Gayathiri Ganeshan never planned to become a public servant. But after interning for the Ministry of Justice in 2014, the path to meaningful social change opened up before her.
“I started working at Te Pae Oranga,” Gayathiri says. “We helped people overcome problems like addiction, abuse, and financial stress, which can lead to low-level offences.
“My mentors on the project showed me the immediate impact you can have. From that point on, I knew where I wanted to be."
Eight years on, with an impressive career at the Ministry of Business, Employment, and Innovation (MBIE) under her belt, Gayathiri is a finalist for this year’s Young Leader of the Year at the annual Spirit of Service Awards.
The nomination recognises her policy work – carried out at the height of the pandemic – which informed some of the most important developments in Aotearoa’s Covid-19 response; from the border closure to the alert level system, vaccine purchasing, and the rollout of MIQ.
Gayathiri says her team was motivated by the “importance of saving lives.”
“You could feel it from every person in the room,” she explains. “There were senior people hammering the phones.
“We mucked in together because we knew lives were on the line.”
TURNING THE TIDE
When Gayathiri first came to MBIE in 2018, she helped develop Government policy around Fair Pay Agreements.
Later, she worked on the Screen Industry Workers Bill – an ambitious project which Gayathiri describes as an “entire workplace relations system for the screen industry.”
The bill is a response to the so-called ‘Hobbit Law’ of 2010, which designates film production workers as contractors unless their employment agreement states otherwise.
“In practice, this means more than 85 per cent of screen industry workers have no access to the minimum wage, holidays or the ability to bargain collectively,” Gayathiri explains.
The Bill will turn the tide. When passed, it will grant collective bargaining rights to contractors across the sector, setting minimum standards for the screen industry as a whole.
Gayathiri’s belief in collective action has motivated her throughout her career. “When the job you do is about improving outcomes for workers, you quickly realise the value of union membership.”
She is self-effacing when it comes to her nomination. “Talking about yourself, the impact you’ve had; it’s mortifying!” she laughs. “But it’s also nice to go on this journey of self-reflection.”
SHOT IN THE ARM
Gayathiri says learning about the work of the other nominees has “rekindled” her faith in the public
“Not that it was lost,” she says. “But it’s a good shot in the arm, and a nice moment to reflect on the incredible work we do across the public sector.”