How WINZ Saved My Life (And Gutting It May Cost Others Theirs)



Shortly after graduating from University, I joined the rank and file of the over educated and underemployed, and shuffled into my local WINZ office to sign up for the dole. Being peered down at by reception staff, whose greatest achievement was making it from my side of the desk to theirs, was as welcoming as the interminable Work 4 U seminar was patronising. My case manager treating me like garbage until I mentioned I had a University degree (things got decidedly easier from there) while young Maori kids were publicly humiliated in the open plan environment was my crash course in Checking My Privilege. I was a strong-willed, outspoken individual who knew and could articulate my rights and responsibilities but that environment sapped all of it out me. Seeing the fear in the eyes of those younger and more vulnerable than me made my heart ache.

This, I can safely say, was the most dehumanising experience of my life, and one I have been fortunate not to have to repeat since. I spent a brief period of time on a sickness benefit (not by choice, would you believe!) and the best thing it came with was breathing room. During my lowest period, had I been threatened with losing that support for not taking a job I was physically incapable of doing, I would have gone insane. They gave me the space to get my life together, and find work, without the anxiety of wondering how I could afford to eat or pay rent in the meantime. I got a part time job, moved into full time work, and have been gainfully employed ever since. I am the functioning member of society I am today because there was help for me when I most needed it. This isn’t welfare support being cut off, it’s life support.

Others will be able to better contextualise the politics, the economics and the social justice forces at play here. All I am capable of doing is expressing my thanks for the help I was given, and my rage that the same level of support won’t be afforded to me next time I need it. We need to provide counter-narratives to the intergenerational, million-dollar-house-dwelling, pothead lifestyle dole bludgers our news media thrive on. Human beings who are openly referred to in daily newspaper headlines as being culled (culled!!) like out of control vermin.


You can call it death by a thousand cuts, or another fine example of the boiling frog, but there’s no time for knowing metaphors when you have no money, a pile of bills to pay, and a state that no longer cares whether you live or die. We have a Government who see living is an aspirational goal and all we need is the threat of death to spur us into action. Our Gambler-In-Chief has gone all in on the Fight or Flight Response as a plan to curb unemployment. Kicking people off the dole is a job creation strategy in that our measurement of unemployment is based on those receiving benefits rather than those collecting incomes. Our great egalitarian myth making has taught us that we live in a binary where New Zealanders that aren’t at school are either working or on welfare. The reality is, there is a gulf between these two lands, and Paula Bennett has just given them a good old boot further apart.


Tax cuts for our wealthiest citizens, the right to fire workers for no reason, the lowering of the minimum wage, the continued erosion of workers’ rights. The more money freed up at the top of the financial food chain, the bigger the crumbs that fall to the hungry at the bottom. Either Our Dear Leaders are blind to the fact that supply side economics is a massive con, or they are fully aware and fuel it anyway. Whether you’re pissing on the poor on purpose or they just happen to get in the way, the result is still the same.

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  1. WINZ has become so farcical, that I just voluntarily left. Weltec qualification under my belt, but no job, no income.. at all. Sensing I was about to be humiliated and financially cut off, I decided to do the breaking up. I knew I would not cope otherwise.

    Being with WINZ is like being in an abusive relationship. I’ve often noted the sick irony of sitting in their waiting area surrounded by “It’s not okay..” family violence posters…. Ali Mau’s (then) sad face staring back at me.

    One of my last actual “case manager” appointments (they stopped case managing a decade ago) was to inform them that I was going to become a student…

    I felt excited, triumph! … Anxious and depressed me had taken myself to Weltec and signed up for student life. This was a HUGE step for me.

    After making an appointment two weeks before, I got to WINZ early, only to find there was no appointment booked. I’d have to go back home and ring the call centre… because they prefer to drive people insane.

    Politely refusing to go home, I was met with the most *indiscreet* receptionist, who informed the entire room that the information I’d been given by the call centre, was wrong. I wasn’t entitled to help to get me through the next month until student loans came through.

    As I was surrounded by people, she then randomly barked: “I CAN’T GIVE YOU A FOOD GRANT”. I was stunned. I’d never had a food grant in my life, never mentioned a food grant and would never dream of asking for one.

    Her intention was to humiliate and publicly shut me down.

    I waited to see a case manager who was sitting right next to the receptionist. My “turn” came right after an elderly man whose wife had just died. He was crying… right at the front of the office. No respect for this man’s privacy.

    Being a human, I sat down feeling rather emotional after observing the old man. The case manager then feigned ignorance, pretending she hadn’t just heard everything that went down with the receptionist. I was once again required to go through my life story with a complete stranger, knowing full well that everyone in the waiting area could hear.

    As I got to “Now I’m going to Weltec”… I burst into tears. Crying. At WINZ. All I remember is looking up and locking eyes with the head office manager sitting over at his desk just *staring blankly* at me…. No concern. No thought for my privacy or dignity.

    Despite claiming that they want people off benefits, they couldn’t have cared less that I was leaving WINZ. I wasn’t asked what course I was doing. Let alone a “Good for you”…. WINZ is a pep talk free zone.

    I’ve had enough interactions with them, to safely say their goal is to power-trip and keep people downtrodden. Unless they can hire YOU..

    Ironically, a lot of WINZ staff are former DPB or unemployment receivers. Many have never had a job outside of WINZ. They go through a training course and are then expected to motivate and train the out of work, when they have little real life job, or work seeking experience.

    I can recall when Upper Hutt Work and Income had two staff in a tiny upstairs office. Now it’s rows and rows of desks and staff and building expansions.

  2. “I am the functioning member of society I am today because there was help for me when I most needed it. This isn’t welfare support being cut off, it’s life support.”

    Thanks for your contribution, Aaron, it is appreciated.

    Yes, you were fortunate to get yourself out of that low point of life, and good on you for achieving this.

    But at the same time we are at a stage of social deconstruction where so many now feel they have to stress, that they are “functioning” or “contributing” members of society, which for the state and government, same as for employers and the bulk of “modern” society means a “good, hard working tax payer”.

    Those that are not able to, for the most for good reasons, are increasingly being stigmatised. That is why there is so little being written and reported on the reforms in welfare, that is why the bill that has become law was able to be rushed through select committee stages and the House without really ANY public discussion. The mainstream media, even most social media forums, chose to ignore it, and now many say: “It deserves them well, better start working and pulling your weight”. Those are messages I hear from talk back hosts and callers. Such are comments on right wing blogs, and even the mainstream papers, online publications and television do only report little, and send a message like, what are you all worked up about, this is “necessary”.

    As for the new health and work capacity assessments that are being started, NONE was even mentioned about this. That though will turn out to be the MAIN and most profound change that is being introduced.

    I have years ago myself been through the system with a biased WINZ chosen doctor making an appalling decision and recommendation, which was so biased, it was embarrassing to read. A fair few others I know went through similar experiences. So I had during real health- and life crisis time already, appeal that decision a WINZ case manager made on that flawed recommendation by a doctor who is one of WINZ’s most preferred (guess why).

    The appeal was equally biased, but they at least had to make some concessions. The panel of the board also consisted of only WINZ selected designated doctors, who were all trained and paid by MSD. Things went further from there, and usually their decision would have been the final one, with no right of appeal.

    Yet after involving a lawyer and threatening with legal action, MSD finally caved in, to offer a “settlement” of sorts.

    All that meant was that I could stay on the benefit I needed for a lifeline in one of my worst times in life, to try and “recover”. The damage done by WINZ was so bad, it certainly affected my health immensely.

    I tell you out there, facing similar challenges on your health conditions, be very alert, mindful and careful now, they will rely on supposed “new findings” by a Professor Mansel Aylward from the UK, who runs a department at Cardiff Uni, that was established with the help of an insurance giant from the US, who have an interest in culling people claiming insurance payments or welfare benefits on health grounds. They have an agenda, and sadly Bennett, MSD, the government and even sadly many in the health sector, have fallen for his bizarre, extreme, actually very poorly supported, and not “evidence backed” findings and suggested approaches.

    David Bratt as MSD’s Principal Health Advisor has for years already pushed the same approach here, and things are going to get ugly, like they have in the UK.

    Best of luck to all affected, take a witness to a designated doctor “examination”, all the time, as on your own you likely will face a “hatchet doctor”!

    • While I was on the sickness benefit my doctor once suggested I get assessed for invalids instead. I asked which doctor would do the assessment. As soon as I was told it was a WINZ doctor all I could think of was the reading I’ve done on state-picked assessment staff, not just in New Zealand but the UK in particular, USA, Australia. I’ve seen leaked reports from ACC here talking about “low-hanging fruit” – meaning those people on lifetime financial support due to disabling injuries, who can be booted off in order to save money. I think it’s too easy for management staff in organisations to euphemise the people who need their services. “culling”, “low-hanging fruit”, even “clients” is a way to remove the reality of the situation. “Client” sounds like what accountants and advertising agencies have.

      @Xanadu: My oldest sister got a job at WINZ once, I think before it was called WINZ. I can’t remember whether she was outright told or whether she picked it up from context but it seemed the purpose was to give her a temporary contract in order to remove her from the numbers of people drawing an unemployment benefit for too long. When the job was over she was expected to go back onto the benefit, but she’d be a new beneficiary, not a mid or long term one, and if she found a real job not long after it was all the better – two people who’d been on the benefit for a short time, rather than one for several months/couple of years.

      • There are a list of approved doctors that do medical assessments for Work & Income. They call you with their names and locations and it’s up to you to decide which one to go with. These are doctors that are paid to be doctors at their respective medical centers.

  3. Before I left New Zealand and migrated to Australia, I had been made redundant three times in one year. The way I was treated, was criminal. After the third redundancy, I didn’t even bother going to WINZ, I just couldn’t walk into their offices and face them. It was also a major factor in my decision to move countries. Even to one where I am not even eligible to get any form of social assistance. And that was at the end of Labours last “call of duty”. I would hate to think how demoralising, depressing and hopeless it would be in their waiting rooms under a National government…

    • I went to Centrelink once to check in as a newly migrant. I got in really early so I didn’t have to wait too long. The line at the Bankstown office was already down the street and reception started on the 2nd floor!

      When it was lunch time, the staff went together, the worst thing I could imagine is getting to the counter and forgetting something important, you would have to re-queue, which meant you’re better off coming back the next day.

      I work for WINZ now and feel bad for you guys and the situations you have been through. As social development departments go WINZ isn’t too bad, not when you’ve had a taste of a few other alternatives.

  4. THIS is what makes me soooooooo ANGRY

    “When she only 19, Paula Bennett was on the Domestic Purposes Benefit but was able to buy her own house in Taupo for $56,000, courtesy of Housing Corporation loan. Bennett said she’d worked part-time but that she “pretty much fell apart because I was exhausted and I WENT BACK ON THE DPB”.

    “But now she’s a minister it’s a different story” said Harawira.
    “It was OK for Paula to go back on the DPB because it was too hard to survive,but it’s tough luck for her sisters today.
    “It was OK for Paula to get a Housing Corp loan back then,
    but National made sure that it’s no longer available today.”
    “It was OK for Paula to stay on the DPB to raise her daughter, but she’s
    making sure that young woman won’t have that privilege anymore.”
    “It was OK for Paula to get a paid tertiary education back then,
    but not today. In fact she was the Minister who abolished the Training Incentive Allowance.”
    “Paula Bennett basically set herself up in life with direct assistance
    from the state,but now she’s the Minister of Social Development, she’s gonna make sure nobody else can ever get that kind of help”
    “Her hypocrisy would be laughable, except it’s so bloody tragic.”
    Hone Harawira Mana-Te Tai Tokerau MP

    Share this round, so people know.

    I am a Grandmother and have custody of my 10yr old Grandson, who had been mistreated, physically, mentally and nutrutionally. He has been having counselling for 3 years. He is ADHD and has a Reactive Attachment Disorder and alot of social problems. He needs a lot of loving, nurturing, understanding and patience. (he was a CYPF’s Case)
    I had an “Benefit Review” appmt at WINZ today and was told that from 15th July I am NOW required to get fulltime employment. (up until now it has been 20hrs per week, until he is 14,)
    THE reason I was told I have to switch to fulltime is because my grandson is not MY child and it was MY choice to take him in and care for him.

  5. I’ve had this thought brewing for most of the day:
    National doesn’t seem to care that small and medium business people are about to be hounded by desperate job seekers.

    By and large those businesses don’t have a Personnel section, or sufficient capacity to provide on the job training, or the time to handle a stream of CV-clutching folk from the local WINZ.

    And those business people don’t have a unified voice, either. Or the time to protest at being pushed to take on more of the government’s obligations to citizens. More unasked-for paperwork cutting into productive time. Loss of customers as sanctions cut into spending money.

    It’s obvious that few of the current crop of politicians can claim to have started or run an enterprise. Or those bloviating pests on talkback radio. They can’t have, to be expecting small businesses to pick up the very large slack of unemployed when customer demand is barely a flicker in most of the country.

    Now – the big question is – will the current Opposition mix collectively undertake to take the good parts of this reform, scrape out the corporate culture of fear-making and humiliation of citizens, and make it safe to seek assistance from the Department of Social Welfare (rather than the stingy ‘work and income’ capsule we have at present)?

    And who will they be asking for input?

  6. I have had to go on the benefit after finishing uni I hold multiple degrees including post grad in teaching. I could not find work when i left uni so went on welfare you are made to feel pretty worthless by case managers. I finally found work bartending at min wage (I got more on the benefit than i did at this job) so I have moved to Australia. John Key told students to stop whinging about his cuts to education and support for students, and just finish your degrees and get a job. Londa hard if there are barely any jobs for graduates.

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