Prime Minister John Key is making international headlines for all the wrong reasons again. In a recent Radio New Zealand interview he shamed low waged workers, calling them, “drug addicts” and describing them as being “lazy.” Okay, I am one of the hundreds of thousands of low waged workers in this country and I feel devastated by his comments which further included stating we, the apparently lazy and low waged workers, also have no work ethic. Key is using these reasons to justify bringing in record numbers of migrant workers into New Zealand, to take up roles in work considered unskilled, such as fruit picking, hairdressing, labouring, baking, driving trucks, managing cafes, and working in hospitality.
“[…] go and ask the employers, and they will say some of these people won’t pass a drug test, some of these people won’t turn up for work, some of these people will claim they have health issues later on,” Key told Radio New Zealand reporter Jesse Mulligan,
“So it’s not to say there aren’t great people who transition from Work and Income to work, they do, but it’s equally true that they’re also living in the wrong place, or they just can’t muster what is required to actually work.”
I want to be very clear here: I support immigrant workers. I embrace the diversity they bring to Aotearoa. I stand firm in solidarity with migrant workers for many reasons, the most important being that nearly always the migrant workforce is subject to low wages and exploitation, something of which I also have personal, plentiful, painful experience. What I do not embrace is John Key pitting workers like myself, already being paid poverty wages, against immigrant workers being exploited as cheap labour, all to further suppress wage growth and help his corporate mates get richer.
Most low waged workers who I know are some of the hardest working people you will ever meet. We undertake multiple jobs, which is hard, I promise you, and we have no choice other than to do this. There has been a major rise in the casualised and part-time economy, and full-time work is almost impossible to come by. We are left stitching multiple jobs together to make up full-time work. We give up our nights, days and weekends to pour your pints, flip your burgers, to serve food we can’t afford ourselves, and to clean your damn toilets. Yeah, you know all those jobs people don’t want to do? We do them. We work twice as hard as CEOs and workers considered “highly skilled,” for measly paychecks in high stress environments, and we endure the poverty shaming which comes with underappreciated low waged work. Being poor is to incur ridicule and constant put-downs from strangers, people we know, the mainstream media, and now, even our own political leaders.
Many of our most vulnerable and precarious workers, nearly always women, new migrants and people of colour, typically have no protections, no benefits and nowhere to turn. In part this is because consecutive governments have actively undermined and weakened unions through laws such as the 1991 Employment Contracts Act, which made it much harder for them to operate. This has restricted workers’ ability to negotiate pay and access the most basic of benefits like sick leave and holiday pay, and we are routinely denied breaks.
So, if we don’t work our fingers to the bone for ruthless employers, we get fired or our shifts get cut. This leaves us scrambling to find other work in a stagnant and flooded job market. In response we become desperate and therefore easier to coerce into accepting offers for pay below minimum wage and having to deal with workplace injustices like harassment and assault. I have PTSD from the number of times I have had guys attempt to assault me and feel me up on shift when working in nightclubs and late night bars. There is almost no direct course of action I can take over this as the hospitality sector is unregulated and has no real union representation. So, if I seem “lazy” or wasted on shift it is likely because I am feeling depressed and anxious in response to a demeaning and sometimes dangerous work environment.
It is important to note that, while Key calls low waged workers “drug addicts” and “drug addled” in his RNZ interview, he fails to mention that drug addiction is a symptom of poverty, and low wages combined with insecure work induces poverty. Wanting to check out of this grinding reality is a perfectly normal, albeit harmful response to an absolute feeling of hopelessness and despair. Comments like Key’s, which shame an entire class of people, make me want to pick up a bottle of booze and down every last drop, until I can feel nothing but that warm numbness wash over me.
Honestly, this type of shaming of low waged workers like myself makes me cry. I’m serious. It hurts. It hurts because no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to secure even low paid and unskilled work for long periods of time. I am not alone in this struggle. It was Key’s government which introduced the 90 Day Trial law in 2009, which only serves to compound the rising issues associated with precarious and low waged work. The Waikato Times reported in 2013 thousands of workers had been sacked under this law (this is a conservative estimate) and many were simply told they “did not fit in.”
Five weeks ago, I was personally subject to the harder edge of the 90 Day Trial legislation when I was not offered an ongoing contract only five days out from the trial period end date. The reason? I was told that I did not “perform my duties as a receptionist up to standard.” I had worked incredibly hard for this company, having gone above and beyond my job description. I’d lost considerable amounts of weight during my time in this role as I had spent so much time running between the multiple levels of the building to clean, run coffee and tea, and undertake errands for other employees. I often felt stressed and overworked, during and after work hours. Still, I was told my hard work was not good enough. When is our hard work ever fucking good enough?
Being fired under this law was a major blow to my confidence and since then I have struggled to get out of bed. I feel depressed and hopeless and I am battling suicidal ideation daily; I don’t want to die but I cannot keep bouncing from one job to the next with no chance of economic stability or progression. My experience of insecurity has been ongoing for years and years, and no matter how hard I work I have little hope that my situation will ever change.
Yet John Key has the audacity to call those living in poverty because of low wages, bad luck and under/unemployment “lazy” and “drug addicts.” His rotten rhetoric blames us alone for our circumstances, when it is his government that further entrenches poverty into the lives of blue collar workers and the working class. It was his National party’s MP, Paula Bennett, who enacted sweeping welfare reforms and sanctions which made getting a benefit a humiliating experience, not to mention the measly state payout barely covers rent, let alone rapidly rising living costs.
When you rip gaping holes in social security nets such as welfare, those with lesser means are left to drown under the rising tide of inequality, structural unemployment, and underemployment. So many of us who are bodily abled or not, and mentally well or not, are left with no choice than to take any work, no matter how dangerous, precarious, and sub-human the wages. What sort of a choice is that?
Young people who are born poor or fall into poverty and downward mobility are denied a future, or at least any economic and personal well-being. This is not the kind of future anyone deserves, especially our young, and no-one should just accept it as a given.
No matter what John Key tells the masses, the problem with New Zealand’s work economy is not our being “lazy” or “drug addled” workers who lack “work ethic.” I’d call him a cunt for what he said about workers like me but he has neither the depth nor the warmth. The problem is low wages. The problem is a rise in a culture of precarious and casualised work which has created structural unemployment and job scarcity. The problem is the laziness, incompetence and widespread sociopathy of both right and nominally left wing governments who have failed, dismally, to protect those of us who were not born into wealth and privilege. The problem is that Key is a millionaire who has absolutely no idea about, nor care for, the daily struggles and injustices the working class and migrant workers endure every single day. Perhaps then, aside from finally starting to deal with any of these very real issues, at the very least, John Key should simply stop talking about us as if he knows us.
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