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:

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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:

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link to ad

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:

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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.”

Bullshit.

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:

WHY DIDN’T THEY  KNOW THE BASICS OF EMPLOYMENT LAW???!!!! THEY OWN A BUSINESS!! OMFGGGGGG!!!

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:

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link to ad

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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:

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link to ad

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:

ZERO HOURS ACT’ RUN DOWN: CLICK HERE

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:

wage: https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018645092/nz-backpacker-job-board-like-the-wild-west

***

Kia ora all! I am freelancing which means I have no secure income so, I rely on donations from the wider public to keep economically afloat. If you liked 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

Or you can support me via my Patreon, check it out…

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.
Kia ora all! I am freelancing which means I have no secure income so, I rely on donations from the wider public to keep economically afloat. If you liked 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

Or you can support me via my Patreon, check it out!

***

If you need help and support for depression and/or here are some services you can contact (or flick me a PM or email me at king.chloe@gmail.com)

Connect (mahi marumaru)

Buzzed, addiction and recovery

HELP: Sexual Abuse Survivors

Lifeline 0800543354

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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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“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.

busstop.jpg
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.

 

***

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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.

 

 

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:

student debt.PNG

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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Do you want to support my writing? As a low income earner who is stuck in the service industry finding the time to write, can be hard. You can support me economically by becoming a ‘Patreon’ of my work. CLICK HERE for more details. 

“Positive Attitude” Bullshit: On the dangers of “radical self-love”

There is an endless supply of people who are ready and willing to inform us about what we are doing wrong, and how we can alter our behaviour so we can get ahead and inject magic and happiness into our lives. Between modern day guru Gala Darling who believes “positive thoughts generate positive realities,” and you can “manifest” your own destiny, to capitalist public thinkers such as Oprah Winfrey telling us positive thinking can help us obtain “the sweet life,” it is easy to get misled into a muddle of mistruths.

A recent blog by Gala is entitled “Happiness is simple: why too many choices make us miserable and 5 ways to improve your life!” Yeah? Nah. Too many choices are not the issue for a huge majority of the political underclass; a lack of choice is exactly the problem. Whether it be lack of choice when it comes to quality of education, or lack of access to higher education because you were not born into wealth and privilege, or lack of choice when it comes to nutritious food or warm dry housing because wages are often too low in this country, too often, too much choice is not an issue for the growing majority of the 99 percent; restricted choice is.

Gala and magazines such as Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, tell us:

If you just change your attitude and think more positively over time, your life will get easier. Over time, you will land a job that affords you a contract guaranteeing you some security and a pay-check which does not leave you in poverty. You simply have to manifest what you want. Drink a couple of litres of soda pop, add diamantes to your manicure, wear a fake moustache all day long (as Gala really has suggested as a remedy for the blues), put on a nice pink dress and smile a bit more then BOOM! That suicidal depression over the stresses of life such as being unable to buy food because you are on minimum wage, working depressing precarious jobs, and/or the debilitating anxiety over whether your welfare will be cut this week will suddenly melt away.

Middle or upper class young white women seem to be the demographic of the radical self-love movement. It is all well and good to tell them to “smash that class-ceiling” and just work hard to achieve your dreams and the bling and designer shoes will follow, but as Laurie Penny points out in her book Unspeakable Things, there are a lot of women drowning in the basement. In particular women of colour, trans, and queer women who disproportionality suffer from poverty, depression, feelings of alienation, and are discriminated against in the work-place:

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It is hard to “think positive” when treated so negatively based on the colour of skin and/or sexuality, when facing hate crimes, targeted violence, and when there are so many structural hurdles put in your way to success and triumph. Radical self-love gurus do not tend to promote or even really engage in discussions on privilege or the disadvantages people are born into; that shit would undermine the cause of “changing yourself, not the system.”

In a powerful piece for The Guardian, “Oprah Winfrey: one of the world’s best neoliberal capitalist thinkers,” Nicole Aschoff writes,

A stream of self-help gurus have spent time on Oprah’s stage over the past decade and a half, all with the same message. You have choices in life. External conditions don’t determine your life. You do. It’s all inside you, in your head, in your wishes and desires. Thoughts are destiny, so thinking positive thoughts will enable positive things to happen.

I used to watch Oprah when I was unemployed, with no money, and feeling utterly crap about my situation. I even started cycling religiously a few years back because Oprah told me exercise would help to reduce my feelings of worthlessness; my arse got smaller but my anxiety and panic attacks over my future, and how I was ever going to pay back my student loan, did not. I even read O Magazine for a while until I realised I was not an idiot and my situation was not my fault. I saw that there are external factors which can offer some pretty challenging barriers to success which no number of pictures of green meadows and calm beaches and deep breathing and kitchy “nick naks” can elevate.

What Nicole suggests in her piece is that Oprah just reinforces the focus on the “individual,” which hides the role of political, economic, and socio-economic structures in our lives,

O Magazine implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, identifies a range of problems in neoliberal capitalism and suggests ways for readers to adapt themselves to mitigate or overcome these problems.” She advises us to turn our gaze inward and reconfigure ourselves to become more adaptable to the vagaries and stresses of the neoliberal moment.

Changing your attitude is not going to change or help to dismantle structural injustice and a failed and unstainable economic model which serves only the elite rich of this world, and exploits the rest of us, particularly the working class and those living in poverty. As far as I am concerned positive thinking will fucking ruin your life.

“Just think positive” is a precursor to “it gets better,” and the hard reality is it is only going to get much, much worse for our most vulnerable. With social bonds being introduced into our public welfare state, life for those who have a disability or mental health diagnosis who need support from the state is only going to get more grinding and unmanageable.

My friend, who suffers from a generic connective tissue disorder, pointed out to me when I told him I was writing this blog,

“When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter how positive I think, my joints are still going to dislocate and I’m still going to be in constant pain. Work will still be hard to find, my options will always be limited and I’ll never have the full capacity and range of freedom in this area as someone healthy.”

Multiple WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand) case-managers have told me to think “positively” over and over again, often in response to my having told them “The reason why I am struggling to find any work is because we have a flooded job market with countless over-qualified graduates.” Often the message to “just think positive” is not only divorced from reality, it is an unhelpful and patronising statement to say to someone who is struggling to secure work and to stay above the poverty line, especially if they have a disability or other barriers that may regularly prevent them from obtaining a job or better quality of life.

“Positive thinking” and “affirmations” are now being used as a form of psychological coercion against beneficiaries. A first research paper by Hubbab titled, Unemployment being rebranded as psychological disorder expands on what exactly this coercion looks like.

The authors documented the physiological toll on beneficiaries in London who are subject to these practices, “from unsolicited emails extolling positive thinking to attitude changing exercises, with people looking for work frequently perceiving such interventions as relentless, humiliating, and meaningless.

Attitude changing exercises and similar strategies that people like Oprah and radical self-love promoters such as Gala Darling use to ‘lift people up’ are now being employed by state workers to harass and demean people who are struggling to find work.

Perhaps this is why I find it so hard to stomach people who tell me to think more “aspirationally” as some kind of solution to a stagnant job market, where any work I can get is underpaid and stressfully precarious. These positive attitude advocates remind me of WINZ case-workers who would phone, without warning, to grill me about what jobs I had applied for, and how many. One in particular spent a good twenty minutes telling me how I needed to “change my attitude” and that I should take any job, even cleaning toilets at minimum wage. I got off the phone crying, not because I think I am above cleaning toilets, but because I felt harassed and humiliated. It was a defeating experience.

I understand people like Gala are trying to help; in fact I know Gala personally. She gave me a job many years ago at Lush Cosmetics. She was, and I am sure still is, a very caring and generally lovely and a kind hearted person. As Gala has said on her own blog site, radical self-love helped her overcome an eating disorder and depression, and she continues to help other women. Some of the help and advice Gala has on offer comes free of charge but she also charges a mint for her “Radical self-love Boot Camps” which cost a staggering $197. Unless you are a high income earner this amount of money is unaffordable.

Gala’s position that she just wants to help women transform their lives does not negate the fact what she and so many others are selling is a flawed ideology which preys on feelings of insecurity and isolation for a lot of women, and especially women who sit a little or a lot lower on the privilege ladder and do not benefit from being in a higher social class. Offering solutions to these feelings of disconnection and discontent, such as looking “inwards,” and changing how you behave, is reductionist, over-simplistic, and problematic.

The disenfranchised, poor, and working class need to collectively band together to restructure the systems, and to expose the neoliberal policies and thinking which has helped create feelings of disconnection and discontent in the first place. Adherence and adaptation will further exasperate the situation, endorsing solutions built on neoliberalism to solve the very problems it has helped to create—which is exactly the thinking that people like Oprah and Gala promote—is truly next level insanity. It doesn’t even make sense!

My spiritual guru advice to you is:

Think revolutionarily. No amount of “positive thinking” can fill the bellies of the 280,000 children living in poverty in this country. I fully support declaring mutiny against governments who pass welfare reforms that push people further into crippling poverty, instead of waging mutiny against ourselves. Radical self-love and positive attitude advocates such as Oprah and Gala are more about adapting to a world “gone mad” and systems that do not serve you, than really improving your life.

It really is your choice: adapt, or disrupt?

Fight for a different paradigm! It might be a tad more productive than trying a green tea diet to purify your body, or rearranging your stationary draw so your pens are in harmony with your paper clips. Fighting for a new paradigm may bring you enemies and some deeply negative reactions but would you not rather seek out that brutal truth than live endlessly on in someone else’s brutal fairy tale? It is a fairy tale which tells you:

If you change your attitude and enough of yourself maybe someone might love you. If you work hard enough and want it badly enough maybe you will land some dream job which pays you enough to afford both rent and food and a bit of financial security. If you just play by the “rules” and adapt to a brutal capitalist system while changing what colour lipstick you wear and your “negative” thought patterns, your life will become easier and better.

If radical self-love and all that glitter and sequins and pink bows and “positive thinking” has worked for you and you have managed to manifest your dream life, then cool, I am stoked for you. But for many of us it is not the answer we are looking for: it part of the problem, not the solution.

You can follow me on Twitter!

A version of this essay also ran on Open Democracy

Do you want to support my writing? As a low income earner in the service industry finding the time to write, can be hard. You can support me economically by becoming a ‘Patreon’ of my work. CLICK HERE for more details.