Posts by chloeanneking

I am a 29 year old hailing from Auckland, Aotearoa. I am a community activist, budding writer, teacher and trained artist. I started this blog, after spending a year blogging for The Daily Blog, Aotearoa's largest left wing blogging site. I was hired as the editor of a magazine recently but I quit - I didn’t suit the corporate bullying culture. So here I am, I have started my own blog, so between working anywhere between 2-3 jobs, generally being paid minimum wage, I will be writing words on social justice, poverty, youth unemployment and other issues that I am passionate about.

One Billion Trees Programme set to become workers rights nightmare

I’ve been following the government’s One Billion Trees Programme since it was proposed in 2016, by co-leader of the Green Party, James Shaw. He pitched the programme as a tactic in mitigating climate change and assured us it would create meaningful, living wage jobs.

At first I was optimistically naive about the scheme. I wanted to believe in Shaw’s lofty words and considerable promises. But as a workers rights advocate and activist that optimism has faded and been replaced by deep concerns. Concerns that include how workers who plant the trees will be treated by agricultural employers and how they will be paid.

First up, the government has subcontracted these jobs out to agricultural employers who are notorious for underpaying workers and exploiting them (I’ve spoken out about this issue many times in the media). I spent most of last year traveling up and down Aotearoa, speaking with rural workers on farms, and picking fruit on orchards, who had horror story after horror story of exploitation, wage theft, and unsafe working conditions. Unless the government ensures labor inspectors check on the workers planting the trees on a weekly basis, these so called ‘amazing’ tree planting jobs will become hotbeds of exploitation — on the governments watch.

Moreover these tree planting jobs have no base rate, instead, workers will be paid at most 00.60cents per tree but the bottom rate sits at around 00.20cents. In other words, these tree planting jobs are piecemeal seasonal work which is great if you are just after a summer or winter gig to tide you over. But horrible if you are desperate for work and this is all you can find. Piecemeal wages are often presented by employers as if workers could maintain absolute peak efficiency over sustained hours. But maintaining peak efficiency isn’t sustainable for any human being. Unless, you happen to have newly acquired superpowers that mean you can relentlessly work in manual labor for 12-hrs solid without food or water.

The government has also offered ‘Direct Landowner Grants’ to farmers and landowners which ‘provide incentives and reduce the barriers to planting trees’. There are two types of grants farmers can apply for and the funds total $238million. But there are no grants offered to potential workers from lesser means who are considering taking tree planting jobs under this scheme. They will have to find the money and the means to upsticks and move to a rural location for 3-4 months without any form of governmental grant or support. When the planting season ends they will either have to scamper and find other low waged seasonal work, or pray they can find accomodation in the middle of a housing crisis and attempt to find a more permanent job in a casualised work economy.  

All of this is massively worrying. But what really kicked my concerns into overdrive was a recent Stuff Media article that ran with this title,

$400 a day to plant trees but no-one wants the job

BULLSHIT. This was misreporting at its finest and showcases exactly what I meant about employers presenting piecemeal work as a great deal while omitting the finer print. I spoke out about the article and why the governments tree planting scheme was going to become a workers rights nightmare. A few days later I was interviewed by a journalist at Stuff, and a new counter article ran:

Here’s why no-one wants to plant trees for $400 a day

I pointed out the following,

“To make the $400 a day you’d have to plant 83 trees an hour over an eight-hour work day, without taking a break, to make this kind of cash. I’ve spoken with seasoned tree-planters who say this would be nearly impossible as the work is back-breaking, especially in rugged terrain and varying temperatures and weather conditions.

They should pay a base living wage and then 30c or 60c per tree on top, I don’t think that’s asking too much.”

I’ve spoken to dozens of people who have worked tree planting jobs who said it would be nearly impossible to make $400 a day on piecemeal wages. One such worker had this to say,

“It would depend on the size of seedling planted and I can’t find that information anywhere. If they’re standard pb3 seedlings then I don’t think it’s possible to do 670 per day. We reckon 300 would be a commendable effort, and that would be back breaking.

And at 60c per tree thats $180, or $18 per hour for a 10 hour day which is my exact situation now without having to move to the sticks for seasonal work.”

Shortly after this article ran I was invited on the a RadioNZ Panel with Michelle Boag, to discuss my reservations over these tree planting jobs:

Too good to be true: why people don’t want seasonal jobs

Many commentators including Boag, believe these jobs are a great deal and that students and people who are unemployed should just take them, and shut up.  

But the reality is the government’s One Billion Trees Programme, seems driven by corporate profit, incentivising land owners, and relying on cheap labor. This is a far cry from what was initially promised; a scheme that would deliver meaningful living wage jobs and mitigate climate change and preserve our environment.  

Working hospo is hard mahi: ‘we get groped, harassed, and spoken to like worthless trash by customers’

Exploitation, wage theft, and harassment, is rife in the New Zealand hospitality industry. So, when I read articles by journalists who care more about the most trivial things like prices not being displayed in cafes, I have to check myself and try not to lose my shit. One such trifling article on the hospo industry recently ran on The Spinoff, and here is my right of reply because perspective, matters:

Kia ora Kerryanne

I read your short article on the lack of pricing in some cafes and restaurants and how annoying it is for you. I get it: If you have never worked hospo long-term then perhaps such a thing could be very upsetting for you. In response to your article I thought I’d lay out some real and more pressing issues within this industry that are a bit more important than a lack of visible pricing…

First up I am a well known workers rights activist who has 14-years coalface experience in the hospitality industry. Throughout my time working in hospo I’ve witnessed exploitation and illegal behaviour at the hands of my employers. In response I began advocating for hospo workers and fighting for our rights. As such I’ve got license to call bullshit on some of the stuff you wrote such as, ‘I asked a waiter the other day if there was a reason behind it (lack of visible prices) and he said he’d never really thought about it. This seems unlikely to me’.

I can assure you it’s very likely the waiter you spoke with hadn’t overly thought about the lack of visible pricing – he wasn’t lying to you. I always find it gobsmacking that us hospo workers serve journalists, such as yourself, your barista level coffee each morning and pour your pints and glasses of vino during your Friday drinks, yet, mostly y’all know so little about our lives and working conditions. Exploitation is happening right in front of your eyes but few seem to notice this.

Let me break down my industry for you: hospo is often gruelling, underpaid, and humiliating mahi. More often than not our employers pay us minimum wage or just above or sometimes less – which breaches employment law. Our industry is unregulated and we have no Union and the MBIE and ERA do little, to nothing, to enforce employment law in hospo. Which means we face these grave injustices, alone.

We are rarely guaranteed shifts and employers will chop and change our shifts/hours with no notice or good faith negotiating which breaches the zero hours act. This type of shift precarity means we can’t budget because we never know what our pay-check will be week to week. All of this is exhausting and creates something which I’ve come to label ‘chronic precarity fatigue’. Loosely what this means is that workers such as me are constantly exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically because of flexible wages, no guarantee of a job or shifts, and often our workplaces are dangerous and unsafe (more on this soon). On top of this we work long and hard shifts while being paid fuckall to smile at rude customers and work at inhuman speeds while multitasking like no one’s business. To add insult to injury we often end up having to grudgingly apologise to people like you when they bemoan dumbshit like prices not being displayed. Spare me.

What compounds all of this is that we get groped, harassed, and spoken to like worthless trash by customers and sometimes our employers. Hospo Voice which is a Melbourne based hospo union, released a survey which said 89% of all female hospo workers in Victoria, have been sexually harassed on shift. I recently had a collective meeting with Auckland based hospo workers who painted a bleak picture of our industry which included rife wage theft and dangerous working conditions which should be considered a national shame. The number one concern that wahine hospo workers’ had who attended the meeting was sexual harassment on the job. They told me horror story after horror story of customers groping and objectifying them with hyper sexualised comments about their bodies. I’ve personally been outright sexually assaulted on shift on multiple occasions. I still have flashbacks to when I was pushed into a toilet cubicle by a customer who then jammed his tongue down my throat and forcefully felt me up. I’ve previously written about harassment in the industry and vocally called for hospo workers to join the #MeToo Movement.

Traumatising incidents within our industry are almost a give-in if you work hospo for long enough.

That waiter you spoke to probably hadn’t given much thought to food and drink items having no visible pricing because he’s likely more worried about how he’s ganna pay rent and survive rising living costs. Frankly, we don’t have time for some random customers pet peeve. We have bigger things to worry about like how we can avoid being violently assaulted on shift.

In your article you also wrote, ‘This may seem like a dull and grinchy thing to write about, but 2018 has become the year of no prices in cafes and I want it to stop. If I don’t want your $18 salad, it’s less embarrassing for both of us if we don’t have to talk about it.’

It is not so much a ‘dull and grinchy thing to write about’ more that your position is lacking in empathy or any real understanding of how our industry does, or more precisely, doesn’t work; $18 bucks for a salad isn’t that bad depending on what’s in it. People want cheap food with amazing service but rarely understand the amount of labour that goes into making said food. From the sous chef who preps, to the chef who cooks/makes finishes the meal, and the waiter who serves you, to the dishy who scrubs your dishes, there is so much more that goes into hospo than what people could ever, imagine. Maybe it is time journalists actually talk to us, not at us.

To finish I’d like to ask everyone in Aotearoa, to show more respect towards hospitality workers. We aren’t your slaves. We don’t deserve your abuse or rudeness. We are highly skilled workers and if you disagree, have a go on a barista level coffee machine and see how you go. You have no right to touch our bodies or comment on them. We deserve so much more than the poverty wages afforded us. We deserve at bare minimum a living wage. No one should work this hard in such dangerous conditions and be poor at the same time.


Thank you for taking the time to read my writing! All my advocacy work in hospitality in funded by my patreon and community donations without this support I’d be unable to do what I do. So if you think the mahi I do matters and you’d like to support me economically there are three ways to go about this:

On Sexual Violence: Bystanders Don’t Get To Decide What Restorative Justice Is

Trigger warning for rape and gendered violence.

A few days ago I was made aware of a now deleted twitter thread tweeted by a prominent American activist whom I will call Allanah. The thread attempted to justify their ongoing friendship with – and support of – known abuser and proven serial rapist, New Zealander Morgan Marquis-Boire. Although Allanah does not name him specifically, it has been confirmed by multiple sources via backchannels that this thread is absolutely about him:



For some context: Last year US online media network The Verge worked with me to undertake a lengthy journalistic investigation into Morgan, in which he was exposed and proven to have spent decades raping and beating women all over the world. I am based here in my hometown in Aotearoa/New Zealand. I grew up interacting with Morgan until he went overseas about ten years ago.

He started raping women in Aotearoa in the early ‘90s and 2000s, eventually making his way to the US where he became a superstar of the tech and cyber security world. He was chummy with the likes of Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden, and lauded as one of “the good guys” on the back of his claim of feminist allyship, and dedication to the cyber security of dissidents and journalists. All the while he continued to rape and beat women while he hid in plain sight.

Back here, in my home country, many other women and I, whom Morgan had hurt, raped, and assaulted, spent years speaking out against him in the hopes that one day our stories would be told and believed. It would take well over a decade for our hopes to become a reality.

Yet here I am now, reading that despite the insurmountable damage he has caused, Allanah is giving him the “the benefit of the doubt.” They believe with the right kind of “support” Morgan will be able to make the “necessary changes to keep from repeating [that] harm”.

What the fuck.

I am so done with anyone who naively and dangerously believes he deserves a second chance to correct his mistakes. He was given every chance in the world to stop raping women over the last twenty years, and he still kept raping them. Allanah is not the only person in Morgan’s support camp who have indicated to me they believe he just needs a bit of support and compassion, and somehow this will magically exorcise the serial rapist out of him.

I want to give space to a wahine known as Lila, whom Morgan raped, and was the first to publicly go on record about his abuse. She helped me come up with the title of this essay, and wrote this, to me, in direct response to Elle’s twitter thread:

“…anyone who ignores the suffering of his victims in hopes that maybe Morgan might turn things around one day shouldn’t call themselves an ally of anything but rape culture.”

On that note, the following is my kōrero whakatūpato (cautionary warning/tale), directed at anyone who continues to support and offer their friendship to Morgan, and men like him:   

I want to make my position on Morgan Marque-Boire crystal fucking clear: He is not just a broken man who can be fixed and transformed with enough “compassion” and “patience” as Allanah believes. He is a dangerous predator, incapable of remorse, who will not stop until he is stopped. “Transformative Justice” will not be effective with someone like him. He is a psychopath who is unable to feel the deep pain and devastation that he has caused. And I cannot think of a model of  “harm reduction” that could minimise the suffering he has inflicted, and will continue to inflict, against women.

It is not up to Allanah or anyone like them to make decisions around what should be done about his behaviour. Allanah was not there. They did not live through the nightmare and sheer horror he put so many of us through. So not you Allanah, nor any other bystander, should dare try prescribe a cure for what he has done. It is not your place. It is not your right.

I promise you that your support and calls to meet him with aroha/love will only embolden him in his abuse, while he croons in your ear that “he can change” and he will “do better.” He can not do better. He does not want to do better. He enjoys his long-established habit of raping and hurting women far too much to ever stop doing it.

You are not the first, nor will you be the last to support Morgan, and your support simply empowers him to continue raping and abusing more women.

Back here in Aotearoa NZ, an entire community of people inside the insular Auckland Goth scene enabled and protected him because they thought he was cool, and wanted to bask in his popularity (corroborated by The Verge). This community support created the perfect conditions in which he could cultivate his grooming tactics and develop his rape strategies. He used our subculture as a hunting ground, spending nearly a decade raping and beating girls and young women with near impunity. Much like Allanah and the American infosec community, people within our Goth scene wanted to believe he was one of the “good guys” despite the fact that many within our community were quite aware he was a serial rapist and an abuser.

His friends used to joke about him drugging and raping women as early as 2006:


Morgan pictured left, standing up, at one of the monthly Circadian Rhythm Goth gigs, in Auckland, Karangahape Road, 2006.

It takes a village.

Your ongoing support of him after the fact, now, makes you complicit in a global community of people who continue to coddle and pardon men like Morgan for acts of gendered violence, which you are not placed to pardon. The evidence against him is staggering; he outright admitted in chatlogs that he had raped so many women that he had lost count of the number. He has had nearly a year to make a public statement and apology, or show an ounce of remorse for his actions. He has done neither. I believe he never will. He knows there are people such as Allanah who will continue to advocate, on his behalf, that we meet the catastrophic damage he has caused with aroha and compassion.

Fuck that. And fuck off.

So as some of you continue to wring your hands with worry over Morgan’s welfare, I want you to know… nah, I want you to feel the costs that speaking out against him had on me, personally:

I nearly lost everything. This includes my life. I lost friends. I was ostracized and bullied by his supporters, and very nearly passed my breaking point. Whenever I dared speak out against him and call him “rapist” I was labelled “crazy” or a “liar”…  by nearly an entire community who adored him, and wanted his favour.

Do you know what that kind of sustained bullying and collective gaslighting does to you, as person? I was only 17 when the attacks started; I was a kid, a child. I was called a “liar” so often by so many people that I almost started to believe I was one. I do not have the words or language as yet, to describe how this specific type of gaslighting warps your world and convinces you that what you saw, and what you know to be true, was not true. When it was true.

Morgan hit and physically assaulted me when I tried to stop him from assaulting my friend. He raped a close family member. He raped my best friend. He raped women so violently that they have ongoing physical health problems and pain, today. He had a pattern of behaviour in which he would bash women in the face and head if they resisted or tried to fight him off while he was raping them. He threatened to kill me in front of people – once with a knife in hand – on multiple occasions, because he knew I knew, and he wanted me silent and compliant. (The Verge has also verified nearly all of this).

Monsters maybe not be real but what he did was monstrous.

There can be no forgiveness for what Morgan Marquis-Boire has done, at least not from me. He cannot be redeemed because redemption is for those who earn it. He does not deserve your support and he certainly does not deserve anyone’s compassion or sympathy. From where I stand, what he deserves is nothing less than street justice. And if there is a God or two, I pray to them that I land the first blow against his body with a baseball bat. I have been told I should not admit such things in public space (because female rage and anger is taboo). But my rage is absolute. And fuck your taboos.

Anyway, while some of you workout a “wellness plan” for Morgan, I think you should know something: The reporting I did on him with The Verge was so traumatic that I was diagnosed with acute PTSD, anxiety, and clinical depression afterwards. I seriously thought about taking my own life because it was just all too much to bear. I felt desperately alone.

I am still grieving over what he took, and what I lost, because of what he did. And I do not know if I will ever stop grieving. In many ways I do not want to let go of my grief because it helps me to understand the suffering of others, and that matters. My grief makes me stronger, even in the parts which hurt the most.

Eight months after it all came out, I am finally doing better. I fought my way back from a place that I can only describe as hell. I have not thought about taking my own life in three months and I am now able to get out of bed without the weight of depression pushing me down. I have joy and happiness and there are days where I no longer think about him and what he did. But it took every last ounce of mana/strength I had left to make it back alive.

I am alive

I am alive

I am alive

But so is he…. So, is he.

And still I have to read and hear about people who continue to support Morgan; people who believe he just needs a bit of “transformative justice” and a hug to fix his broken bits. Imagine how it might feel for someone like Lila, and me, to read such tone deaf horseshit. Imagine how painful it is to read that people have more empathy and compassion for Morgan than for the women he raped, bashed, and brutalised. Imagine.



Why are employers arrogant enough to advertise that they pay below the minimum wage?

Yesterday, I decided I wanted to find some seasonal work picking fruit so I can make some casual cash while I am traveling Aotearoa on a road-trip. I’d heard that a lot of workers who take on seasonal fruit picking jobs get treated horribly and I don’t doubt it. I’ve had friends who undertook this type of work describe it as “slave labour”. But I thought to myself, “what is a month of being paid the minimum wage and picking fruit because I’m sure I can hack it, for the extra cash?” And I really need the cash at the moment. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I decided to look on New Zealand’s BackPacker job board which is geared towards people wanting short term work and who, like me, are road tripping around Aotearoa. I checked out some ads for housekeeping and cleaning as well as fruit picking. One of the very first ads I looked at very blatantly stated that as employers they pay below the minimum wage, of $16.50 an hour. What the actual fuck:

Screen Shot 2018-05-14 at 9.05.40 AM

I’ll level with you, I have worked low waged jobs most of my life as such I am not really surprised by the ads I read which publicly advertised breaking employment standards. Employers have offered me less than the minimum wage and I took it, because I was desperate and I needed the cash. Regardless of my own lived experience and hard won knowledge, it still annoyed me because it was so brazen and so arrogant.

Here is another ad I found which is looking for a farm hand and offering just $500 a week, and the worker is expected to work a seven day roster, with 6am starts each morning. Not only does this breach minimum wage standards but would be a clear cut case of exploitation. Plenty of employers coerce workers into taking jobs which pay less than the minimum wage but most of them are smart enough to do it behind closed doors:

The job above would likely be cash-in-hand meaning, the worker’ is forced to become part of the insidious ‘Black Economy’. Which leaves them in a vulnerable position because they are coerced into committing tax fraud. And for the record offering below the minimum doesn’t just breach minimum employment standards, it also amounts to wage theft. Yes: stealing. Yet these employers, Farmers, whatever they wanna call themselves, seem to be getting away with daylight robbery. 

Anyway I decided I’d had enough of these types of ads being unchecked by the site they run on. And, frankly, I am sick and tired of employers getting away with this shit, with zero accountability or consequences. I updated my FB with a simple and direct call to action:

Screen Shot 2018-05-14 at 7.21.00 PM

The tactic I used to hold this employer to a form of accountability wasn’t my own. First Union used similar tactics a few years ago when they were pushing for ‘fair pay for fair work’ at individually owned Pak’N’Save supermarkets. Union reps and people on the picket-lines outside the supermarkets (including me) handed out flyers stating the owner of said supermarket was treating their staff poorly. The flyers asked people to text the owner demanding better pay for their workers. This means people can feel like they are pushing back and engaging in activism but they don’t have to risk job loss or harsh consequences. Every small action against injustice, counts.

As per my Facebook post people texted the owner of the employer in question and pointed out it was illegal to pay below the minimum wage. She responded to most of us stating versions of, “my mother was sick and I was overseas and I didn’t know the minimum wage had gone up.”


The governmental wage increase goes up annually at exactly the same time: April the 1st. She must have known? And I am sure the dozens of other employers advertising for workers but paying under the minimum wage on that BackPacking boards knew as well. Look, let’s say in some far off distant alternate universe I give these employers the benefit of the doubt. Maybe as business owners they truly didn’t know the basics of employment law or that the minimum wage goes up every year at the same time.  This still begs the goddamn question of:


Our media was abuzz with whinging employers who were pleading “poverty” over the hike of $00.75 cents. Cry me a river. It isn’t even that much more than the usual hike by our past right wing National government who pushed it up between $0.30 or $0.50. My point is that the media was teeming wth articles about the $00.75 cents increase when it was first announced.  As such I find it hard to believe some employers somehow didn’t know about it.

Clear and blatant breaches of employment law on this site didn’t stop at minimum wage standards being breached. There was job ad after job ad for “work for accommodation and food”, which is pretty dodgy:

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 3.17.57 PM

New Zealand has a strong wwoofing volunteer community and I understand travelers may want to learn organic farming or permaculture on a lifestyle block because the trade of learning skills, fresh kai, and a warm bed for unpaid work seems like a fair deal. But perhaps our wwoofing culture has lead to the normalisation of “food and accommodation” in exchange for unpaid work? Here is one such ad, for organic farming:

The job ad which asks for unpaid workers to help milk a thousand cows sounds like a massive and exhausting undertaking. And the ad also says “approx 4 hours work” each day, so there would be no saying how much you might end up working day to day. In what world does this even sound like a fair deal? Actually, I wouldn’t know what a fair deal looks like on a farm so I asked a Farmer who I will call Dairy Man*. He also happens to milk 1000 cows give or take. I asked him how many hours he works on average, he responded:

“The cows are milked twice a day through a 50-bail rotary shed for 10 months of the year. There are 6 full-time staff plus a calf rearer during calving & a student over summer.”

He told me his workers undertake around four hours of work a day. But during “calving” which takes place from August through to September, he told me his workers easily do between “11-12 hours a day”. I asked if trading work on a farm for “accomodation and food” was a fair deal? It was a “no” from him:

“No, it’s not a fair trade. All my staff are paid decent salaries and have accommodation provided on farm at 3/4 market rate.

My lowest paid staff members are on about $20/hour.”

Clearly, some farmers including lifestyle farmers, are taking the utter piss? And are far more about operating on a modern day form of feudalism than giving their “volunteers” an enriching and positive learning experience.

I am going to break this down for you in employment law speak: It’s likely these employers offering “accommodation and food” (and there were tonnes of them) in place of real wages are gonna be in breach of New Zealand’s Zero Hours Act. This act was brought in around two years ago in April. A lot of governmental changes to employer law happen in April and employers should know this! How do they NOT know this???

This Employment Standards Act was a hard won piece of legislation and came about thanks to the hard mahi of Fast Food Workers and Unite Union, battling against contracts called Zero Hours. These types of contract invoke unfair penalties against workers and cause crippling economic uncertainty. The Act was part of a package which aimed to prevent and push back against unfair work practices. If your “volunteers” are working consistent but varying hours that extend past the agreed hours of work, you could be in breach of this Act. Especially if your “volunteers” are working unpaid for an extended amount of weeks and months with no real set start and finish times or agreed hours, or even payment. Giving them some kai and a couch in exchange for such hard labor isn’t fair. 

It would seem our agricultural industry is the the Wild West of workers’ rights when it comes to employment relations. Anything goes. If your business practices depend on unpaid labour and breaking the law then maybe ya’ just shouldn’t be in business.

Here is a run down of the Act, in case any workers/volunteers want to empower themselves and any employers want be less of a cunt… opps, sorry I meant exploitative:


I’ve got to ask: are the employers who are offering below the minimum wage or asking for “volunteer labor” on the BackPacker board, just really ignorant about employment law, as at least one of them is claiming? Or does their brazen and arrogant flouting of employment law have much more to do with the fact that there is almost no oversight (in these industries) by the MBIE (Ministry for Business and Innovation). In Auckland, this Ministry Department only has 11 worker labour inspectors to cover every business in one of our major cities. Couple this with the reality that over the last 30-odd years, consecutive governments have dismantled unions’ bargaining power, making it harder, and harder, for them to function/operate and access sites/workplaces. As such workers have become disempowered and unfairly disadvantaged, and wages have (by design) stagnated for our lowest earning workers.  

Thanks to all this Hot Neoliberal Mess, workers often have little representation from Unions or consecutive Governments.  Thus what has resulted is that most of the power within the workplace (and that includes farms) has been transferred from workers and now sits with employers who rarely face any consequences for breaking the law. So they continue to break it with impunity, because they can. Because no one has stopped them.

UPDATE: I spoke to Radio New Zealand about employers advertising that they are paying below the minimum:



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‘In Greed We Trust’: how the Trusts’ in West Auckland are exploiting their workers and breaking the law

You’d hope that if a “charitable” Trusts’ motto is “Giving back and investing into the community”, that they’d start by treating their own workers with respect and dignity, right? Unfortunately, this isn’t the case when it comes to The Portage and Waitakere Licensing Trusts, (hereafter the Trusts) out in West Auckland, New Zealand.

If you aren’t familiar with who or what the Trusts are, between them they have an exclusive license to operate twenty-five retail stores.  These include liquor stores, eleven hospitality venues, and one hotel, in a geographical area covering nearly the whole of West Auckland. In other words, they hold a geographic monopoly when it comes to selling piss, pedalling pokies, and dishing up food and coffee. And they are big on letting everyone know about just how charitable they are, and how much they love their community out West.

Regarding all their blowhard ‘care for the community’-type self-promotion, I can tell you as someone who has worked in one of their restaurants, this ‘care’ and fostering a community approach does not extend to their own workers.

From personal experience, and speaking with dozens of Trusts’ employees, there are many examples of unsafe work environments at their venues. Complaints include sexual harassment, an openly anti-union stance, employees being denied basic employment rights such as breaks, and wage theft. Additionally, the majority of their service workers earn poverty-rate wages while the Trusts’ president earns a six figure salary.  

Up until this point, not much has been said publicly about how this charitable organisation treats their workers, but they have certainly been under the media spotlight for the last few weeks, and NONE of the attention is flattering. The Spinoff recently exposed a number of concerns, such as conflicts of interest among the Trust’s board members, that this “community” organisation promotes problem gambling at their venues, and a lack of transparency in regards to how they spend their money.  Increasingly, it has come to the public’s attention that this community organisation may not be as “charitable” as they profess to be.

From early January 2018 until March 2018, I was employed at Bricklane, a restaurant situated in New Lynn, owned and operated by the Trusts.  Even by hospitality standards, the Trusts have an incredibly low staff retention rate of around 13%. You might ask why they struggle so badly to hold on to staff. Here is your answer:

The Trusts pay the minimum wage, or slightly above it, to the vast majority of their service workers.  When I had my job interview with Scott Kennedy (hospitality manager) he told me that Brick Lane was a “cash cow” and made “loads” of money. Yet very little of this profit is ending up in the pockets of their workers. At least one kitchen hand told me he was on the minimum wage. I spoke to another worker who was employed in one of their retail stores, she stated she was only offered ten cents above minimum wage when she began working for them.

When I was hired I negotiated a starting rate of $17 an hour, but when I was handed my contract I was told I would be paid the baffling amount of exactly $16.88. Another employee I spoke with told me they were also on a seemingly random wage of $16.08 an hour. One has to wonder how on Earth the Trusts calculates the wages they pay their staff.

If you treat your workers as nothing more than units-of-production to turn over a profit for some corporate arm headed by a six-figure-salary-plus-five-figure-bonus “earner”, they tend to quit.

In April 2018, the government increased minimum wage to $16.50. Some employees at Bricklane have told me they were given a measly pay rise – bumped up to just $17 an hour. Across all of their venues, the Trusts’ pay the vast majority of their staff far below the living wage rate, which will rise to $20.55 an hour this year. I guess their sense of “generosity” doesn’t extend to their retail and hospitality workers.

The Spinoff reported that Labour city councillor Ross Clow, also president of the Portage Licensing Trust, is earning an eye watering salary of $127,487 plus bonuses.  And National councillor Linda Cooper, who is the president of the Waitākere Licensing Trust, is earning a salary of more than $100,000. So while people such as Cooper and Clow are on six figure salaries, the vast majority of The Trusts’ workers are earning poverty wages. Does this sound fair to you? Personally, I think it sounds like bullshit.


One of the Trusts’ key values, is: “Respect! Do what you say you’re going to, with care for each other.” This sentiment is hardly reflected in the sub-human wages they pay their workers, a wage that does not match inflation, the CPI (consumer price index) or Auckland’s  spiralling living costs. Just because you say something doesn’t make it true, no matter how many times you repeat it.

As far as I am concerned, there is a special place reserved in hell for employers who profit off the blood, sweat, and tears of their own workers.   Paying them so poorly, they can barely survive the rising tide of inequality and wrought, in part, by wage suppression, not failing to mention employers who exploit their staff with no remorse. Employees from West Auckland and ALL other employees from all over Aotearoa deserve to be paid a living wage.  The Trusts’ should lead by actual example, not merely empty rhetoric.

If the discrepancy between Clow and Cooper’s six figure salaries and the pittance paid the Trusts’ hospitality and retail workers does not make your blood boil, perhaps this will: The Spinoff reported that before 2016, the Trusts had sold a whopping NZ$100 million worth of alcohol in the last decade. But as the report continues, “up until recently the Trusts’ financial contribution to local community could be measured in the tens-of-thousands.” More recently, they have invested $1,000,000 dollars per annum back into the community, while spending $200,000 on advertising costs alone!

They are a vastly profitable conglomerate, yet very little of those profits are ending up in the bank accounts and hands of their lowest paid workers, or even the community they are beholden to.

I think it should be noted that the large majority of trustees at the Trusts are actively in favour of paying their own workers poverty wages. Just for some background:

The Trusts’ is made up of three different boards: the Portage Trust Board (ten members), the Waitakere Trust Board (seven members), and lastly the West Auckland Independent Board (WAI) (five members) for a total of 22 Trustees.

A few years ago, the Trusts (like other wider organisations associated with the council and community) put paying all their employees a living wage to a vote. I am told that only around two trustees, voted in favour. Yep, you read that right: Only around two trustees thought their workers deserved to be paid enough to afford the basics of life.

I reached out to Clow for comment over email and I asked for his stance on the living wage; he responded writing,

“I want to categorically state that I am a strong supporter of the Living Wage campaign, and the goal of delivering all a decent income.”

But the question has to be asked: if he is the president of the Portage Licensing Trusts, and he also chairs the Auckland Council Advisory Group on the Living Wage, then why is it that the Trusts’ workers have remained on such low pay packets? The devil is in the detail: Clow goes on to contradict himself in the same email.  He states that hospitality has low profit margins and “it is vital we remain competitive against our close competitors”. In other words the buck, and Clow’s, commitment to the living wage stops at the Trusts’ doorstep. Perhaps Clow’s position as chair on the Advisory Group on the Living Wage needs to be reviewed?

Sub-human wages are not the only problem. In the two and a half months that I worked for this company, I was routinely denied my basic break entitlements which, just for the record,  is a breach of employment law. I continuously complained to my duty managers, asking for my break entitlements and eventually I began to get them, although only sporadically. I believe the Trusts purposely under-staff their venues as a way to save on wages. But what then occurs is that during high volume periods and weekends, breaks are overlooked for the sake of “customer service” and an extra corporate buck. Not to mention when you under-staff a hospitality business, it means your workers have to work twice as hard while still earning piss all per hour. Does this sound like an ethical business practice to you?

I spoke with Nick* who worked as a Duty Manager for one of the Trusts’ venues from 2013 to 2016. He told me he started on $15 an hour (in 2013 the minimum wage was $13.75). During this time he recalls that he never received a pay-rise until the yearly governmental increase and then he’d be bumped him up about 50 cents. He went on to say that he often worked as sole charge during the day and rarely, if ever, received his basic break entitlements during these periods. The longest he worked on one shift without a break because of “understaffing” was 12 hours straight.

Nick also tells me he believes wage theft was happening while he was working for the Trusts:

“I remember for a time, there was a period where we were getting unpaid breaks – as in, the venue managers would deduct the amount of time for breaks from the wages of that day.”

In other words, he believes that breaks he never took were being deducted from his pay! This doesn’t just breach employment law: it’s outright illegal.  This type of wage theft is common in the hospitality sector, but you’d hope an employer pitching themselves as a community organisation, would be better than this.

When I asked Nick if he thought the Trusts’ cared for the welfare of its lowest paid workers, he responded without pause, saying, “Hell no”. He then elaborated:

“Any organisation that could be accurately described as a ‘trust representative’ is far too removed from the actual working conditions of their lowest paid workers to be able to care about them.”

I don’t know how Nick stuck out nearly three years working for the Trusts, because after only two and a half months of working for Bricklane, I had had enough. I made a formal complaint to my Union (E tū), which I have actively followed up a number of times. This was soon after I had a meltdown at work because I was so sick of how I was being treated. My mental health had began to suffer, I had started to drink heavily to cope, and frankly, I had had enough of their bullshit. I refused to go back because I felt my workplace was unsafe.  I terminated my employment with Bricklane, and was paid out for my final two weeks.

The reason why I called my workplace “unsafe” was because of the high levels of harassment I personally witnessed and endured at Bricklane. From regulars who go in for hugs without asking permission – my body is not your entitlement – and whose hands then sometimes crept down and on to my ass, to outright inappropriate comments from others: a customer once said to me, loudly, “You have great fucking tits.” Clearly the culture at these venues needs to change.

I expressed my concerns over the phone to Scott Kennedy (Hospitality Manager) in regards to lack of safe working conditions and basic break entitlements.  He told me he was horrified and would “investigate”. I recently followed up with an email and asked him if any form of an investigation was underway. I received no response.

The reality is that the socially corrosive pattern of hospitality businesses getting away with the most appalling behaviour in regards to how they treat their workers is commonplace in New Zealand. My industry is unregulated and its workplaces often dangerously unsafe. Breaches of employment law are common. It is a sector in which workers are routinely disempowered and exploited because of criminally low wages, poor Union representation, and nearly no oversight by the MBI (Ministry of Business and Innovation) or consecutive governments, and including those with Labour in charge. After all, Clow, is a Labour Party councilor who happily takes a six figure salary while his own workers are paid poverty wages.  

The Trusts’ 37 venues have a multi-employer collective agreement (MECA) with E tū Union, and as such, working conditions should be more bearable. The fact that they are not might have a lot to do with the anti-union sentiment I observed at Bricklane. The Duty Manager actually encouraged me not to sign the MECA Agreement as I was signing my employment contract.

While working at Bricklane and in speaking with dozens of Trusts’ workers this week, I’ve learned hardly any of the workers knew anything about the MECA or E tū.  I only knew about the benefits of signing this agreement because I come from a Union background (thanks, Mum) and I know how to read my contracts properly.

To be clear, each worker is offered two contracts they can sign when they first become employed by the Trusts’. The first is an individual agreement which leaves workers with little to no legal protections if things start going ‘wrong’ at work. The second is a MECA (Mixed Member Employment Collective Agreement) which gives workers greater protections as they are protected by their Union. But the Trusts’ ony inform workers of the MECA briefly over email and in a short letter attachment. No one, from Scott Kennedy to E tū representatives, explains the benefits of signing such an agreement over the individual contract, for example, signing the MECA exempts you from the controversial 90 Day Work Trial.

E tū need to step up their involvement with the Trusts as there have only been a handful of site visits by representatives in the last 12 months. E tū justified the lack of site visits in an email to me saying there was “no uptake” in regards to joining their union out West. This claim sits in stark contradiction to the workers I spoke with who had no idea they even had a Union. Multiple E tū representatives whom I spoke with told me they are in “living wage negotiations” with the Trusts. But they have been in these “negotiations” for years and nothing has changed. No workers at the Trusts’, I spoke with had any idea about these negotiations. If a tree falls in the woods…

It seems, in regards to protecting the rights of the workers at the Trusts, there is a lot less  E tū (stand strong/stand up) and far more e noho (sitting down)*.

In the before-mentioned email Clow sent to me, he stated, “Management also confirmed that the relationship with E tū continues to be a good working relationship.” Perhaps it is time E tū got out of bed with men like Clow and the Trusts’ upper-management and instead, started talking directly with the Trusts’ lowest paid workers. Clearly, their voices are not being heard.

If what I have told you isn’t bad enough, it gets worse.

I spoke with another worker named Paul* who has worked for one of the Trusts’ many liquor stores for four and a half years. He pointed out that he and his co-workers are all expected to undertake ongoing online training, outside of work. On the surface it may sound like this company is putting effort into upskilling their staff, but  the reality is, workers aren’t paid for any of the time put into the courses. He explained to me:

“In recent years they have also manipulated staff into doing many, many hours of online training in their own time* (which legally they are required to pay you for), saying things like:

‘if you can’t put a couple of hours of your own time into learning for the business, then we as a business don’t want you’…”

Another person who used to work in one of their retail stores contacted me over Messenger, she told me she also had to undertake online training and was told “it’s [our] problem to do it outside of work.” Both she and her co-workers attempted to argue against doing training unpaid and on their own time. But they were all threatened with disciplinary action by the store manager if they continued to speak out. This workplace bullying isn’t exactly conducive to a fair and safe working environment.

Throughout our conversation, Paul, much like Nick, made it clear he did not think the Trusts, cared for their staff and described their business practices as “sickening”.

E tū’s collective agreement and its benefits, should be thoroughly explained to all new workers and clearly this is not happening. And they should be encouraged to sign it, not discouraged, as I was. But there is a reason why anti-union sentiment flows through their veins and venues: it means they can continue to pay their workers peanuts while treating them like dirt, with no consequences.  

Well, I am here to say: I am your consequence. I am the Trust’s worst goddamn fucking nightmare. I am a low-waged precarious worker with nothing left to lose and everything left to gain.

Just because the rest of the hospitality industry treats their workers as disposable trash, does not mean the Trusts’ have to follow suit.  Afterall, they are – on paper – a charitable organisation which profess to invest back into their surrounding communities. Their workers mostly live out West and are part of that community. As such, they should pay every last one of their workers, at the very least, a living wage, and on top of this pay their workers to do online training.

What’s more, this community organisation is also making staggering profits off pokie machines, as The Spinoff reported. By proxy, they are profiting off community poverty and misery which is so often wrought by addiction issues, but as yet have not specifically invested any money back into addiction services. This would be a simple, logical, and ethical move to mitigate some of the destruction they so routinely enable in people’s lives. Those who are bearing the heavy weight of addiction in West Auckland should not be stigmatised and shamed but, instead, corporations who profit off addiction should be publicly shamed and stigmatised.

Between the sale of booze, and their ever-growing property and assets portfolio (estimated at $70 million) and the $14 million sitting in their bank account, I am sure they could find a few bob – or a few million – to pay their workers a decent wage, and then at least partially fund addiction services out West, which are woefully underfunded, with the area even lacking addiction peer support workers. I have already written elsewhere about the importance of peer support workers in addiction and recovery;  they are effectively the backbone of other addiction services in Auckland.

It would seem the Trusts are far more interested in brand building than community building.  I would laugh at their hypocrisy, but in all honesty I am deeply disturbed by their predatory business practices.

I believe they need to start moving towards a more sustainable, cooperative, and democratic way of operating. This is not much to ask, is it? It is just asking for workplace fairness and basic human decency.

Building on my own personal experiences, and after talking with dozens of other Trusts workers, it is clear they are far more about benefiting from the brutalities of late neoliberal-capitalism than investing back into their community.  It is time this changed, not next year, and not in a few months’ time, but today. Right now.


*Some names have been changed


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WINZ: where hope and dignity go to die

I’ve just come from a WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand) office out in East Auckland, I often go as an advocate for people on welfare. I do this because I know going it alone, mostly, means you will be denied entitlements, often leave empty handed and likely, humiliated. The person who I supported today, I will call Emma (most people on welfare would rather stay anonymous when I ask if I can write about them). Emma, had had her benefit sanctioned because she was unable to attend a few scheduled appointments with her WINZ caseworker. We discovered later that an IRD (Inland Revenue) error was at the centre of this ordeal.

Over the last year Emma, has undergone two major surgeries: one on her neck, another on her elbow, leaving her in constant pain and on heavy pain meds. On top of this, a few years ago she was diagnosed with early onset arthritis in addition to injuries to her nerves and spine. Her ongoing health issues make working incredibly hard because she can’t predict when she will have good days and when she will be stuck at home in chronic pain. She still can’t lift anything heavier than a milk jug, can’t sit in a fixed position for any period of time, and suffers from insomnia that will often keep her awake for 40 hours or more. That’s when the seizures start. Her health issues impact and compound her mental health which just adds to her brain fog.  Depression, the physical pain and the concoction of pills Emma is on to control her physical pain, make it hard to think clearly and just remember day-to-day things – like those all important WINZ appointments.

Between all the physical and emotional hurdles which Emma faces every-single-day of her life, she missed six scheduled appointments at WINZ. She was operating under the information she’d previously been given; that she needed to submit a medical certificate every three months and have a yearly review. Emma didn’t realise she wasn’t in compliance and as such, her benefit was sanctioned and cut to the bone. Resulting in her missing rent, having no money for food, and barely managing to get by. Because what better way to kick someone in the guts who is already struggling, than to to cut them off economically?

I want to say right now, right here: I feel welfare sanctions are a cruel form of (economic) punishment which are punitively administered for the smallest slights of ‘bad behaviour’. Which include (but are not limited to): forgetting or being unable to make a scheduled appointment, failing a drug test (seriously, don’t tell me *you* as a fully employed person, has never ever smoked a bit of dope, dropped a pill in the weekend, or downed a wine or three every other night), and refusing to take a job that may or may not be suitable for you.

If you want to get a welfare sanction lifted you are required to go and plead your case, to whatever caseworker has been assigned to you at the next available appointment. Either that or risk missing even more rent payments and then in turn, risk joining the 40,000 people in Aotearoa, who are homeless and living on the streets.  

The WINZ appointment we had wasn’t exactly the worst I have attended. I’ve had caseworkers out right lie to me, make up WINZ policy, and actively yell in my face for calling them out on their bullshit and lies. It is always luck of the draw when it comes to WINZ: will the caseworker have empathy or will sociopathy be their preferred state of being? Who knows? But luckily this particular caseworker operated from a place of semi-empathy and reinstated her benefit with back-pay. When I asked for a food grant for Emma, the casework granted it without forcing us to jump through moral hoops. Being poor is now an individual and moral issue; not a structural or state issue.

I am just going to put-it out there and get all radical: No one in this damn country should be forced to beg for food. However, every single  day those on welfare are forced to do just that; beg for their most basic entitlements.  Only a few weeks ago RadioNZ reported that over 200 million worth of WINZ entitlements had been denied to tens-of-thousands of beneficiaries, 

“The figures were in a report obtained by Newsub’s The Nation under the Official Information Act.

It showed 150,000 beneficiaries and low income families were not getting payments totalling $200m a year that they were entitled to.”

More often than not when I ask for a food grant the caseworker will demand the person in need of food justify why they deserve it and ask what happened to any extra dole money they had. Oh, I don’t know? Lack of dole cash might have something to do with the cold, hard, and shitty fact that WINZ payments are so low it barely pays rent let alone guarantees the basics like: food.

I talked to a sole mum on WINZ a few months ago who had recently discovered dumpster diving. She was so excited about it all because as she told me “I now have food security. I know I can find food no matter what. My family will not go hungry.” Ya’ fucking know our country is fucked when a sole mum is finding hope at the bottom of a trash can. And food security means going through bins at the backs of gourmet supermarkets like Farro to avoid going hungry.

In the end we got a food grant, we re-instated Emma’s welfare payments and got back-pay. We still have to go and print out some IRD material to get everything fixed up, which it seems WINZ can’t manage in an office full of printers. I am hoping tonight she has a tiny bit of economic breathing space. But what worries me the most is the despair and the sheer terror so many people I support at WINZ are feeling, this includes Emma. She bluntly summarised to me, her experiences with WINZ:

Constant, exhausting terror, dulling your cognitive abilities because you’re in perpetual fight/flight mode.”

On the way home from WINZ, Emma told me she had come up with a ‘Plan B’ if she couldn’t sort out the WINZ sanctions. This plan was simple in execution: she was going to take her own life. She told me she didn’t want to “come across as dramatic” but she couldn’t see any other way out of it.

I understand what I just typed is heavy and hard; suicide is always a tough and painful subject. But I think we need a compassionate and public conversation around the very real and deep trauma that our State Social Systems are causing so many people. Like, forcing people to live off so little they are picking food out of a bin to gain food security is not okay. It is not fucking okay that every damn time I go to a WINZ office, caseworkers are actively making up policy. Even the ‘semi-empathetic’ caseworker we got today, still, lied and told Emma it was part of her “WINZ obligation that [she] come for an appointment once a month.” That isn’t true. Tonight, I spoke with an ex WINZ caseworker, who told me,

“What we [WINZ caseworkers] did to beneficiaries was awful… we were encouraged to dehumanise them.”

It is not okay that nearly everyone I have advocated for at WINZ, has broken down in tears during appointments and have often been close to a panic attack. Most people I advocate for at WINZ unanimously tell me it is a humiliating and utterly defeating experience.

Being poor, being unemployed, being on welfare, being down on your luck, or struggling with serious health issues like Emma… doesn’t make you less than; it doesn’t suddenly make you sub-human. The fact I even have to type those words as a reminder that, regardless, of what economic and social position you hold, you are still a human being, makes me incredibly sad.



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Beyond the Election: on solidarity and building communities of compassion

Trigger warning for content which includes sexual assault and suicide


New Zealand’s General Election result of 2017 was incredibly close and we actually do not know who has won, just yet. But already my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with updates from leftie friends, comrades, and activists declaring “Three more years of poverty, despair and crippling economic insecurity.”

And yeah, I get it; whichever way the ballot box falls, it is hard to grasp why so many people voted again for the National Government which has presided over record levels of homelessness, wealth inequality, and suicide rates. As someone who advocates for those on welfare and for some of our lowest paid workers within the hospitality industry, I see first-hand the impacts of this National government’s values and policies on our poorest citizens. I too, am pretty pissed off that we are quite possibly staring down the barrel of a gun of another three years of a National government.

But … right now, today … this week, I am not feeling defeated or discouraged over this election result, especially given that the last election was a landslide victory to the right. The National party government’s convincing win in 2014 was so complete that at the time it felt utterly crushing for so many of us on the left: “Could be worse”, as they say. It got worse. But now, I am actually – at long last – feeling hopeful again, and I understand that might sound really naive to some of you. But just bear with me and give me a chance to explain why my hope hasn’t been totally annihilated by the 2017 election result, thus far.  

This hope I am holding on to comes from everything I’ve been through and survived in the past year, and as such, how I perceive a win: my definition of a victory, both politically and personally in life, has changed drastically over the last few months. I’ve got this new fire burning in my belly which has been ignited by the many injustices my mates and I have survived over the last year.

Defining a win for this election cycle, for me, is about recognising progress and acknowledging where we were as a country only eight weeks ago. Politically, New Zealand was looking at a failing opposition and a guaranteed National government. Personally, only eight weeks ago, I was in Puna Whakataa, a respite community house for people dealing with addiction. I fully recommend you not attempt to drink wine like it is water, it doesn’t end well.

This was sparked by many events. Some are personal and some political including the following: being fired from a job simply for speaking out about the exploitation of new migrant workers within that workplace (shout-out to the National government for shitting all over workers’ rights including through 90 day trials); being sexually assaulted, which left me reeling and feeling broken; my mum finding out she had cancer; and one of my best friends passing away suddenly. Context matters, and my context is: I’ve already survived so much, and it hasn’t killed me; I am still standing.  

More than anything, it was being sexually assaulted which led me to using alcohol to numb emotions for which I had no coping skills. I tried to get help through the public mental health system but the waitlists were massive, the hoops and different organisations I had to call felt overwhelming, and it just seemed easier to medicate with booze to temporarily anesthetize my pain. National have woefully underfunded services that support those who have been raped or assaulted, and as Radio New Zealand reports, there are month-long delays.

It isn’t just Rape Crisis supporters who are struggling to keep up with the overwhelming numbers of people who need help. All our mental health service funding has been cut to the bone under the National Government. I spoke to a mental health worker who wanted to remain anonymous, who said to me, “We are dangerously underfunded, understaffed, and our working conditions are appalling. Most of us are on burnout and are looking to leave.” Those of us seeking support are often left to find other ways to cope and manage. Given you are 70% more likely to use drugs and alcohol if you have survived sexual assault and/or rape, falling headlong into addiction isn’t exactly inevitable but it is probable at least, for some of us.

It is safe to say I become part of that 70% statistic and attempted to drink myself to death, until, finally, exhausted, I reached out for help, again. I learnt of a peer support focused addiction and recovery service called Mahi Marumaru which is out in South Auckland, near where I live. It took a few months to get a support worker but I hang in there, and eventually I was connected with a peer worker named Jamie, who has been amazing. She suggested I have a break from everything and go into Puna Whakataa, a short-term respite community for addiction recovery, so I could rest and start healing.

There was absolutely no waitlist for this respite (keeping in mind I already had to wait for months to access a peer support worker), likely because Puna is funded by the south Auckland DHB and The Salvation Army, once again a charity doing the work of what the government should be doing. It was, in part, founded by Peer Support workers who come from lived experience with addiction who realise having to wait for a bed can mean the difference between living or dying.

I spent two weeks there, in which I learned a lot about addiction, myself, and how the best models of addiction and recovery are based on aroha and compassion. I had access to 24/7 counseling and support and for the first time in my life I was being taught the tools I needed to cope with all the pain and trauma I was living with. I walked out of Puna feeling stronger, and as if maybe the possibility really does exist that I could get my life back again.

I have not stopped drinking completely, but I am certainly no longer drinking in the mornings, and I am certainly not drinking everyday; for the first time in a long time I have moments of joy where I feel happy, and where all this hurt does not feel so huge and heavy.

Perhaps, for many people, having to go into respite and needing to admit you have a serious problem with alcohol would not be classified as a “win” in life. But for me, it is a win to be able to say: “I am not drinking in the mornings anymore, I have a bit of hope for my future, and I am slowly but surely gaining my life back”. In fact, being able to say this isn’t just a win for me, but also it is life-affirming: not everyone who becomes addicted to a substance makes it out alive.

I know this because while in Puna, a person who was meant to be admitted to a bed did not make it. They passed away from complications with alcohol before they could even walk through the front door. In this context it feels like a monumental victory right now for me to say “I am getting there. I am still here in this world”.  

The knowledge that I can survive so much heartache during a short time has given me a new perspective on my life, and by extension my political awareness, and even how I perceive what a political and social win can, should, and does, look like. It reminds me that whether we have a Labour or National government, it will not change my resolve to fight as long and hard as I can for a gentler and more compassionate country. And by extension communities that are nuanced enough to recognize the impacts of what historical and contemporary racism, sexism, and classism have done to our people.

At the very start of this piece of writing, I pointed out we now have one of the highest suicide rates in the OECD. While politicians bicker about what is or isn’t economically possible when it comes to funding crucial health and support services, people are dying. Between June of this year and last, our suicide statistics rose to a staggering 606 people. This number disproportionately affects our Māori and Pasifika people and our young men. When inequality becomes so overwhelming, so huge and so clearly entrenched within our communities, people’s mental health will always deteriorate. The final, irreversible, and desperate consequence of this deterioration is death by suicide.

I would like to add two more people to this statistic of 606 people: during the lead up to the General Election, two of my friends committed suicide. This year has, truly, been appalling and shattering for myself, my friends, and our extended communities. They were both young women in their early twenties, and both had struggled with mental health issues for a long time. One of these young woman had spent a long time battling the punitive and humiliating WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand) state system, and often told me how WINZ contributed to her despair and depression.

Notably, mental health was a leading campaign issue for most major and minor parties, with Labour leader Jacinda Ardern speaking emotionally about her own experiences losing a friend to suicide and has pledged to a target of zero suicides, and has vouched to, if elected, better fund mental health. Perhaps the most powerful act of solidarity for those suffering with mental health issues, however, came from then co-leader of the Green Party, Metiria Turei, who also, importantly and correctly, connected mental health with welfare and poverty.

In July of this year the Green Party launched their welfare policy which would see all benefits rise by 20% and accompanied by a roll back of the economic sanctions many face if not meeting their obligations under WINZ. Metiria spoke at the policy launch where she admitted she had committed welfare fraud in the early ‘90s as a young solo māori mum. She told everyone she did so as an act of survival to supplement her measly DPB (Dependant Parents Benefit) at the time. Metiria said,

“Like most people who receive a benefit, I was so careful about managing my money.

I’d go to the bank every fortnight on dole day. I’d withdraw all my money, in cash, then split it up into small amounts, wrapped up in rubber bands with little notes about what it was for.

I knew exactly how much I had for our bills, our rent, our food. But whatever way I split it, I still didn’t have enough to get by at the end of the week.”

In response to her confession she was subject to a relentless media beat down. Public benefit-bashing became a bloodsport in which spectators jeered at the sidelines and pundits with no lived experience of welfare threw the hardest and heaviest blows. Writer and activist Giovanni Tiso gave perhaps one of the most powerful rebuttals to the tirade of abuse and condemnation that was flung at Metiria and, by extension, anyone who is or has been on welfare:

Far too often – while rightly worrying about the continued capacity of journalism to serve its democratic functions in spite of the decline of its business model – we forget that the fourth estate is just that: an estate, that is to say a seat of power, and that this power is implicated in everyday forms of social repression and in entrenching the dominant ideology. This is the ideology that reduces welfare recipients to occasional objects of pity, while systematically depriving them of any agency. Hence the outrage at the revelation that a young woman on the DPB – at a time when Māori  unemployment in her age bracket was at near 40 per cent – should dare to be politically active. It is also the ideology that dictates that the lives of beneficiaries must be open to constant surveillance and monitoring, down to the most intimate details of their sexual and affective lives, and including the odious policy of ‘naming the father’.”

To add to what Giovanni so necessarily points out, what was barely noted in our media was that Metiria’s act was one of solidarity after the fact. She had been prompted to speak out about welfare and welfare fraud because she had read a story about a young woman who had taken her life after being accused of welfare fraud. As it turned out the accusation was false, but by the time the truth came out, the realization came too late to save the woman.

Let’s break this all down to its bare bones: Metiria was forced to stand-down because she dared defend the lives of those on welfare and in this case the life of a young woman wrongfully accused of a so called “welfare crime”. A “crime” which she had not even committed and who then, in response, took her own life and became part of our 606 people who have died by suicide, this year.   

People are dying because the so-called State safety net no longer aims to catch those in struggle but instead strangles, criminalises and subjugates them. People are dying because there are not enough beds available fast enough in our mental health and addiction and recovery units and houses. And serious trauma survivors like me seem only able to access wrap around care and help, when we become desperate to the point of struggling through life or death situations. We are living in a country that punishes and seeks to further destroy those who are already in immense pain. You need to ask yourself: Is this the kind of country you want to live in?

I know few people who are not affected by suicide, poverty, or growing inequality, and all of these things affect us both on personal and societal levels. Just as recovering from personal tragedy takes many years, even with help and support, recovering and healing as a nation from all of this deep social pain, loss, and heartache will take rebuilding our communities and connecting on much deeper levels with one another.

We have institutionalised political and social systems founded upon the neoliberal belief that by increasing the pain of those in struggle, we can somehow improve their lives through a dose of “tough love”, an oxymoron if ever there was one. The thinking goes that we can bully and coerce the unemployed into finding jobs no matter how shitty, lowly paid, humiliating, and insecure they may be. We can shame and force those with addictions to pledge to abstinence or face criminalisation and social exclusion. We can demand that those in poverty somehow find individualised ways or strategies to crawl and dig their way out of structural poverty.

These approaches are the antithesis of empathy and aroha, the two things I was meet in spades with, inside Puna Whakataa. I believe these two powerful emotions of aroha and empathy could be a remedy to social harm, if turned into action; let us use the verb form of these words.

I believe aroha and empathy should be at the core of our political and social lives. Perhaps then, all of us who are struggling day-to-day with poverty, addiction, or any other hardship, could begin to etch out a decent economic living and a meaningful life filled with love, laughter, and light, instead of disenfranchisement, disconnection, and despair. Writer and activist Moana Jackson writes for e-tangata,  Perhaps amid all the current post-mortems about winning and losing the election, it may be timely to re-imagine what is ‘real’ and to reflect on what kind of a different reality might be created.”

Whatever government we are left with, it will take decades of compassionate mahi at a grassroots level to imagine and create counter-communities of connection and absolute solidarity; communities that cannot be fractured. Author and activist Max Harris writes for The Spinoff,  

But beyond September 23, we cannot let up on putting pressure on politicians to help to create something better. In my view, that “something better” is a politics grounded in care, community, and creativity – a politics underpinned, ultimately, by love. The structures of our politics in their current form don’t accommodate how people are doing politics or want to be done. We need to change that.”

One election, whichever way it may go, does not determine our futures or our lives absolutely. If the last eight weeks have taught me anything, it is that we already have a growing politics of “care, community, and creativity” — we always have, at least at a grassroots level. I experienced this in a community house called Puna Whakataa and our wider addiction and recovery whānau out South. Who treat people like me who have addiction issues as people in need of support and understanding, and not as loser junkies and alcoholics who should be in jail or publicly ridiculed. We all saw this with Metiria Turei speaking out and up for those on welfare and refusing to apologize for committing welfare fraud, in other words refusing to say sorry for just trying to survive and obtain a decent standard of living. It has long been noted: If the law is unjust the law must be broken.

Metiria acted from a place of care and aroha when she so publicly stood with The Welfare Class, and in doing so she ripped wide open the political space for thousands upon thousands of people to tweet, Truth to Power. Under the hashtag #IAmMetiria countless people, in response to her speaking out, told their stories of hardship and cruelty at the hands of WINZ, exposing a failed and brutal system that hurts more than it heals. Metiria also refused to “dob in” any sole mummas who confided in her that they too had committed welfare fraud as an act of survival. Metiria’s refusal to nark on those who trusted her with sensitive information is what I call solidarity.

You can’t break that kind of solidarity. It is absolute.

I’d assume Metiria would rather do jail time then ever break confidence with the women who confided their truths with her. Perhaps, for some, it will be hard to understand this level of loyalty… But, I do. You can’t undo a suicide. You can’t buy back values, principles or morals. Once they are gone. They are gone. After that you have to live with your decisions and choices.

On the back of #IAmMetira, the art and activist movement We Are Beneficiaries, sprang up on Twitter and then on Facebook and eventually even out on the streets. We Are Beneficiaries enlisted the help of artists to draw portraits or images that viscerally reflect the stories and words of those on benefits.

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This is exactly how communities that cannot be fractured are born: through the sharing of our common stories, and then the citing of these stories as a form of public and political testimony, which gives shape to our daily lives, and the struggle against being forgotten. In the ardent words of journalist Sarah Kendzior,

“When wealth is passed off as merit, bad luck is seen as bad character. This is how ideologies justify punishing the poor. But poverty is neither a crime nor a character flaw. Stigmatise those who let people die, not those who struggle to live.”

During turbulent times it pays to remember those of us in the Working, Lower and Welfare Classes take out the majority of our population; we are the majority. We are the 99 percent.  We are the ones we have been waiting for.
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