossible choices between feeding their kids or paying rent.
Now is the time to collectively come together across class lines and put as much pressure on our government to double welfare and issue lump sums to those who need them. The actions we take today can ensure everyone has enough income to thrive and will pave the way for a future where people don’t have to bury their friends or watch people they love suffer under economic insecurity and poverty. We can finally fix the mistakes of Rogernomics, Ruth Richardson and The Mother of all Budgets. We can right the wrongs of the past so we can walk into this uncertain and turbulent future together, knowing we did everything we could to cushion the blow for everyone, no exceptions.
Chloe Ann-King is a noted workers and welfare rights advocate who founded Raise the Bar, a non-profit which gives free legal advice, advocacy and tautoko for hospitality workers. You can email Raise the Bar at: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on FB @raisethebarnz