A charity that helps migrant women out of domestic violence is facing allegations it has exploitative work conditions and a lack of accountability for those at the top.
Seven former employees and volunteers of Shakti Community Council have spoken to the Herald, claiming systemic problems and a management culture where yelling was the norm.
However, Shakti says no form of disrespect or yelling is normalised at the charity.
Scroll down to read Shakti's full response.
Staff claim they were expected to work overtime without compensation and do "voluntary" crisis work after hours, sometimes through the night.
The seven women spoke on condition of anonymity to protect themselves and their current employers.
Set up in 1995, Shakti runs a 24-hour domestic violence helpline and safe houses around the country for migrant women and their children. It also provides case work, counselling, and immigration advocacy for the women, who come from Asian, African, and Middle Eastern backgrounds.
"Sudden pick-ups in the middle of the night," said one former staff member who went to an out-of-town location in her own car, "got a woman from the (police) station there and dropped her off at the refuge, came home, and started work again at 7am in the morning. No extra pay, nothing."
Shakti staff are entitled to take time-off-in-lieu but their workloads made it "technically impossible", they said.
The charity's social workers used their own cars to travel to high-risk situations where family violence perpetrators could be present, according to four of the women.
One woman believed she was "exposed" every time she did a crisis-pick up and felt that she couldn't say no to those jobs.
"A lot of the workers were family violence survivors so they can empathise with the people we're helping."
The women said Shakti's complaint management process left problems unresolved, and alleged that people who raised issues were alienated or blamed.
Staff turnover at Shakti's national office in Auckland was described as a "revolving door". "There'd be people working today, and gone the next day," said a former volunteer.
The women claimed yelling in the office was normalised by senior leaders. "I got told (at a meeting), 'Are you that stupid? How can you be so dumb?'" one woman recounted.
"I was on the phone and she (my supervisor) was screaming at me... the person on the line could hear everything," said another, a former volunteer.
In a detailed response to Herald queries (included below article), Shakti said it has not received any complaints about after-hours crisis work, and that it was not aware of staff using their own cars for crisis pick-ups, which is against protoccol.
The charity does not pay for overtime work because of limited funding, Shakti's governance members said in the letter sent through a lawyer. Employment contracts have a clause that says staff may be called to attend crisis duty "over and above regular work hours, if the crisis situation demands it".
"24/7 voluntary organisations around New Zealand are under-funded and rely on volunteerism, and Shakti is no different. If Shakti doesn't respond, women and children will die."
"No form of disrespect or yelling is normalised at Shakti."
The women's allegations follow an anonymous open letter posted online on 18 March, claiming abuse at Shakti and calling on clients and employees past and present to speak up. Seventeen testimonies, also anonymous, have been uploaded so far.
Shakti responded with a post the following week, promising concerns will be reviewed by an "external committee".
"We want to heal any unintended rift and are reaching out to you," it wrote, urging the open letter's authors to engage.
Shakti is primarily funded by service contracts with government agencies. The Ministry of Social Development (MSD), a major funder, is looking into the complaints and staff have been in contact with Shakti, said Kelvin Moffatt, general manager of service and contracts management. Immigration New Zealand is also working with MSD to investigate the allegations, said Andrew Lockhart, national manager for refugee and migrant support.
All seven women the Herald spoke to echoed the importance of Shakti's work and the dedication of its frontline workers.
"That's why this hasn't come out sooner, because...if the organisation closes down, there will be a lot of women missing out on services they really need."
They want change and believed that Shakti is hurting employees and as a result, the vulnerable migrant women they serve.
"You want to support women, you need to start by supporting your own," said a former volunteer.
FULL RESPONSE FROM SHAKTI COMMUNITY COUNCIL
Thank you for contacting us with your questions on the afternoon of 21 April 2021. Shakti's governance members have considered the questions you posed in the few hours available and their response is as follows.
We understand you are investigating this matter with the intent of posting an article. Shakti is committed to engaging fully in this issue until a resolution is reached. However, Shakti is concerned that the anonymous source/s continues to avoid a meaningful engagement so far.
Shakti was first made aware of an Open Letter on Medium by former staff members of Shakti who called us to say that they were proactively approached by members of this Anonymous Group and urged to make Submissions on their Medium page. Staff at Shakti are upset at what is being said. Some have sought counselling. Shakti is aware of the growth of online anonymous cyber-bullying and as an NGO is peculiarly vulnerable.
Shakti has already posted a response to the anonymous open letter, on Medium, setting out its assurances. Shakti wishes to address and resolve all concerns from Shakti members, past and present. Shakti has opened avenues of mediation. Shakti awaits constructive and meaningful engagement by the anonymous source/s.
1. Unpaid " forced voluntary" crisis work
Being an NGO and a not-for-profit community organisation with limited resources that fall well short of the needs of the community Shakti serves, Shakti welcomes volunteerism. Shakti's crisis line 0800SHAKTI runs on a 24/7 basis. This is handled by staff and volunteers in rotation. Those who sign up for crisis line work are trained for crisis response. They are fully aware that they have to respond to crisis calls and crisis pick-ups when women victims or the Police or other agencies make referrals. All staff are aware that the employment agreements they sign have a clause of being called to attend crisis duty. Shakti is a crisis delivery organisation. It assists women and children whose lives are at risk due to domestic violence. At times, staff may be called upon to do additional crisis work. This is over and above their regular work hours, if the crisis situation demands it. Shakti therefore has a policy in place to ensure that such hours of work are compensated by time in lieu. Shakti has not received any concerns/complaints from staff or volunteer claiming that they have been made to do 'forced voluntary' work. Shakti regularly requests several staff to take time off or take annual leave so that they do not accumulate stress on account of work. Shakti has a written Health & Safety policy to this effect. Shakti notes that 24/7 voluntary organisations around New Zealand are under-funded and rely on volunteerism, and Shakti is no different. If Shakti doesn't respond, women and children will die, and that is not a thought Shakti wishes to entertain. Shakti welcomes an article to delve into the challenges 24/7 crisis organisations face and how they survive with the limited amount of funding they have. You have already done an excellent article on Shakti's crisis line in the recent past and Shakti acknowledges that.
2. Staff safety compromised, expected to use their own cars for high-risk crisis work, sometimes taking untrained volunteers along
Shakti's crisis line is based in Auckland. The women's centre where the crisis line is based has two cars. Shakti's Auckland refuges have two 7-seater vans. That is a total of 4 office vehicles for all of Auckland for use for the purpose of high-risk crisis pick-up. All Shakti staff are informed that crisis attendance work should be done only with office cars. This is to maintain staff confidentiality and safety. Protocols for crisis attendance in pairs is provided through policy to ensure that the trained staff/volunteers engaged in crisis pick up, come to no harm and neither does the victim/s. Safety is paramount in policy for everyone engaged in crisis attendance and service delivery, in particular. Shakti is not aware of staff/volunteers using their own cars for crisis pick (which is against protocol). No such complaints have been brought to Shakti's attention.
3. Staff expected to work overtime and on days off without compensation - work conditions did not allow taking time off-in-lieu
This is mostly answered in the response to Q.1. Further, Shakti being an NGO with limited funding, Shakti does have do not have a policy of payment for work done over and above regular hours. But Shakti does have a time in lieu policy which staff need to avail of and they are required to do so in terms of health and safety.
4. Absent, inadequate or unclear complaints process; problems and grievances left unresolved Shakti has a written Complaints Resolution policy. The policy is one that is approved by government departments. Every complaint filed is processed accordingly and which Shakti produces to auditors at the time of policy audits. The policy has a flow chart which is very clear. It is provided to every staff member along with the employment agreement before they sign and accept the agreement. The Complaints Process also provides scope to take the matter to external mediation if the complainant is unsatisfied with the internal process. Staff are aware that grievances, if any, must be brought up using the policy, within a 90-day period of its occurrence. Any such complaints brought up as per policy have been addressed with satisfactory outcomes. You informed us that the NZ Herald has in its possession or has seen Exit Interview documents brought to you by members of this Anonymous Group. These Exit Interview documents are confidential views expressed and confidential both to employer and employee. They are not obligatory or binding on the organisation to implement. The interviews are done with the intent of receiving constructive feedback from exiting staff to further improve organisational standards. Exit interviews are not an alternate to the complaints process. That said, several Exit interview suggestions have been taken on board and new policies and systems improvised.
5. Disrespectful, "toxic" work culture where yelling was normalised by senior leaders. Shakti is a 25-year old community organisation set up by former survivors to service migrant and refugee communities. Shakti has had over a 100 staff/volunteers who have come and gone over the decades. Many have stayed on for several years. Over time, they take on senior roles within the organisation and take leadership positions. These are women for whom commitment to the cause of Shakti is paramount. That includes following Shakti's Code of Conduct and promoting zero tolerance to violence and abuse. The word `toxic' is wide-ranging and loaded. It suffices to say that no form of disrespect or yelling is normalised within Shakti. Shakti would like to reiterate that there is Complaints Process in place. It provides scope to eventually seek external mediation if such behaviour does occur, within a 90-day period. However, no such complaints have been made.