I am writing this while half cut. I downed a glass of wine at 10 am because three days ago, I was fired under New Zealand’s Hire and Fire at Will Law. It is a policy bought in by The National government, which promised job creation and more flexibility for workers. But all this law has done is compound the growing issues associated with low-waged and precarious work, and allowed employers to believe they can fire you at will, with barely any reason given.
So, in the face of the dawning reality that I will probably spend my life bouncing from one low-waged and precarious job to the next, numbing myself with alcohol feels like a logical — albeit harmful — response.
I wrote that paragraph months ago. I can confirm as someone who likes to pretend I am a part-time alcoholic so I can avoid admitting I have a serious problem (just like Jessica Jones) attempting to drink yourself to death in response to losing your job really doesn’t work. Well, it does not work in the long run, anyway. In the short run, it seems like a fantastic idea to numb the overwhelming sense of shame and humiliation that you feel from being told you are unable to hold down a job.
Compounding my deep sense of shame over my addiction to booze (which is directly related to my inability to find a job that pays more than the minimum wage) is the relentless public shaming of low-waged workers by politicians and employers. Last year our ex-Prime Minister John Key called us “drug addled” and “lazy” in a now infamous and widely criticised Radio New Zealand interview. Our new Prime Minister Bill English recently parroted this stance when he called workers “useless”. As if his first statement wasn’t mean enough, he later expanded on this when talking about young beneficiaries. He stated, “Under workplace safety you can’t have people on your premises under the influence of drugs and a lot of our younger people can’t pass that test.”
Under workplace safety laws, workers shouldn’t be forced to keep working when they’re been seriously injured, either. However while working as a chef I’ve suffered hot oil burns to my arms and had to keep going without medical attention. But Bill English only talks to employers and never to workers so he has no idea of the health hazards and issues we face in our workplaces every day. His statement was entirely anecdotal without a stitch of statistical evidence to back up any of these wild accusations. There have been ongoing public attacks on low-waged workers from employers as well. Most recently, Stuff Media interviewed cafe owner Barbara Olsen-Henderson who agreed with English’s comments. Stuff reports:
“Olsen-Henderson voiced her concerns about the normalisation of drug culture in the country, backing Prime Minister Bill English’s comments about the hospitality industry’s struggle to attract and retain drug-free Kiwis”
As someone who is on the ground talking to hospo workers every day, what I can confirm is that overwhelmingly hospo employers are subjecting their staff to poverty wages and coercing them into signing casual contracts which offer no guarantee of reasonable hours or any hours. — employers do not even have to offer you one hour’s work under these contracts.
It is common in the low waged industry of hospitality for workers to undertake long hours with barely any time to eat or take rest. I’ve worked this industry for over a decade and I have gotten UTIs (urinary tract infections) because managers forced me to hold my urine for so long because apparently serving customers matters much more than my health. It is the height of humiliation having a manager or boss deny you a toilet break while you desperately stand there trying not to piss yourself.
So, let me boil this down for you: I’ve got more chance of being forced to piss in a cup for a drug test than to be given adequate bathroom and meal breaks as a hospitality employee. What does that tell you?
Yet the wider public’s focus is always on the useless, lazy and drug-addled behaviour of workers, and rarely on the humiliating, degrading and at times outright exploitative behaviour of employers like Olsen-Henderson.
So let’s talk about addiction and what is notably not being said by employers and politicians alike: addiction is a logical response to unemployment or underemployment and the rising precarity in our stagnated work economy. All of this causes restricted choice for workers and causes us to dive well below the poverty line and poverty is depressing. Both addiction and depression often go together and alcohol, pills, pot, and whatever your poison, all can help negate the side effects of poverty like anxiety and loneliness in the short term. Any relief from these isolating and painful feelings seems better (to me) than soberly coping with the overwhelming sense you do not matter, day-in-and-day-out.
Plus, let’s get real; long-term planning isn’t something many low wage earners do, as short-term thinking feels more manageable. Linda Tirado, anti-poverty activist and author, states in her book Hand to Mouth: Being Poor in a Rich World, “Poor people don’t plan long-term. We’ll only get our hearts broken.” Sooner or later you learn long-term plans only lead to more disappointment and hurt so you stop bothering. It isn’t that I, or any of my other friends stuck in poverty and low-waged work, lack ambition (which involves long-term planning) it’s just that we learned over the years that ambition costs more than we could ever afford.
Cheap wine, or whatever substance I use to take the edge off, makes life, at the time, seem more bearable, even if only for a few hours, until the hangover sets in and the shame spiral begins because I know I shouldn’t be drinking. Journalist Laurie Penny said it best, “Here is the politically unspeakable truth: life is hard and drugs are fun.”
When I speak out and advocate against the poor work conditions so many of us face and the implications these conditions have on entire generations, both spiritually and emotionally, I am told to “suck it up”. People spit at me that I should not have made “bad life choices,” and then more well-intentioned people assure me “things will get better”. But statements like the last one are meaningless and amount to magical thinking and quite frankly are exhausting to listen to. As far as I can see it isn’t going to “get better” for most of us. Life is only getting much, much harder for the unemployed and underemployed of a generation at the coal face of a Hyper Casualised Work Economy where The Boss Class and welfare case managers decide whether we can eat next week.
When your employer holds your economic survival in their hands it means you are less likely to speak out against workplace injustice or demand your basic entitlements and a living wage. Large sections of workers who lack access to unions in Aotearoa – such as hospitality workers – become compliant labourers, and are coerced into accepting low wages and are forced to accept exploitation and poor work conditions. They often believe they deserve no better. That’s when capitalism wins: When workers truly think, they deserve to live in poverty and subjugation.
The problem is not workers taking drugs or drinking booze on shifts (which is much more likely than us pill popping or doing lines in the toilets). The problem is that we are hardly surviving; we are barely subsisting in a broken economy which produces broken people, doing whatever it takes to keep going within a fatally fractured society that was created, in part, because of dysfunctional governmental policy enforced by neoliberal politicians.
The problem is that what were once considered stepping stone positions in fast food and service is now the only type of work people like me can find. The CTU (Council for Trade Unions) points out that over 30% of our workforce is now subject to insecure work. This means tens of thousands of us have no set start or finish times, no guarantee of hours, and therefore no idea what our paycheques will be one week ‘til the next. Any employer who denies economic security to their workers is denying them a decent life. This is something Bill English and John Key neglect to point out. Full-time and salaried jobs that offer upward progression and more economic security are limited and have been purposely destabilised. The rising precarity in the workplace is now structurally embedded and has been normalised as part of our working lives.
Another problem is that as precarity and insecurity have risen in the workplace, governments have violently ripped gaping holes in social safety nets such as welfare payments which were designed to mitigate the inequality (often wrought by insecure work). These ‘holes’ now feel more like gaping wounds for those of us subject to ongoing funding cuts to state support. As such, workers locked into low-waged work are left with few options other than to work multiple minimum wage jobs to stay afloat.
But no matter how hard you work or how many shit jobs you graft at, we are not given a life jacket and are left to drown below the tsunami of crushing economic deprivation or swim for our lives against the current. Sometimes I feel like I am caught in a rip and no matter how hard I swim, I can’t get out. Professor of Law Jane Kelsey, writes in her book, The Fire Economy, “People are told not to look to the government for help or protection. Harm thus becomes individualised and the victims can be blamed for their misfortunes.”
Most of the unemployed or underemployed young working class folk I speak with are internalising this blame and are using dangerous and harmful coping strategies to deal with their misfortunes. Addiction is not by any means the only choice in terms of self-harm we can weaponize against ourselves in a bid to cope with the reality that we have no future.
I spoke to 27-year-old Amanda*, who has struggled to maintain employment throughout her working life. Last year she had the Hire and Fire at Will law used against her and after months of looking she finally found a new job at a retail store but one morning her car would not start before work. Amanda told me this triggered a panic attack as she was scared arriving late would result in job loss. Amanda said she “disassociated from the situation,” and the next thing Amanda knew she had sliced open her arm with a kitchen knife, cut through muscle, leaving a 4-5 cm wound. Amanda ended up missing an entire day’s work which resulted in further anxiety in regards to keeping her job. Amanda told me,
“For someone who already suffers from depression or self-esteem issues, losing a job is an absolutely crushing blow.”
That crushing blow Amanda spoke of is plural, not singular. Since then Amanda was let go from the retail job because she was late a couple of times, and was accused of falsifying her time sheet, something Amanda swears she did not do. Soon after this she was admitted to respite care as she became suicidal after losing her job. Once released, Amanda began the lengthy process of applying for jobs and trying to get welfare to support herself in between.
As an advocate, I went with Amanda to her welfare meeting and witnessed the caseworker blatantly lie to her about her entitlements while actively making up WINZ policy. It took two hours of me demanding to see actual WINZ policy in writing and speaking to the manager of this WINZ branch before we got Amanda the economic support she needed. Her experience is not unique; per Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP), nine out of 10 people are being denied their basic entitlements at WINZ.
A few months later she landed a Graphic Design job, but was let go again under the Hire and Fire at Will Law after only two weeks of employment. Amanda was simply told, “[she] wasn’t fast enough.” But the question needs to be asked: When do workers ever work fast enough for their employers? Amanda was given no training and no support in her new role. I asked her how this latest round of unemployment made her feel and she told me,
“It’s at the point now where I’m used to job loss. I’m applying for the same low-waged jobs because there isn’t much else, but it’s not enough to be employed as it’s not stable or secure. So, I’m anticipating that this is a way of life for me now and I am looking at alternative lifestyle options.”
I hear many other examples like Amanda’s on a weekly basis. Her story is a very real example of the personal devastation wrought by governmental policies enforced by politicians who wash their hands of the social and personal pain they have caused. One such example of a politician simply washing their hands clean is ex National MP Ruth Richardson, known as Ruthanasia, who, in 1991, oversaw what was known as ‘The Mother of All Budgets.’ Andrew Dean, author of the book Ruth, Roger and Me: Debts and Legacies, writes,
“In Richardson’s logic, individuals gain more access to opportunity through greater exposure to the free operation of the market. In practice, this meant cutting welfare and creating markets for public goods such as education and healthcare. The cuts were severe: in that 1991 budget the domestic for a single, childless woman was reduced by 17 per cent, the unemployment benefit for single 20-24-year old’s by 20 per cent and the sickness benefit for single 18-24-year old’s by 20 per cent. These beliefs and this budget fundamentally reorganised the way New Zealanders work, study, and live, and the legacies of her tenure as Minister for Finance, without a doubt, are still felt today.”
Dean’s premise for his book was that young people are feeling disconnected and enduring discomfort, in part because of such cuts to welfare and other state support. But as he points out, Richardson rejected his premise when he spoke with her. She said to him “our words of discomfort, loss, and disconnection don’t resonate with me”. But to the thousands of young workers in Aotearoa struggling to stay afloat in this Hyper Casualised Work Economy where state support is shrinking, those feelings of loss and disconnection, as Amanda’s story so clearly illustrates, are being acutely felt by many of us.
The pain we are feeling is directly related to policy which politicians like Ruth Richardson pushed through and which we had no democratic say. Some of us were not even born when polices that now negatively affect us today were passed in parliament. Regardless, now, we must bear the burden of those politicians’ actions and pay for their heartlessness.
And by no means is it just the young suffering social pain because of precarity and sub-human wages, welfare cuts, and shitty governmental policy. I spoke with a 61-year-old man who was working two jobs, one as a groundskeeper at a school during the week, while on the weekend he works at a racecourse where he quite literally shovels horse shit for a measly $16 an hour. With Auckland’s spiralling rental prices, he can’t afford to live on just one full-time income. As the saying goes: “No one should work and be poor at the same time”. Any government that enforces, year after fucking year, a minimum wage policy that does not sit at a living wage is intentionally denying their citizenry economic security and personal dignity. I think it is time that we stop pretending as a society that people can survive on the minimum wage.
The only people who deserve relentless public shaming and calling out are Politicians like Bill English and John Key, who have actively and very publicly put down, bullied, and shamed low-waged workers by using false information and anecdotal stories that don’t reflect universal truth neither for workers in Aotearoa nor globally.
It is employers like Barbara Olsen-Henderson, who publicly shamed a worker with addiction issues, who deserve to be called out and shamed for her behaviour. Olsen-Henderson stated in the same Stuff article that she would support a worker through rehab if they tested positive and were willing to get help. The worker she fired because he failed a drug test was in a methadone program, which means he obviously had actively sought help and support for his addiction issues. He was just trying to get his life back together. Still, she fired him.
Most bosses are full of shit when they say they care for their workers. They aren’t your friend. Don’t be fooled into believing they are; the truth is they profit hugely off the ongoing exploitation of our labour. Why would they want to share with us and engage in an equal relationship? The economic benefits of them subjecting us to the minimum wage and insecure contracts are greatly to their advantage. We should, as workers, be absolutely speaking out about the injustices we face at work, and we need to continue to disrupt the lazy and harmful narratives spat at us by politicians and employers who use the language of shame to bully us into silence.
* names have been changed
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