Scared stiff of WINZ

An article ran in Stuff yesterday discussing WINZ and beneficiaries. It spoke of the fear that beneficiaries feel about the benefit process and about WINZ, the dehumanisation and lack of privacy that people visiting WINZ experience, and the fact that benefits are not enough to live on. In response, the government minister, Anne Tolley, trumpeted the government’s achievement of reducing beneficiaries, specifically sole parents, quite dramatically.

People are scared of WINZ. They have the combination of great power over people’s lives, deliberately unhelpful and unfriendly policies, and a collection of case managers that can be very jaded and cynical. They just have too much to hold over desperately disadvantaged people, and the power dynamic is horrific. Listening to stories of beneficiaries and their interactions with the system is uniformly heartbreaking, and anyone who knows a few poor people knows that there are some that are not getting their entitlements because they don’t have the skill or the strength to beat the system’s discrimination, or because they just can’t fight any more. Others will not be getting their entitlements because they’re just too afraid of or beaten down by the system to ask. It’s rare for someone to say that they’re happy with WINZ assistance and processes.

One of the things raised in the article was the lack of toilets available in WINZ offices. How degrading is it to either not bother with bathrooms because you don’t think your clients are worthy of such services, or because you don’t think you can trust them with such facilities. Which is it, WINZ? Does it matter? Both options are pretty bad. Are there others I have missed? All the arguments I can think of come down to money (they’re not worth it), laziness (we don’t want to deal with it), or prejudice (they’ll just make a mess of it). It’s garbage, no matter which excuse they might use. It should be noted that the minister did not actually offer an excuse in the article. Maybe she realises how bad any reasoning would sound.

Another issue touched on in the article was the lack of privacy in the WINZ offices. It’s a single big open-plan room, with a couple of mid-sized meeting rooms to run courses in. Not a scrap of privacy, you can hear what people are saying at the next table with ease, and anyone going through tough times can look forward to airing their pain to a room full of others, any tears on display. I do not see a good reason for such a setup – it may make security easier, it may mean that more desks can be fitted into a smaller space, but what it takes away from the client shouldn’t be worth those small benefits, benefits that are to the department, not those who use it.

People dealing with WINZ are treated very poorly. With the excuses of cost-cutting and playing off people’s prejudices, the department gets away with treating people like they’re on a factory line, processing them with no regard to their emotional or physical needs, nor much reference to what they are entitled to. There is always someone ready to come out and say ‘they’re just dole bludgers, they don’t deserve any better’ – there were a few that made comment on the Stuff article – and to them I say ‘they’re human beings, and they deserve the same respect as your average Joe, or for that matter the same respect as your average billionaire or royal’. Humanity doesn’t come in different grades depending on how much money they have. People are people and they all deserve the right to respect, to dignity, to a place to pee.

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