Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Winz orders refugee to 'boot-camp'

Blanket approach is taking some away from paid work and distressing others, advocates say

A mother of two young children was told in a letter she couldn't read that her benefit would be cut if she failed to attend a seminar. Photo / Sarah Ivey
A mother of two young children was told in a letter she couldn't read that her benefit would be cut if she failed to attend a seminar. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Work and Income has ordered a refugee mother with a 5-month-old baby to attend a seminar about the military-style Limited Service Volunteer scheme.

The young mother, who came here from Burma under the United Nations refugee quota in 2010, was ordered to attend a seminar about the "boot-camp" scheme on August 2, despite having only very basic English, a 2-year-old son and a 5-month-old daughter.

The letter, dated July 29, arrived the day before the seminar and warned: "If you don't attend the seminar or contact us to make an appointment by 02 August 2013, your benefit may reduce or stop."

Another mother, Monique Henry, 31, of Manurewa, was told she would have to attend monthly meetings with her case manager until she moved off her sole parent support benefit, even though she has a 4-year-old child, already works 14 hours a week as a receptionist and hopes that her job will become full time within the next year.

Welfare advocates said they were seeing many other apparent mistakes in a massive mail-out by Work and Income to many of the 310,000 beneficiaries transferred on July 15 to new benefits, often with new obligations to prepare for work.

Karen Pattie of the Beneficiaries Advocacy and Information Service said the agency had adopted a "blanket approach".

"We've had people having to leave their part-time jobs to go to work seminars. They sent out the blanket letter; they are calling everyone in whether they are working or not."

She said one woman who came here as a refugee was on a sickness benefit with mental health issues arising from her traumatic past.

All sickness beneficiaries were transferred on July 15 to the new Jobseeker Support benefit, and Ms Pattie said the woman was so traumatised by being called in to a work seminar that she was admitted to a psychiatric ward.

"The blanket approach hasn't taken account of the individual illnesses of people like that," she said.

A volunteer who works with refugees, Sarah Candler, said it was a lucky coincidence that she was visiting the young mother ordered to attend the Limited Service Volunteer seminar on the day the letter arrived.

"I rang Winz (Work and Income) and said this is a mother of two babies who doesn't speak English," she said.

Work and Income told her it was a generic letter, but could not guarantee the woman's benefit would not be cut.

Ms Candler attended a work seminar with another refugee and intervened when everyone was asked to sign a document stating that they had attended and understood.

"I pointed out that of course he had not understood, as the staff member well knew, this young man barely understanding a word of it," she said.

Work and Income head Debbie Power said the letter inviting the young mother to attend the Limited Service Volunteer scheme "was sent based on our understanding of their family's circumstances at the time".

"We now understand that due to (the mother's) situation, the LSV course is not suitable and she was not required to attend this seminar."

She said the agency had also told Ms Henry that she no longer needed to attend monthly meetings.

Ms Henry said she was told on Thursday, after the Herald's inquiry, that she only needed to email an update to her case manager every six weeks.

The agency said it had no evidence of people being told to leave their part-time jobs to attend seminars and noted that beneficiaries could ask for a new time if it clashed with work.

Labour Party social development spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern, who met the young mother from Burma last weekend, said she did not accept Ms Power's claim that Work and Income was unaware of her circumstances.

"She has two children; they didn't appear yesterday," the MP said.

"I was astounded to see that the letter was asking her to attend what is the equivalent of a boot-camp-style course. That was just inappropriate for her circumstances. She wants assistance to learn English, not to be sent to a boot-camp."


July 15 changes

• Benefit categories reduced to three, with sickness beneficiaries and widows moving to the Jobseeker Support benefit.

• 85,000 beneficiaries moved into intensive case management with personal case managers to help them into work.

• New obligations include children in preschool from age 3 and drug-testing where jobs require it.

- NZ Herald

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