The struggles of jobless migrants worsen as food parcels and other support are rolled back now we’ve ‘conquered’ Covid-19

Major operations around the country that provide food aid to struggling migrants are being withdrawn as alert levels drop.

Auckland Emergency Management’s (AEM) contact line for Covid-19 food parcel enquiries will be cut off by the end of the week, as will other Civil Defence Emergency Management contact lines. While AEM has been in operation, 56,000 food parcels have been provided to over 16,500 households in Auckland.

A migrant Newsroom spoke to, Kate*, who was once given a small set of rations for her family of seven – including a can of beans – was handed $250 a week in Pak N’ Save food vouchers after the story’s publication. She is one of 150 foreigners in Auckland to get this support and has been assured it will continue despite CDEM support being withdrawn.

Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni said: “CDEM continues to provide support for foreign nationals in the short term and we are continuing to look at other options moving forward”.

AEM Group Controller Kate Crawford said: “The time has now come to scale back our response.” 

“As Aotearoa has moved down the alert levels, the demand for our welfare services has reduced.”

However, the needs of people like Paras Gupta – who has been here nine years and lost his job just before lockdown – only seem to be increasing. He isn’t living on the streets like he once was, but he is down to his last $9.

“Now these people are seen as sort of transitory – it’s like it’s their fault – but we brought them here.”

Gupta isn’t eligible for a benefit so Civil Defence support through regional Civil Defence Emergency Management organisations like AEM (funded by the Government, but administered through councils and territorial authorities) are the main government lifeline he can access. AEM’s major operation at Spark Arena to send out food boxes to vulnerable families will pack up on Friday.

Anyone who wants to contact AEM will have to go through the normal council contact centre where they will be redirected to different agencies or to an independent food bank in the community. For foreigners, “embassies and consulates should continue to be the first point of call”, Crawford said. 

The Social Security Act allows migrants to be granted emergency benefits during an epidemic. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has agreed on the need to come up with a long-term solution for these migrants beyond food parcel support. NZ First MP Shane Jones has said any form of benefit to help them out would be a hard sell to his caucus, even if it were a stepping stone to a one-way ticket home.

If migrants have been fired from their jobs they often can’t take up new jobs because of their visa conditions. The passage of a new immigration law has made it possible for the Immigration Minister to change those conditions en masse, but he hasn’t done so yet.

Mangere East Family Services CEO Peter Sykes said the problem was much bigger than those cases that made the headlines or even those who reached out for assistance through official channels.

“Now these people are seen as sort of transitory – it’s like it’s their fault – but we brought them here.

“The most vulnerable people I don’t think benefitted from any of the food parcels or packages because they’re probably not on anybody’s lists.”

‘After that I’m just stuck again’

Gupta has lived here for nine years and been on a work visa – and paying taxes – since 2013. 

He spent most of those years criss-crossing between regions. First the Manawatū, then Wellington and New Plymouth. He was in the middle of moving to Auckland for another job when lockdown hit and he found himself stranded in a new city.

Newsroom reported he spent the first week of lockdown living on the street because the backpackers he was staying at wasn’t allowed to house him. 

After that brief period of homelessness, Gupta found a house where the landlord was willing to accept $150 a week in rent – much less than the usual $350 – until he found a new tenant. 

Civil Defence Emergency Management is being scaled back now the country is at Level 1. Photo: Auckland Council

Now lockdown has lifted, new tenants have been found and he’s had to move into a $78-a-night Central Auckland backpackers which he has prepaid for two weeks.

“After that I’m just stuck again.”

To have a shot at surviving, he’ll need a new job. That won’t come until the Government grants him a new work visa tied to a different region.

Normally, moving to a new region would simply be a matter of getting Immigration New Zealand to approve a variation of conditions on a work visa (he’s done it several times before).

This time he’s been told he will need to apply for a completely new visa.

That has further eaten into his savings: a variation to visa conditions costs $195, a new work visa $495. 

So, he will have to stretch that $9 for as long as he can. Otherwise he’ll have to use his parents’ credit card from India and they’ll have to find some way to pay it off as Covid-19 rampages through their country. 

Problems beyond food

Kate and her family are also waiting for a work visa application to be approved. Her husband used to work as a digger and has a job, but has to get visa approval to take it. 

“It’s gone onto Level 1 now so there may be less chances of them helping us anymore.”

She said the $250 a week in food vouchers had been a big help, but confirmed it was strictly limited to buying food.

“When I’m given food vouchers that means I can’t buy gas from them … so I just asked them if they are able to provide me with some cooking gas because what am I going to do with the groceries when I have no cooking gas?”

Food is also shaping up to be the least of her problems. Her bank account has already been suspended because she’s in overdraft, and she hasn’t paid the rent in more than 10 weeks.

“I have a feeling she [the landlord will] give me a notice of eviction. That’s what I’m scared of.”

Rent is $350 per week so the seven of them can live in a cold and mouldy converted garage.

Waiting to be kicked out

She placated her landlord – their rent covers power and water – by saying she had applied to the Government for some sort of financial assistance to pay rent. That was true, but she’d also received a notice her application had been rejected.

“I’m just too worried if the landlord doesn’t kick us out of the house saying ‘See you’re using power, water, my house and you’re paying nothing’.”

Mangere East Family Services social worker Heidi San Juan has been trying to help Kate. CDEM support was being provided differently in different regions.

While AEM wouldn’t help Kate out with rent, other CDEM organisations in the South Island had done just that in similar cases to Kate’s.

The problem wasn’t just that Kate isn’t able to access an emergency benefit, but that her husband hasn’t received visa approval to take up the construction job he’s already been hired for. 

Union Network of Migrants spokesman Mandeep Bela said the “sensible” thing for the Government to do was use new visa powers to grant migrants the ability to switch employers, industries and regions so they could earn enough money to survive.

“There’s a lot of labour shortage in the horticulture sector as well, healthcare, construction … they’ll help the economy as well. They’ll help the migrant workers as well. They’ll help everybody.”

Kate’s ultimate hope is that his visa application will be granted before their landlord moves on any eviction plans. 

“I have a feeling she [the landlord will] give me a notice of eviction. That’s what I’m scared of.”

*Kate asked that an alias be used 

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