(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyMay 29, 2023

Work and Income staffer took fake ‘meth’ to ‘cultural diversity’ morning tea

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

A photo leaked to The Spinoff shows ziploc bags labelled ‘methamphetamine’, allegedly a comment on the culture of WINZ clients. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports.

A staff member at a Canterbury Work and Income branch brought a bag of fake methamphetamine to a shared morning tea meant to acknowledge “cultural diversity”, a leaked photo shows. And one former employee says it’s simply indicative of wider issues within the agency.

The Spinoff has been told by the former staffer that the item was meant to be a joke referencing the “culture” of those seeking help from social services – a claim rejected by the Ministry of Social Development.

Work and Income has confirmed there was a complaint laid, followed by “a conversation” with the staff member responsible who was told why their actions were inappropriate. The agency did not release further details to The Spinoff, citing privacy concerns. 

A request was made to the Ministry of Social Development for all information relating to the cultural diversity event, including any staff complaints made about it, under the Official Information Act. The ministry opted to withhold all communications and attachments relating to the complaint, even in a redacted form. 

Instead, a summary response was provided by Work and Income’s Canterbury regional director Angela Talbot. In the email, Talbot said a complaint was raised about a diversity day on March 15 this year at the Hornby Work and Income branch. “Due to the staff backgrounds and the variety of food provided, staff labelled their contributions,” Talbot said. “One staff member produced a label intending to be humorous, which inadvertently caused offence.” 

The email did not provide detail as to what the “label” read. However, The Spinoff was sent an image of several bags of white powder that had been shared to social media app Snapchat. As this was for a morning tea, a label included a “dish origin” – “the kitchen” – and the “name of dish” – “methamphetamine”. It’s believed the powder was a confectionery product.

(Image: Supplied)

In her statement, Talbot said a complaint was made to a senior manager while the morning tea was still under way. “The senior manager directed that the sweets and label should be removed from the table at the time, which they were,” said Talbot. “Following the morning tea, a conversation was had with the person who provided these items, and it was made clear that this was not appropriate.”

The ministry defended its decision not to release further information to The Spinoff, saying there was insufficient public interest. “I consider the above summary… is sufficient to meet the public interest around the ministry’s accountability for steps taken to address the concerns raised,” said Talbot in her response.

However, a former Work and Income staff member, who The Spinoff has decided not to name, said this particular incident was indicative of wider issues at the agency that should be publicised. They suggested that the fake drugs were brought to the event because the staff member “felt that was cultural to our clients”. 

The former staff member described an “us v them” or “we’re better than the client” mentality at Work and Income, adding “[there’s] very much a cultural acceptance of that”. 

As a government department, Work and Income should be working in the public’s best interests, the former employee said. “The general regard for our clients is appalling, to be perfectly honest. Referring to clients as dropkicks [or] using terms like junkie or dickhead… which is totally unacceptable,” they alleged. “Some of the things that are happening are not following what would be accepted by the public.”

These claims, alongside the details of the incident, were put to the Ministry of Social Development. In a statement, the ministry’s Canterbury regional commissioner Blair McKenzie called the fake meth labels “facetious and improper” and said it was intended to relate “to their [the staff member’s] own culture, rather than the culture of our clients”.

He added: “I’m very disappointed they did this as it was completely inappropriate. I’m satisfied with how the incident was handled. The senior manager acted quickly to have the items removed and made it very clear to the staff member that this was not appropriate.”

Referring to clients in a disparaging way would be “completely unacceptable”, said McKenzie. “I would encourage anyone who has heard language of that kind being used to lodge a complaint and we will take action.

“In my experience, staff care about their clients and their whānau and treat them with respect. The people we work with tell us that, and we see that every day in our service centres.”

Deputy prime minister Carmel Sepuloni, the minister for social development, who it’s understood was not aware of the incident, has yet to respond to The Spinoff’s request for comment.

In response to another request for official information, Work and Income told The Spinoff that there had been no complaints of workplace bullying, harassment or misconduct made by staff in any Canterbury branches over the past six months, aside from what had been “raised in confidence” about the diversity morning tea event. 


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