Shakti: ‘Systemic problems’ at migrant women’s charity, say former staff

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.

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, 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.

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