WINZ: where hope and dignity go to die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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

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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)

 

Lifeline: 0800543354

YouthLine:  09-376 6645

 

 

 

 

Burn all student debt

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

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You want to talk about “THEFT”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journalist Laurie Penny, writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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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. 

 

The rising costs of low-waged work

A few months back I was at a picketline to protest the low-wages at Alderman Drive, PAK’n’SAVE* in Auckland. The wages at this particular supermarket were pathetic: the owner Rayner Bonnington, had offered his staff a measly 32 cents pay rise even though the minimum wage (which sat at $14.25 an hour) had already been  raised by 50 cents in Aotearoa because of the annual increase,  this year. Meaning the pay raise Rayner offered would sit below our minimum wage.

Rayner pays his staff poverty wages to stack his shelves and sell food they likely cannot even afford themselves because of the subhuman wages he pays them. I got talking to a Union delegate who was at the picket also, and we discussed the much publicised use of zero-hour contracts by fast-food giants such as Starbucks and Wendy’s in Aotearoa. These contracts are used all over the world, particularly in the United Kingdom, to disempower and impoverish workers and strip away their rights to guaranteed hours so profitable companies can save money. The delegate told me:

“If you are on zero hours it’s pretty obvious that you would be better off on the dole. If your hours fluctuate above and below the threshold at which you might be entitled to additional assistance, the dole would provide more certainty and stability,

Especially, when one hour paid work a week is considered employment in this country.”

I have been on welfare, lots. I am part of what some of my case managers call the ‘revolving door’ at WINZ (Work and Income) – as in, I keep coming back with my hand out like Oliver Twist asking, “please Sir, can I have some more?”

I’ve also spent the better part of the last decade working low-paid and insecure hospitality work and I’ve always been subject to casual contracts, which effectively operate just like a zero hours contract. I have worked up to three jobs so I can scrounge enough hours together to pay back my student loan and pay bills and rent. I rarely, if ever,  know how much my pay cheque is going to be or how many hours I will get from the jobs I am working. Some weeks I earn 300 bucks, sometimes a bit more,  but often a lot less.

When I have been sacked for whatever reason from whatever crap job I am working, or if I’m simply struggling to scrape together enough hours to break 20 hours a week (under-employment is a massive problem in this country) I find myself at WINZ again.

Trust me when I say: I really don’t want to be there.

Being denied the use of the toilets (‘cause hey, I might do crack in there), then being told by some plucky and patronising case manager who checked their compassion and self-awareness at the door,  that I just need to “think ‘positive’ about my situation” (as if a change in attitude is going to change a stagnate job market) as I hold back tears, ‘cause honestly this shit is just embarrassing, isn’t exactly my idea of a good time.

The humiliating experiences of being on welfare aside, at the very least, as this Union Delegate pointed out to me, I always knew exactly how much I was going to get a week: around 250 bucks.

Unlike so many of the hospitality jobs I have worked where I have been ‘let go’ without any warning, I would at least get a courtesy letter from WINZ telling me in a week my welfare would be sanctioned because I had “failed to meet my job seeker requirements”. Whatever the fuck that means because let’s be honest: no-one honours the requirement to look for a job eight hours a day, five days a week.

But the guarantee that the State will look after you when you are down-and-out is disintegrating as safety-nets in Aotearoa are being systematically gutted. Since the late 1980s right-wing and nominally left-wing governments and politicians (notably Labour’s Roger Douglas and National’s Ruth Richardson) have implemented economic and social policies that have eroded welfare and cut public spending and made it harder and harder for the political underclass to step up on the social and economic ladder and access upward mobility.

National MP Paula Bennett, who traded in her humanity for parliamentary status and a secure pay cheque (which pays well above a liveable wage), is committed to breaking the cycle of welfare dependency in Aotearoa and has undertaken brutal welfare reforms. In 2013, Paula targeted the youth benefit, those on the sickness and invalid benefits and sole parents on the DPB (Dependant Parent benefit) – some of Aotearoa’s most vulnerable and often the most in need of state support and care.

National’s recent 2015 budget will push parents on the DPB into work when their tamariki turn three, instead of the previous five. Rather than spending an extra two years focused on raising their beautiful tamariki – Aotearoa’s next generation – sole parents on the DPB will be forced into work, and will be expected to take whatever job is offered no matter how meaningless and underpaid – or suffer cuts to their welfare payments.

The people who will be affected the most by National’s latest welfare reforms are the children of parents who will go to school with empty bellies when sanctions are placed on their parent’s DPB, if sole parents fail to meet ‘job seeker requirements’. You have to wonder if Paula and other National politicians took this into consideration when they wrote this reform. Poor and callous governance from our political leaders has a lot more to answer for than ‘poor parenting’ does.

All over the world tory governments are waging an endless war against the political underclass. In England, the ongoing sanctions against people who receive welfare and are deemed ‘fit for work’ have resulted in many welfare deaths. One of the most publicised such deaths was David Clapson, as the Independent reported:

[…]a diabetes sufferer who was found dead from acute lack of insulin after his benefits had been stopped. There was no food in his flat – or in his stomach, an autopsy found – and he had just £3.44 in his bank account. Why? Because the ex-soldier, who was reportedly found with a pile of printed CVs near his body, had been deemed not to be taking the search for work seriously enough.

David died starving and alone.

In the United Kingdom, the Black Triangle Campaign has compiled a haunting ‘welfare body count’. So far it is estimated 60 people who suffered from disability or mental health issues have died needlessly like David or taken their own lives because of the threat of sanctions or implemented cuts to their benefit. (You can find painful and devastating examples of the human cost of welfare sanctions in England here).

Aotearoa has its own growing body count in relation to cuts to public spending and the systematic failure of our government to take care of its most vulnerable. In 2010, Bruce Arnold took his own life after ongoing unemployment and battles with government services. Simon Priest, who was related to Bruce, addresses the Prime Minster in a piece for the NZ Herald, saying:

Prime Minister, on the night of August 18, 2010, my uncle Bruce Arnold took his own life. He was 60 years old. He leaves behind a wife and son. After a long struggle with your various mental health and ACC agencies and unemployment, depression finally got the better of him.

With social bonds providing financial incentives to bully people who have a mental health diagnosis into work in Aotearoa, life for those who need support from the state is only going to get worse.

I talked to Corie Haddock, Lifewise Community Development Manager, about the impacts of welfare reforms. He told me:

“The reality is we have a government that doesn’t care about the people of this country.

Welfare should be about two things: catching and supporting those in need, and providing opportunity for those people to change and grow. The WINZ system doesn’t do either of those things.”

When I asked Corrie if he believed the ongoing welfare reforms were punitive to our most vulnerable he responded, “Absolutely, they are completely punitive towards those most in need and the cost is another generation of disempowered people.”

Our government are punishing people who fail to secure jobs that simply aren’t there. Overwhelmingly, the jobs that are available in this country are demeaning, poorly-paid and offer almost no security.

The depressing reality is that welfare, despite the punitive reforms and constant threats of sanctions, can still offer more financial stability (no matter how meagre the state ‘hand-out’ is) than much low-paid work in sectors such as the service industry.

Political parties in this country often talk about ‘job creation’, but rarely do politicians speak of meaningful job creation.

We need jobs that serve people and their wellbeing, not just the economy. We need employers that guarantee hours and act with their workers best interests at heart. What needs to be a priority of political parties in this country is the creation of jobs that contribute to society and our communities, not the profit margins of massively lucrative companies.

In face of mass unemployment in the 1930s New Zealanders got together forming powerful movements to fight for the interests of the poor and working class, culminating in the victory of the first Labour government and creation of the welfare state. If we as citizens of Aotearoa cannot find the courage and conviction to come together in great and undefeatable numbers to demand an equal society. Where wealth is evenly dispersed and employers pay a liveable wage, we will have condemned the coming generations to life-times of debt, depression and disconnection. People in Aotearoa deserve more than just to survive, they deserve to thrive.

This blog is a cross-post from The Daily Blog. 

*Many other ‘PAK’nSAVE’s treat their staff appallingly and pickets have also taken place in Rotorua and more recently in Whakatane:

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