Addicts or not, workers don’t deserve public shaming

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

Postscript:

Kia ora all! I am freelancing which means I have no secure income so, I rely on donations from the wider public to keep myself economically afloat. If you like what I have to say and want to support me, you can make a direct contribution via my bank account:

Name: MISS C A KING

Bank Details: 12-3040-0580277-01

Thanks very much for your aroha and time.

 

 

‘A place of healing and a place of hurt’: on abuse and assault in the BDSM community

Content warning: Contains explicit content and references to sexual assault and rape, which may be triggering to survivors.


I just had the most uncomfortable conversation with my mum about some handcuffs she found under my bed which I’d left there by accident. To be exact, what she found were not handcuffs but shackles I’ve used for hog tying people. I decided against pointing this out because: awkward as fuck. I’m just so glad she missed the ball gag and the cat o’ nine tails I’d also left under the bed.

I’m sure my mum noticed the look of horror on my face but it didn’t stop her from saying, “I know you are into BDSM and that’s fine. You should do what makes you happy.”

Oh. My. God. I nearly died. Despite being utterly mortified that my mum had just bought up my involvement in a scene/subculture considered by many as deviant and deranged (and more misunderstood than ever thanks to 50 Shades of Grey), I resisted the urge to shut the conversation down. Instead I told her the initial reason that I had gotten into BDSM was that the cornerstones of kink culture are meant to be: Safe, Sound and Consensual.

My involvement in BDSM goes deeper than the explanation I gave my mum. I have always felt I could have more sexual agency as a woman within the kinkster community than in wider mainstream sex culture. I have more freedom to discuss my sexual fantasies, boundaries and needs with less risk of being ruthlessly slut-shamed by men and, yes, sometimes by women. In wider mainstream culture, women aren’t meant to have their own sexual needs or desires; we are socialised into believing we should serve the fantasies of men, while suppressing our own….

To continue reading this essay please Click Here, and you will be taken to The Spinoff where you can read it in full…

Podcast: Chloe King on the Problem with Positive Thinking

A short time ago I did a podcast with BFM on The Wire with host Xiemna Smith, we focused on the problems with the corporate takeover of spirituality and how so often, mindfulness and other holistic concepts are used in coporate settings to increase worker productivity and profits. We also spoke more broadly about the occupy movement, unions, grassroots activism, and why positive thinking, probably, want magically transform your life — no matter what self-help gurus have to say on the matter. As Xiemna writes,

“We live in an age where we are bombarded with social media messages telling us we can find happiness if we just drink a kale smoothie and have a more positive mindset – if we can fix ourselves, then everything will be OK. But community activist and writer Chloe King thinks this approach is a harmful one.”

If you’d like to hear what I have to say on this subject click here or listen below:

 

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John Key, I am a low waged worker, and neither “lazy” nor “drug addled”

Prime Minister John Key is making international headlines for all the wrong reasons again. In a recent Radio New Zealand interview he shamed low waged workers, calling them, “drug addicts” and describing them as being “lazy.” Okay, I am one of the hundreds of thousands of low waged workers in this country and I feel devastated by his comments which further included stating we, the apparently lazy and low waged workers, also have no work ethic. Key is using these reasons to justify bringing in record numbers of migrant workers into New Zealand, to take up roles in work considered unskilled, such as fruit picking, hairdressing, labouring, baking, driving trucks, managing cafes, and working in hospitality. 

“[…] go and ask the employers, and they will say some of these people won’t pass a drug test, some of these people won’t turn up for work, some of these people will claim they have health issues later on,” Key told Radio New Zealand reporter Jesse Mulligan,

“So it’s not to say there aren’t great people who transition from Work and Income to work, they do, but it’s equally true that they’re also living in the wrong place, or they just can’t muster what is required to actually work.”

I want to be very clear here: I support immigrant workers. I embrace the diversity they bring to Aotearoa. I stand firm in solidarity with migrant workers for many reasons, the most important being that nearly always the migrant workforce is subject to low wages and exploitation, something of which I also have personal, plentiful, painful experience. What I do not embrace is John Key pitting workers like myself, already being paid poverty wages, against immigrant workers being exploited as cheap labour, all to further suppress wage growth and help his corporate mates get richer.

Most low waged workers who I know are some of the hardest working people you will ever meet. We undertake multiple jobs, which is hard, I promise you, and we have no choice other than to do this. There has been a major rise in the casualised and part-time economy, and full-time work is almost impossible to come by. We are left stitching multiple jobs together to make up full-time work. We give up our nights, days and weekends to pour your pints, flip your burgers, to serve food we can’t afford ourselves, and to clean your damn toilets. Yeah, you know all those jobs people don’t want to do? We do them. We work twice as hard as CEOs and workers considered “highly skilled,” for measly paychecks in high stress environments, and we endure the poverty shaming which comes with underappreciated low waged work. Being poor is to incur ridicule and constant put-downs from strangers, people we know, the mainstream media, and now, even our own political leaders.

Many of our most vulnerable and precarious workers, nearly always women, new migrants and people of colour, typically have no protections, no benefits and nowhere to turn. In part this is because consecutive governments have actively undermined and weakened unions through laws such as the 1991 Employment Contracts Act, which made it much harder for them to operate. This has restricted workers’ ability to negotiate pay and access the most basic of benefits like sick leave and holiday pay, and we are routinely denied breaks.

So, if we don’t work our fingers to the bone for ruthless employers, we get fired or our shifts get cut. This leaves us scrambling to find other work in a stagnant and flooded job market. In response we become desperate and therefore easier to coerce into accepting offers for pay below minimum wage and having to deal with workplace injustices like harassment and assault. I have PTSD from the number of times I have had guys attempt to assault me and feel me up on shift when working in nightclubs and late night bars. There is almost no direct course of action I can take over this as the hospitality sector is unregulated and has no real union representation. So, if I seem “lazy” or wasted on shift it is likely because I am feeling depressed and anxious in response to a demeaning and sometimes dangerous work environment.

It is important to note that, while Key calls low waged workers “drug addicts” and “drug addled” in his RNZ interview, he fails to mention that drug addiction is a symptom of poverty, and low wages combined with insecure work induces poverty.  Wanting to check out of this grinding reality is a perfectly normal, albeit harmful response to an absolute feeling of hopelessness and despair. Comments like Key’s, which shame an entire class of people, make me want to pick up a bottle of booze and down every last drop, until I can feel nothing but that warm numbness wash over me.

Honestly, this type of shaming of low waged workers like myself makes me cry. I’m serious. It hurts. It hurts because no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to secure even low paid and unskilled work for long periods of time. I am not alone in this struggle. It was Key’s government which introduced the 90 Day Trial law in 2009, which only serves to compound the rising issues associated with precarious and low waged work. The Waikato Times reported in 2013 thousands of workers had been sacked under this law (this is a conservative estimate) and many were simply told they “did not fit in.”

Five weeks ago, I was personally subject to the harder edge of the 90 Day Trial legislation when I was not offered an ongoing contract only five days out from the trial period end date. The reason? I was told that I did not “perform my duties as a receptionist up to standard.” I had worked incredibly hard for this company, having gone above and beyond my job description. I’d lost considerable amounts of weight during my time in this role as I had spent so much time running between the multiple levels of the building to clean, run coffee and tea, and undertake errands for other employees. I often felt stressed and overworked, during and after work hours. Still, I was told my hard work was not good enough. When is our hard work ever fucking good enough?

Being fired under this law was a major blow to my confidence and since then I have struggled to get out of bed. I feel depressed and hopeless and I am battling suicidal ideation daily; I don’t want to die but I cannot keep bouncing from one job to the next with no chance of economic stability or progression. My experience of insecurity has been ongoing for years and years, and no matter how hard I work I have little hope that my situation will ever change.

Yet John Key has the audacity to call those living in poverty because of low wages, bad luck and under/unemployment “lazy” and “drug addicts.” His rotten rhetoric blames us alone for our circumstances, when it is his government that further entrenches poverty into the lives of blue collar workers and the working class. It was his National party’s MP, Paula Bennett, who enacted sweeping welfare reforms and sanctions which made getting a benefit a humiliating experience, not to mention the measly state payout barely covers rent, let alone rapidly rising living costs.

When you rip gaping holes in social security nets such as welfare, those with lesser means are left to drown under the rising tide of inequality, structural unemployment, and underemployment. So many of us who are bodily abled or not, and mentally well or not, are left with no choice than to take any work, no matter how dangerous, precarious, and sub-human the wages. What sort of a choice is that?

Young people who are born poor or fall into poverty and downward mobility are denied a future, or at least any economic and personal well-being. This is not the kind of future anyone deserves, especially our young, and no-one should just accept it as a given.

No matter what John Key tells the masses, the problem with New Zealand’s work economy is not our being “lazy” or “drug addled” workers who lack “work ethic.” I’d call him a cunt for what he said about workers like me but he has neither the depth nor the warmth. The problem is low wages. The problem is a rise in a culture of precarious and casualised work which has created structural unemployment and job scarcity. The problem is the laziness, incompetence and widespread sociopathy of both right and nominally left wing governments who have failed, dismally, to protect those of us who were not born into wealth and privilege. The problem is that Key is a millionaire who has absolutely no idea about, nor care for, the daily struggles and injustices the working class and migrant workers endure every single day. Perhaps then, aside from finally starting to deal with any of these very real issues, at the very least, John Key should simply stop talking about us as if he knows us.

You can follow me on twitter

Versions of this essay where also published on:

Stuff Nation

The Standard

Unite Union 

Postscript:

Kia ora all! I am freelancing which means I have no secure income so, I rely on donations from the wider public to keep myself economically afloat. If you like what I have to say and want to support me, you can make a direct contribution via my bank account:

Name: MISS C A KING

Bank Details: 12-3040-0580277-01

Thanks very much for your aroha and time.

“Why don’t you just get a better job” and other dumb shit people say to low income earners

 

For most of my working life I have been stuck in the hospitality industry which is lowly paid, painfully precarious and poorly regulated. In New Zealand, where I live,  hospitality employers mostly treat you as nothing more than an easily replaceable unit to turn-over-profit. I have spent over a decade in this industry and as such I have become acutely aware of the fact that no matter how many shifts I work or how many poorly paid jobs I undertake, I will never have enough money to meet rising living costs.

Sometimes, my life is a bit depressing. You know what I mean? I get up, I go and work one of my multiple jobs and I come home. Each week I check my bank balance and I feel pretty put-out about how low my pay is as compared to how hard I worked for it.

Obviously, working hard at minimum wage jobs is never going to land me economic security. No matter how hard I have worked in the hospo industry I have never ever received a pay-rise, not once. The lie of “hard work” serves to convince us that if we fail to achieve happy, healthy and joy filled lives which are economically secure thanks to well paid jobs, it is because we failed to work hard enough for it. Constantly we are told that external factors do not affect us. This type of pervasive ‘positive’ rhetoric is endlessly used by many self-help Gurus such as Tony Robbins, one of America’s most well-known motivational speakers.

The lie of “hard work” is pitched to us – those from the working and lower classes, by not only self-help gurus and spiritualists but politicians and well intentioned high school teachers and even our parents, as being one of the best paths to prosperity. This myth is perpetuated and disseminated by the mainstream media as motivational newsworthy ‘human interest’ stories. However, there is very little which is human about these types of stories. The core of these news pieces has nothing to do with humanity or being human and everything to do with selfishness and individualism and play on insecurities and our need to compare our lives to others who we think or we are passive aggressively told, have it better than us.

A few months ago the NZ Herald (New Zealand’s most read newspaper which controls the national narrative) ran yet another one of these “motivational” articles on a young landlord named Gary Lin. Who has managed to buy up a staggering eleven properties citing “hard work” as a reason for his success. He told the NZ Herald,

“Work hard, work smart, save hard, and invest smart. Wealth creation is not rocket science – perseverance and hard work can get you there.”

As if wealth creation is something we should as young people, be aspiring to. In times of great wealth inequality, we should be demanding wealth dispersal not setting out to create and covet wealth for ourselves. Gary, unlike most of us, was given a hefty “leg up” or what we poor folk call a “handout” by his father in the sum of $200,000 as a wedding gift which allowed him to buy his first home which cost him $175,000. I guess for some people money really does grow on trees.

I hate to break it to you Gaz – can I call you Gaz? But “hard work” had nothing to do with your successes in life.

Gaz got lucky. He won the genetic lottery and was born into wealth – he did not earn the money that helped him buy his first home. It was given to him.  Instead of using his unearned wealth to help others he made the choice to punch-down and profit off the growing number of people stuck in the rental trap by hoarding properties. Gaz has engaged in predatory behavior by renting his properties out at market rental rates. In an unregulated rental market the odds are never in favor of tenants. As George Minbiot wrote for the Guardian, Rent is another term for unearned income.”

People like Gaz rarely acknowledge their economic success is at the expense of those from the lower and working classes. To recognize this Gaz, might have to feel a little bit bad about how he came into his millionaire property portfolio. He might have some kind of world shattering epiphany that he is not as smart as he believes and his successes are owed more to an ability to stomach the ruthless actions and attitudes needed to ‘make it’ in a society that is quickly turning into a dystopian one. Which makes The Hunger Games, look like child’s play. Sociopathy and luck had more to do with Gaz’s successes in life than actual “hard work”, talent and intelligence.

Lawyer and anti-poverty activist David Tong, responded to Gaz’s flawed belief that anyone can own property if they just “work hard” enough, with these words:

“Motivational read from the NZ Herald: You too can be a rich property investor. If dad gives you a $200,000 gift”

“Hard work” and motivation don’t mean shit in a broken economy that was built on the blood, backs and bones of the working class and the most marginalized and vulnerable. Increasingly, accessing upward mobility – which buying property can help you obtain as well as a better quality of life, is becoming an impossible task because of low wages, insecure work and a flooded job market. People are just struggling to get off minimum wage let alone save for a house.

***

The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions states that “At least 30% of New Zealand’s workers – over 635,000 people – are in insecure work. We believe it may well cover 50% of the workforce.” No matter how hard you work it is impossible to get ahead when your employer only offers you inconsistent hours and denies your basic right to a guarantee of minimum hours.

Casual contracts are used widely within the hospitality and service industries and state that your employer owes you “no minimum of hours.” But the expectation is that you will cover and come in when needed and if you refuse you are often faced with penalties. Such as having your shifts cut the next week. Having the stability of a salary as opposed to waged work is a far off dream for so many of us. You can’t budget let alone save money for a house when you never know what your pay-check is going to be from one week to the next.

Economic insecurity because of cut shifts and insecure hours has been a major feature of my working life. For example, last year just before Christmas I had my shifts cut in half. I went from working between four and five shifts a week down to only two. I was given six days’ notice and when I pointed out how hard this would hit me economically to a Duty manager I was told, “I should go and find a second job” and reminded that “I was only on a casual contract so there was not much I could do about it.”

For the last few months I had been back-breakingly flexible for this employer. I had come in whenever I was needed and covered shifts at short notice. I had worked hard to make every customer’s experience an enjoyable one, all this for minimum wage. I spent most of December desperately scrounging around for a second job, as did two other workers who had suffered the same fate.

I popped into the same work soon after my shifts had been cut to collect my tips and one of the regulars who had been drinking, accosted me verbally and demanded to know why I was in such vocal support of the recent rolling strikes of Bunnings Warehouse workers. These workers had been subject to Zero Hour contracts, eternal bullying and harassment from managers and no guarantee of shifts or rosters. He said “why don’t these Bunnings workers just go out and get a better job”. This statement coming from a white male Baby Boomer who enjoyed free tertiary education and did not start his working life off in debt. All is crimson and gold in middle class Whiteywood, I guess.

“Why don’t you just go and get a better job?” This singular narrative epitomizes the ignorant attitudes of people like Gaz and the regular from my work whose name is ironically Gary, as well. It also puts the sole responsibility of finding well paid and meaningful work onto the worker, while absolving a government’s responsibility to push for job creation which serves their citizenry and the environment and to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, in New Zealand.

If over 30% of the workforce is stuck in precarious work and large sectors of the workforce earn below Aotearoa’s living wage of $19.25 an hour, finding “better work” is statistically impossible for a vast majority of us. There are thousands of hospitality businesses in Auckland, New Zealand, and only a handful pay a living wage and nearly none offer a guarantee of hours.  As such telling people to “get a better job” is like telling them to buy a lotto ticket and live in hope they take out the jackpot.

***

No matter what the Gaz’s, Gary’s and the self-help superstars such as Tony Robbins of this world have to say on the myth of “hard work” and perseverance paying off one day, the reality is our ability to access upward mobility; buy a house; obtain a decent standard of living is tied to what type of work you can access. External factors not only deeply impact people’s lives they oppress those who do not benefit from certain types of privilege. Not all roads lead to Rome. More often than not for us poor folk they lead to roadblocks and hurdles that increase based on the colour of your skin, the class you were born into and/or your gender, how bodily abled you are and your sexuality or a combination of all of these.

People’s situations are complicated and difficult and cannot be curtailed into passive aggressive motivational “one liners” that nearly always punch-down and not up.  Our working class struggles cannot be solved by a set of self-help rules or keys or steps which are meant to guide anyone to economic stability and lead you to the life of your dreams and a perfect job.  In the book, The New Soft War on Women,  the chapter entitled ‘Doing Well May Not Work Out So Well’, Caryl Rivers and Rosaling C. Barnett, write,

“We like to believe that the workplace is fair and that if we do a good job, we will be rewarded. After all, that’s the American way. But this belief is less true for women than it is for men. Indeed, too often women’s performance which is stellar gets fewer rewards than men do – even men who are less than outstanding.”

During a major speech at Wellesley College, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, talked about the role women can play in politics and public life, she said,

“We know we’ve got to keep pushing at that glass ceiling. We have to try and break it… Obviously. I hope to live long enough to see a woman elected president of the United States.”

Encouraging women to break the glass ceiling is all well and good but what if moving off minimum wage and accessing a living wage, is no easy feat? In America alone, 6 out of every 10 women are stuck on minimum wage.

The Glass Ceiling is so high up most of us can barely even see it. Researchers at the non-profit group Catalyst point out, “[…] when you start from behind, it’s hard enough to keep pace, never mind catch up—regardless of what tactics you use.” Both Rivers and Barnett went on to write,

“Doing all the right things to get ahead—using those strategies regularly suggested in self-help books, coaching sessions and the popular press—pays off much better for men than it does for women.”

As women, we do not struggle to “get ahead” because of personal failings but this struggle is born from structural sexism which creates gendered inequality.

Telling white women and women of colour to be more ambitious and just “work harder” if they want to smash the Glass Ceiling and obtain a decent standard of living is almost laughable. Considering many women, in particular, indigenous women and women of colour, are still struggling to make it out of the basement. Still, self-help gurus such as Tony Robbins preach to millions that none of what I am writing about actually matters: race, gender… whatever you were born as, and into, does not have to hold you back. You just have to believe in yourself and follow the Tony Robbin’s step-by-step guide to snagging a life beyond anything you could ever dream of. Which he has called: ‘12 Keys to an Extraordinary Life’. You couldn’t make this shit up. He said at a recent event:

“I don’t care if you are young or old, I don’t care what your colour is, what your gender is, what country you come from, if you understand the science of building wealth you can have an abundance of it. If you violate those rules [of the 12 keys to an Extraordinary Life] either because you’re ignorant to them or you don’t apply then, you are going to have financial stress”

Tony, who sounds uncomfortably like Gaz in his belief anyone can become a millionaire, may as well have just said “we are all one”! “Everyone can make it no matter what grinding and economically depressive situations you come from”! And be done with it.

Financial stress is not brought about because you have unknowingly violated one or more of the ‘12 Keys to an Extraordinary Life’ which Tony has made tens of millions off. Violating female stereotypes of passivity have a lot more to do with our failure or success in the workplace than how hard we do, or do not, hustle for top positions and top earning brackets. Rivers and Barnett write, “Competent women violate the traditional female stereotype of passivity. And that violation can trigger a reaction of fear and loathing [in the workplace].”

Financial stress is brought about because of injustices such as the pay-gap and the coloured pay-gap. Something Tony, has clearly gone out of his way to ignore. Self-help gurus and people like Gaz and Gary tend to, “displace questions of social justice and frame their rhetoric by the individualist and corporatist values of a consumer society,” as both Jeremy Carrette and Richard King wrote in the book, Selling Spirituality: the silent take over of religion.

Both Rivers and Barnett point out in relation to the American pay gap,

“Hispanic/Latino women have the lowest median earnings, earning just 55 percent of the median weekly earnings of white men; black women have, median weekly earnings of 64 percent of those of white men.”

The pay gap for America’s first nation indigenous women also sits at 55 cents in the dollar compared to white men, as non-profit AAUW reports. Indigenous women are faced with earning nearly half of what white men do in America.

Similarly, in Aotearoa indigenous Maori and Pasifika women, face significant coloured/indigenous pay-gaps compared to white men and women. The Dominion Post, reported last year, “Maori and Pasifika women are more likely to be in the lowest paying jobs, which increases the poverty in their lives and communities.” The Human Rights Commission has been tracking unfairness and inequality at work and cites that Pasifika women on average earn $57,668 while white men earn $66,900. What this data shows us is that, “Men are paid more than women overall and within ethnic groups. The effects increase when combining several factors as is the case between New Zealand European men and Pacific women. These patterns have persisted over time.”

These “patterns” of women of colour and Indigenous women being paid significantly less than white men and women, to do the same damn jobs have “persisted” all over the world from America to Aotearoa. Injustice and oppression is locally and globally connected.

A more accurate description of what the aspirational metaphor of the Glass Ceiling is made out of is to say it is made from lead.  So many women are much more likely to fall off what Rivers and Barnett have labelled the “glass cliff” than triumphantly smash the glass ceiling into a million little pieces.  Following Tony Robbin’s guide to obtaining some magical, fairy-tale life, or any other pseudo bullshit glittery guides to financial freedom, aren’t going to be very effective for women born into a system which was built to silence and eradicate them.

The only thing I am aspiring to “smash” is white imperial patriarchal systems that at best disempower women and at worst, brutally and often violently oppress them.

***

As workers we are criticized for our behavior whether we are told we need to be “more ambitious” or we “just need to work harder” in response to our perceived failure to land a great job with good pay and consistent hours. I am so tired of listening to people who endlessly tell me to go and get a “better job” or a “real job” (what does that even mean?!). And I have lost count of the times I have been told by people who hold anti-protester positions to “go and get a job” while I am on the picket line or the protest ground. As if the low waged work I do counts for absolutely nothing. As if service industry work is some kind of phantom job.

When as a worker, I refuse to put up with horrible workplace conditions and hit the picket line or call the Union as a form of resistance I have been called a “trouble maker”, “dirty hippy” and an “inconvenience”. I am proud to be all of those things. I am glad I stood up and was brave and risked job loss (sometimes I have lost my job for speaking out) and arrest in an attempt to better my workplace conditions. The only people who are “dirty” are those who seize on disaster capitalism and economically benefit from the oppression of others… I am looking at you Tony Robbin’s and Gaz.

We need more workers collectively rising up and following the lead of Health Care workers, Bunning Warehouse and Supermarket workers and more recently Bus drivers. Who have all relentlessly hit union backed picket lines to demand ‘fair pay for fair work’ and better work conditions, in New Zealand. And less people thinking magically one day their lives will get better if they just play by the rules and perform their duties at work without complaint. This is nothing but blind faith. It is like believing in god: no matter how long you patiently wait he is not going to come and save you.

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Striking Bus drivers take on the police and their greedy employer

 

Many people’s grinding situations have nothing to do with individual ‘bad choices’ or laziness or you know, violating the ’12 Steps to an Extraordinary Life’. No matter how many times we hear rotten rhetoric like this we must — absolutely — refuse, to accept these pervasive and dominant narratives. At their core these narratives use shame and ruggedly focus on the individual as a method to pacify and silence. We must disrupt language that is designed to disempower and divide workers while seeming to empower. We need to seek out ways to elevate the voices of our most vulnerable and the messages of people of conscience who can envision a better world and whose political imaginations outstretch the dominant reality.

 

***

You can follow me on twitter! 

A version of this essay was published on The Hampton Institute 

Follow up: after publishing this essay the part owner of the Auckland, bars Whammy and Wine Cellar, contacted me to say he pays all staff a living wage and is keen to Unionise his workers. It can be hard to track who pays their workers a living wage if they are not registered with the Living Wage Movement. If you are a bussiness owner who pays fair wages and treats staff with dignity and respect check out the LWM website.

 

 

How to pacify a generation: tell them to think “happy thoughts” about chronic social issues

Advocating for young people who often come from the lower classes to “change themselves” and not “the system”, seems to be a favourite past-time of mainly white journalists who come from the upper classes. These types of think pieces tell young people everywhere: they must alter their “attitudes” and “thinking” and/or “behaviour” if they want a “better life”. And often offer aspirational and “alternative” thinking as a remedy for chronic social issues such as the massive housing crisis sweeping many countries from Aotearoa (New Zealand) where I live, to Britain. I am beginning to feel a real fatigue taking over in reaction to these pervasive types of pieces which never ever take into account race, gender or class and always lack, or are completely void of, intersectionality.

Journalist Dawn Foster, recently penned such a piece for The Guardian, entitled, ‘Myth: Generation rent is worth off than home owning parents.’ with the sub-title declaring, ‘Fact: freedom from the housing market offers the opportunity to live life a little more imaginatively’.

Dawn believes the housing crisis is some kind of “opportunity” in disguise – you just have to alter how you look at it. Everything comes down to how you see it and perspective, right?  The glass is either half full or half empty. Your choice, you decide.  Dawn wrote,

Every student can tell you how grim the housing market looks for someone under 30: but being forced to make the best of a bad situation can lead to many other opportunities.”

Why should people have to make the “best of a bad situation”?

Telling young people to create “opportunities” out of tragedy and crippling economic deprivation, which is seizing on the logic of disaster capitalism, is like asking someone to make bread out of mud and water then expecting them to have full bellies and be grateful after consuming it.

Every time I have been fired from a low-paid precarious job, many people have told me to see it as an “opportunity” to find something better.  But something better has yet to come along.  What has resulted when I have suffered yet another job loss in a stagnant and precarious job market, is; I defaulted on my student loans and I have been pushed further into poverty and debt and then I fall deeply into depression which I nearly always try to numb with alcohol and prescription sleeping pills. I am done believing or accepting events which are often out of my control and are economically shattering, are somehow “opportunities” to better my life because they just , aren’t.

Dawn suggests that it is up to young people to seek out “alternative” housing arrangements if you are struggling to meet rising and unaffordable rental prices in Britain. She is not the only writer by any means, who is pushing this type of pervasive rhetoric. A more recent think piece entitled The Fall of Materialism: Why More Millennials Aspire To Have Nothing’, published by Elite Daily, pushes minimalism as a life-style choice and reads like a painful collection of “feel good” passive aggressive facebook memes which often encourage you to, for example, live a life of liberation by shedding material possessions – you know, like you have heaps to shed in the first place if you come from the lower classes.

One of the solutions to the housing crisis this piece suggests is joining the Tiny House Movement. When I was discussing this piece by Elite with Zaron Burnett who is an American writer, he said,

“Minimalism is just a nice way to say to Millennials: enjoy poverty”

I note with growing interest that pieces such as Dawn’s and the one published by Elite, never ever speak of social justice or call for young people to band together on both a local and global scale a. And forcefully and relentlessly demand rent control or challenge our governments to implement stronger rental regulations which prevent landlords from acting like overlords and slumlords. Neither are they nuanced enough to demand that rent controlled social housing which governments such as mine have promised they would build, actually, build them. In Aotearoa, Housing New Zealand has already failed to meet its target build of 2,000 new state homes (after demolishing thousands of state homes) that are urgently needed, having only completed 666. Making it clear housing our most economically vulnerable is not a priority for our tory government.  Dawn writes,

“If you can’t buy a home made of bricks in a welcoming neighbourhood, why not buy one made of wood, that moors wherever fancy takes you? Canal boat living is increasing in popularity across the UK, from Manchester to London and beyond.”

I am guessing if you can “moor” your boat wherever you “fancy” your country is not feeling the brutal effects of abrupt climate change and rising seas such as the Islands in the Pacific? And it is likely you aren’t tied down working multiple jobs like so many young people, because there has been a massive growth in what is called , the part-time economy. You would have more luck winning the Hunger Games than sSecuring permanent, secure, full-time work in a flooded job market where basic workers rights are under constant attack. Maybe a “house boat” then, is not for everyone? Not to worry,  Dawn, has an array of other “alternative” housing options such as living in a converted factory with other creative people.

I have actually done this.

I lived in a converted factory that served as both an artist run and living space. I built my room with my own two hands and a nail gun, I am pretty sure it was not up to building code. The kitchen was make-shift, we washed our dishes in the shower ‘cos the sink was too small. The factory was cold and I had zero privacy. My personal possessions got stolen all the time but the “positive spin” was that I did get an amazing space to make art in. Plus, at least I had a roof over my head that only took a quarter of my pay-check, not half, right?

Factory living like a lot of the other “alternative” housing ideas which Dawn wrote about are fun and quirky for the time being, but are often temporal. Unless you have the cash to convert factories into actual homes that have kitchens which are not potential fire hazards, living with a bunch of artists in some chic factory only offers passing relief from the chronic issue of housing. It is by no means a solution. Someone who commented under Dawn’s opinion piece nailed it when they wrote,

Yes alternative living arrangements are interesting things to look at. Mistaking that as equal compensation for poor/no tenancy rights, sky high rent and no retirement security is bloody daft.

Journalist’s telling young people to modify their behaviour and how they think as part of a remedy to the housing crisis which has led to massive spikes in homelessness in my own country, one particular area of growth is youth homelessness which has acutely affected our Māori and Pacifica rangatahi, often frame this type of rhetoric in positive “self-help” language. But in actuality what they are doing whether intended or not is, pushing dangerous neoliberal thinking which disempowers while claiming or seeming to, empower. It amounts to double speak; this type of thinking encourages us to look inwards for solutions to the chronic issues in our lives. It encourages us to only improve our individual situations and not that of our local and global communities.

This focus on the individual to modify their behaviour in response to oppressive social issues which  they have had no hand in creating, only, serves to obscure the economic and social structures which block access to upward mobility and a “better life”. And those very people who did, in fact, contribute greatly to inequality and the housing crisis become invisible and therefore unaccountable for their actions. Such as Baby Boomers who have hoarded housing, only to rent them out to the millennial generation at eye wateringly high rental prices.  Ron Goodwin, a 72 year old property investor in Auckland, New Zealand, owns 37 properties which he mainly rents to young people and the economically struggling.  Recently, very publicly, he went on record urging other landlords not to be “too kind” to their tenants as they risk being exploited.

We should be telling people like Ron – a white male millionaire, who publicly victimised himself while punching-down on and, vilifying tenants, to change their behaviour and psychopathic “attitudes”. Not young people who are economically struggling and who are likely never going to get a foot on the housing ladder. Everything about our dominant society and systems we live in and under were built to prop up and protect white men like Ron. As if men like Ron need protecting. These systems need to be sabotaged, and people like Ron need to be held up against the wall and forced to be accountable for their economic greed.

Why is it more radical to demand people like Ron, share their staggering amounts of wealth, than Ron, not only being allowed to, but encouraged to, hoard properties like pieces on a monopoly board? As if people’s lives are some kind of game?

If all else fails and the grinding reality of renting cold, damp, unaffordable houses that make you sick because landlords can’t be fucked to maintain them, gets all too much, Dawn has the ultimate solution: move to countries such as Berlin. Where rent control has been enforced so rental prices are low. She writes,

“If you know you’ll always rent, there’s no reason why you can’t up sticks and move to a foreign country – or change jobs every few years.”

Enjoying the freedom of traveling to countries with better and more affordable housing is great, if you have the money to do it. In a sobering blog by writer Chelsea Fagan entitled ‘Why ‘don’t worry about money, just travel’, is the worst advice of all’, published by Time Magazine,. Chelsea writes about an “internet acquaintance” she has been following who travels the globe and is about to undertake a masters in Europe. Chelsea points out this girl is able to live a carefree, nomadic and adventurous life because she “comes from a good bit of wealth and never has to worry about her safety net.” Chelsea goes on to point out why attitudes such as Dawn’s and her “internet acquaintance”, are harmful:

The girl in question posts superficially inspiring quotes on her lush photos, about dropping everything and running away, or quitting that job you hate to start a new life somewhere new, or soaking up the beauty of the world while you are young and untethered enough to do so. It’s aspirational porn, which serves the dual purpose of tantalizing the viewer with a life they cannot have, while making them feel like some sort of failure for not being able to have it.”

Tantalizing examples of “aspirational porn” are incredibly soothing and tempting as someone who does come from the lower classes, to both believe and buy into.  I even bought the aspirational t-shirt and wore it, quite literally, at the start of this year:

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‘Quit your day job, buy a ticket travel the world, fall in love, Repeat.’

As they say “dreams are free” unfortunately, houses and basic necessities such as food, are not.

Telling young people who come from disadvantaged and poor backgrounds to see the reality of never ever owning their own home as some kind of silver lining because you can “change jobs every few years,” as Dawn wrote, frames insecure work as some kind of lifestyle choice you can use to your “advantage” and it reeks of classism and privilege. So many young people, myself included, have no other option than to “change our jobs” not just “every few years” but sometimes every few months.

There has been a massive rise in precarious, repetitive and low paid work since neoliberal policies were introduced 30 years ago. This type of work reflects cuts to public spending, a rolling back of worker’s rights and a rise in insecure contracts such as Casual and Zero Hours contracts which serve only to exploit workers and drive down wages. These contracts are predominantly being offered to new immigrants, Pasifika and Maori people and women, in my country. These types of contracts result in nothing more than inconsistent paychecks and no promise of secure hours. This week my shifts were cut by half with only one weeks’ notice with no explanation given — it is less than 3 weeks out from Christmas. I tried to choke back tears tears when I read the new roster; this type of callousness from employers is common and is economically crippling. Not everyone is going to have a ‘Merry Christmas’.

Casual work conditions are not an advantage they are a fucking unstainable. Romanticising, as Dawn did in her piece, casual work is both harmful and punches-down on those who are punitively subjected and locked into it.

Recently, two men who are migrants moved to New Zealand on the promise of a good job at a Japanese restaurant in Auckland. The owner promised to pay both men $17.50 an hour. But when they arrived these two migrant workers had their passports stolen off them by their new employer who then forced them to work for free for the first two months and then only paid them $3.57 an hour after this. This is nothing less than slave labour. Moving to a new country in pursuit of a “better life” does not always lead to fun filled adventures and economic stability but instead, sadly, exploitation.

These two men did not just “make the best of a bad situation” they contacted First Union and got union representatives behind them. And through a direct occupation of the restaurant by the two men and union reps, the owner was forced to give back their passports and was publicly shamed on national television. Collective resistance to injustice is what we need, not just passively accepting your lot which is this case amounted to slave labour.

What Dawn is suggesting is that we just swallow down the stiff medicine of neoliberalism and is echoing what neoliberal politicians and “self help” gurus have been telling us for a while now: that it is our personal responsibility to seek out the “positives” in social and personal devastation and growing inequality. “Once you accept that you’ll never own a home, money takes on a different hue,” wrote Dawn. This logic is an exercise is mollifying young people as it professes: we must accommodate to that which we have been told, cannot be changed and find hope in hopeless situations.

Veteran journalist and activist Chris Hedges during an interview with Vice entitled, “What it takes to be a rebel in modern times”, sums up this need to frame everything, even the most depressing and grinding of circumstances, in a positive light:  

[…] this kind of mania for hope that has infected even the left, is a political pacifier; everybody is addicted to these happy thoughts and that keeps us complacent.

Dawn Foster is actually a left wing journalist, who like many before her is pushing what Chris has labelled an addiction to “happy thoughts”. Thinking “happy thoughts” is not going to fix a rigid socio-economic system designed to disempower and disenfranchise people to the point where they placidly accept poor housing and poverty wages and continued exploitation. “Happy thoughts” and lofty ideas about living some nomadic lifestyle full of adventure and freedom on some house boat or in a Tiny Home, only avoids issues of structural racism, classism and sexism which oppresses people on the daily and blocks pathways to economic security and equality.

We should be, as young left-wing progressive writers, calling for a direct confronting and exposing of these structures of injustice so we can over time and generations, dismantle and destroy these structures, not adapt to them. There can be no compromise in this.  

Give me picket-lines, blockades, lock-ons, protests, direct action and epic sustained defiance against a system that serves so few in our world over pacifying Facebook memes and t-shirts about ‘packing it all up and escaping to some exotic country’, any day.

You can bin your think pieces which advocate for us, to accept mass social inequality as inevitable, when it is by design. You can keep your lofty dreams and ideas about converted factories, and picturesque house-boats on some tranquil river or, whatever else people can come up with to detract from a government’s responsibility to provide safe, dry and affordable housing for their citizenry. I do not intend on running away from social problems which are affecting me and my communities, just so I can seek out a “better life” for myself, personally.

This month I took part in a direct action organised by Auckland Action Against Poverty, outside a National party Christmas party where mostly rich white people would have stood around drinking Moet and eating fancy finger food. Meanwhile over 305,000 children in my country are now living in  poverty and homelessness has exploded across the board since National took power nearly 9 years ago. This is stark reminder of the growing chasm between the  ‘haves and have nots’ in my country.

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Activists storm the National Party Christmas party and lock-it-down

Activists from Auckland Action Against poverty stormed the venue which had only one way in and out, we blockaded the only exit and collectively pushed the gates at the entrance closed as activists chained themselves directly to the gate. While Police tried, in vain, to push the gates back open; we prevented our own Prime Minister, John key, from attending his party. And sent a loud and clear message to New Zealand that, as AAAP organiser and veteran activist Sue Bradford said,

We think it is really unfair that the National party are in there drinking their drinks and eating their food and I am sure having a lovely time, while people out here in the streets of Auckland and cities all over this country are really suffering.

For nearly two hours we maintained a hold on the venue. Changing the narrative and refusing to let the mainstream media to purposely forget important issues that are impacting a mass majority of people’s lives, is all part of pushing against and disrupting a system which serves the elite rich of this world at great cost to the rest of us.

The gatekeepers of wealth and opportunity need to know we are not going to simply ‘roll over’ and take whatever they punitively dish out.  What we need are people everywhere collectively rising up, not sitting down at some camp-fire and holding hands while we all sing kumba-fucking-ya and hope for the best and then return to our tiny homes in some commune.  Our only hope will come through rebellion. We can either go down on our knees or on our feet pushing back against those who seek to capitalise and prosper off our misery and economic deprivation.

 

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Burn all student debt

Is it just me, or do too many Baby Boomers seem to find immense enjoyment in making bloodsport out of punching down on the millennial generation? Recently, one of our most televised and broadcasted political pundits, Mike Hosking—who also happens to be a walking stereotype of a self-entitled Boomer—had something inane to say to students who skip the country to avoid paying back their staggering student debts:

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You want to talk about “THEFT”?

Ok then, let’s talk about the intergenerational theft many of the Baby Boomer generation have committed against my generation. The Boomers, enjoyed free university education. Then, once a small handful of boomers, including PM John Key, were elected to power, they ripped the ladder up and forced the millennial generation to go into staggering amounts of student debt.

Increasingly, “higher education” is becoming more of a privilege of the super-rich than a human right for anyone else.  

You want students to stop skipping the country to avoid their staggering student loans? I can tell you as someone who has just turned 30, a loan feels more and more like a choke-chain around my neck, and the higher wages of lands like Australia and beyond seem increasingly enticing. Moving is entirely rational.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we need to raise wages generally, and make our minimum wage market-leading. It would mean we would not have to skip New Zealand to avoid paying back loans for degrees that are now almost worthless in a stagnant and flooded job market full of overqualified and desperate graduates.

I have to ring the IRD monthly and beg for a “compassionate” extension for my student loan repayments ‘cos I earn so little, and my pay-check is so inconsistent because for my whole working life I have been subject to casual contracts. These contracts afford me zero job security and no promise of exact hours each week.  I also have to contend with the embarrassment of going over my finances with some IRD call centre worker each time I call.

Bare in mind, I barely make over 18k a year. But if I don’t ring them up and “beg”, the IRD will take 20% of my pay-check because when I ‘skipped’ the country to Australia, in a bid to earn a better wage, I did not pay back my loan for a year. Why not? Because I was trying to pay back the overdraft I took out when I couldn’t make rent for a few months when I was a student. When you come from a working-class family of limited means you’re often forced to go into debt because your parents can’t bail you out when your landlord hikes up the rent or unexpected bills come through.   

Graduates who were unable to secure a decent job with a liveable pay-check, which is a mass majority of us, are fighting over crappy, low-paid jobs we do not even want; I have been stuck working minimum wage jobs in the service industry for ten years now. I hold two undergraduates and two post graduates, including a secondary teaching degree. Primary teachers are now leaving the Auckland area because they cannot afford the rising living costs. Not to mention ‘permanent’ contracts are being rolled back in teaching work, and instead, yearly ‘fixed’ contracts are offered, so now you only have a guarantee of work for one year. Teacher’s wages do not increase in line with the Consumer Price Index, so you can imagine how hard it is to attempt to live on poverty wages in the service industry while trying to pay back tens of thousands worth of debt accumulated at university.

When lived in Australia, I made more money as a bartender pouring pints and making cocktails, than I would have done as a first year teacher in, New Zealand. Just let that sink in for a moment.

We are trying to survive in a ruthless job market where workers rights have been rolled back and undermined by money-hungry employers who care only for profit and not their workers. Our ability to pay off our student loans is directly related to what wages are on offer – this should be obvious;  you’d think it would go without saying. Job creation has ground to a halt as such workers are being pitted against each other, serving only to push wages down even further.

As if that wasn’t enough, the National government has agreed to the TPPA, a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which will see the pitting of workers against each other  only get much, much more aggressive and humiliating. Famed linguist and author, Noam Chomsky, recently told HuffPost Live,

“[The TPP] is designed to carry forward the neoliberal project to maximize profit and domination and to set the working people in competition with one another, to lower wages and increase insecurity.”

In a flooded job market, as low-wage workers with loans to pay back, we become desperate and easily exploitable – more willing to accept fewer, or zero  benefits,  and grudgingly agree to sub-human wages. Why? Because we have no other option: there has been a massive rise in precarious work in Aotearoa. It’s a global trend, begun in the US and exported around the world that this precarious work develops where the use of zero hours and casual contracts becomes common. These types of contracts leave workers economically vulnerable because they guarantee no set hours of work. Holiday and sick pay is often denied to them.

And guess who is mostly being offered these types of contracts? New immigrants, people of colour, women and yes, YOUNG PEOPLE. There are very many of uswho are being collectively screwed.

When, so often, those who took on student debt are just struggling to stay above the poverty-line, how are we meant to pay back our student loans?

Last month I was at an Auckland University student rally against ongoing fee-rises that mostly result in women and Maori and Pacfika people being locked out of higher education. Politicians, academic staff and student representatives spoke. Marama Fox, co-leader of the Maori Party, urged students to take to the streets and fight for a better deal. I caught her at the end and asked, “What do you think it will take to incite the kind of political rage we need to stop rising fees?”

Marama responded: “You have to have champions. You have to have people that just go out and relentlessly gather others behind them. You need people who are religiously going ‘We are going to do it’ and plan an action, and then do it. You can never ever let this issue go off the agenda. You need champions.”

Despite being highly qualified workers, we find it easy to start to demand less. We speak out less. We keep quiet and shut up about workplace injustices like the fact that white women are paid 11.8% less than men, and women of colour even less. It has become crystal-clear to me that as a worker I am only worth the profit I can generate for my employer, reflected in the poor wages they pay me and the benefits they’ve routinely denied me. It doesn’t matter how hard I’ve grafted for an employer, or how ‘back-breaking time-flexible’ I have been, or how much I’ve smiled at rude and obnoxious customers, I have never, in ten years of working in the hospitality sector, received a pay-rise.

I can’t pay rent, let alone pay back my student loan.

Not once was I rewarded for my loyalty or commitment with a measly 50 cent pay-rise from my boss. The only pay rise I can rely on is the annual increase which this year was only 30 cents. Yeah, please tell me again how ‘hard work’ will one day pay-off? It doesn’t. Under neoliberalism and a broken economy which so many Boomers ripped holes in, to tell anyone ‘hard work’ pays off, is nothing more than pacifying lies.

Put Mike Hosking on minimum wage and subject him to a zero hour contract, then lump him with the dead weight of student debt in the tens of thousands with no real way of paying it back, and watch how quickly things begin to change.

All of this: low wages, a rise in precarious and often part-time work, coupled with student debt is compounded by brutal and ongoing welfare reforms and cuts to public spending, enacted first by Roger Douglas Minister of Finance for the Labour government in the late 1980s, have created the situation many of us are in today. In 1992, Ruth Richardson of the National government carried on Roger’s destructive work with what she called ‘The Mother of all Budgets’. Ruth, fondly nicknamed “Ruthinasia,” made significant cuts to welfare and also introduced student loans; prior to this university education had been free.

Predictably, she’d never had to pay back any student debt herself.

Fast forward to current day Aotearoa, and PM John Key’s National-led government has placed further sanctions on welfare, making it an unbearably humiliating process and almost impossible to access whether you need it because you are out of work, sick, disabled, or mentally unwell. It doesn’t matter. You will face impunity and callousness from Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ).

John Key, like Ruth, also introduced cuts to higher education via his capping of the student allowance; unless you come from a wealthy background, going on to a masters or a PHD becomes increasingly difficult. Placing barriers on access to education is a violation of a human being’s basic right to an education, and this includes higher education. One of the best ways to pull yourself out of poverty and access upward mobility is through education that is free and accessible, regardless of where you perch on the ladder of societal privilege.

When countries have a strong welfare system and social support nets, people, be they young or old, are not routinely forced to take any menial, demeaning job. It means they have more time to look for work that better suits their skills and education, and not just take anything because they are hungry and have bills to pay.

Yet, Mike Hosking thinks he has the right to publicly criminalise students by labelling them “thieves”, when they skip the country to avoid paying back crippling amounts of student debt? Which, ultimately, criminalises those from lower economic communities and families, who went looking for a ‘better life’ overseas. Mike, in all his white male privilege and arrogance, is very publicly perpetuating the War on the Poor.  

It was Mike Hosking’s own generation which benefited so greatly from free university education, only to then turn around and rip it… no, steal it, away from not only my generation and Boomers and Gen Xers who decided to study later on in life, but the generation coming up after me. This generation has been labelled “Generation K,” after the character Katniss from dark dystopian trilogy The Hunger Games. Katniss, a young girl, is forced to battle other young people from the lower socio-economic, working class districts in an annual televised death match, until only one is left alive. No wonder these books sold 64 million copies worldwide, and the series has become what Laurie Penny recently called the “defining mythos for this generation”; our world today acutely reflects that elitist and poverty stricken world described by Suzanne Collins, the author.

Journalist Laurie Penny, writes,

“Most teenagers I know spend a frightening amount of time reading dystopian fiction, when they are not half killing themselves trying to get into universities that they know are no longer a guarantee of employment.

As Millennials I think we owe it to Generation K and the generations after them –  who will not only suffer the worst effects of neoliberalism but the devastating effects of climate change also – to stand up to people like Mike Hosking. I think we owe it to Generation K and ourselves to tell Mike Hosking and those who push the same harmful and hurtful rhetoric just how disgusting and psychopathic we think their positions on the poor and disenfranchised of this country really are.

I believe, with all my heart, we owe it to the coming generations to take to the streets collectively again, like students are right now in America, to demand and fight for national student debt forgiveness and free education. On November 12th this year, more than 120 campuses across the US joined the first ever National Student March.  Organizer Elan Axelbank told US Uncut,

“This has been building since the global recession in 2008. There are tens of millions of low-wage jobs, the cost of tuition is going up, and the amount of state aid has gone down. It’s almost impossible to pay off student debt today.”

We have a responsibility as millennials in Aotearoa, to move in solidarity with Generation K and ignite a National Student March of our own which is globally connected. We also need to strategically connect a National Student March movement with other workers such as our public healthcare workers who are enacting rolling strikes in Auckland, to protest cuts to public health, and university staff in places such as AUT who are ‘working to rule’, and walking off the job to demand fair pay and a better deal. I believe in workers solidarity generation to generation.  There is strength in numbers.

As the picket slogan goes: “Workers, united, will never be defeated.”

 

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I, and my mum,  who is a Union organiser at Middlemore hospital, Auckland, and a mental health worker, at the healthcare  rallies, to demand ‘quality care everyday’ and better work conditions.

 

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Heathcare workers taking to the picket lines, at Middlemore Hospital, Auckland

The time has passed for asking nicely for what we want. How much more economic deprivation will it take until, finally, there is a tipping-point for young people in this country, and we fiercely and relentlessly stand up and become “champions ” for other people trapped by mounting student debt and low-paid, repetitive, depressing work? As far as I am concerned, revolt is the only option left.

We need to show intergenerational solidarity; we need to fight, not just for our own right to debt-free education, but more importantly, for the coming generations to have what we never did: access to free higher education.

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