So, I have done it – that is what you are meant to say when you finally land a job that is meaningful, has a living wage and where you feel like you are valued and treated with dignity, right? In my new job I get to use all those degrees I earnt (and landed me with crippling student debt) and I got to tell WINZ to go fuck themselves. Anyone who has had to live off social welfare will tell you how good that feels. And yeah, I am not going to lie: getting sick leave and other benefits feels pretty good. I’d always wondered what it might be like to legitimately call in sick to work and not desperately worry about how I was gonna pay rent the following week because I was down a hundred bucks. I’ve never had sick pay. It is a whole new world.
Benefits, like holiday pay, are pretty cool right? You don’t need to work yourself to the bone all year round and you can have a few weeks off each year just to kick-back. Why do ‘they’ even call “holiday pay” a benefit? Isn’t it a human right to be able to take rest and not have to worry about how we are going pay rent or, I don’t know, eat?
I used to hate people (just a little bit) who got paid holidays. Maybe hate is too strong a word? I guess “bitter resentment” more adequately sums up how I feel about those lucky people who get holiday pay. I have never ever had a paid holiday unless you count all those times I had to go on WINZ because I got fired from whatever shit job I was working at the time for whatever reason management came up with. I once got fired because I reported an older Pākehā male manager for bullying his staff; myself included. Suddenly my work was not good enough. I got fired the day after Christmas.
I know rich people often think being on welfare in Aotearoa is like some kind of luxurious holiday where you sit around all day eating chips, cake and drinking RTDs, but yeah, nah. Between desperately trying to find work in a global job crisis and trying to stretch that 200 bucks WINZ kindly gives you to pay for food, rent and bills, living a life of luxury does not really come into it. People on welfare aren’t flying off to Hawaii despite what rich people think. I promise.
I work in an open plan office now which is cool because I always have someone smart and interesting to discuss ideas and politics with. The thing is I keep asking for permission to pee or at least announcing I have to go the toilet because clearly my new workmates need to know about my bodily functions. I know this might seem like a really bizarre thing to tell you but bear with me. I have worked hospitality and a range of other low-paid service work for over a decade now. In these jobs you have to ask for permission to do anything: go for a smoko, sit down for five minutes, inform a rude customer their behavior is not ok (usually you are told to suck it up because the customer is always right) and yes, to relieve yourself.
You can’t just pee when you need to.
I have self-autonomy in my new job, and it feels fucken weird. I can go for a walk if I get stuck on an idea in my writing without asking (I know, I get paid to write now – what is this life?). I can go and grab a coffee without asking for permission. And yes I can go to the bathroom without checking with someone if it is a good time to do so.
The thing is that bars (primarily I have worked hospo to make cash) get really busy sometimes. You can’t always pee when you want to. I suffer from UTI (urinary tract infections) it is an ongoing problem that I can’t help unless I stop having sex and I’m not keen to give that up obviously. Or I just need to make sure I drink lots of water and go to the bathroom often. In my hospo working life I’ve often been denied the privilege of bathroom breaks by managers and owners. Usually they don’t care if you tell them that you get UTIs and if I hold on to long I will wake up in agony tomorrow morning and need to see a doctor I can’t actually afford on the shitty poverty wages they are paying me. Very rarely has any manager or owner cared when I have told them this. They want the work done and they want it done now.
I have often imaged what it might be like to work in a job where you didn’t need to ask to relieve yourself or take a break. I am not even joking. I’d wanted to pen something about this for a while now but thought it was not really worth writing about. Plus having zero self-autonomy in low-paid work is something you just except as inevitable. So you just shut up and get on with it and don’t really think about; it is easier that way because otherwise you just depress yourself.
What changed my mind on the worth of writing about this subject was Linda Tirado’s new book Hand to Mouth: the truth about being poor in a wealthy world. Tirado in 2013 answered, on a blog she frequented, a question someone had asked: Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive? Her response to this question cut to the bone of the realities of being poor and being a low-wage worker, and it went viral and lead to her writing the afore-mentioned book. Tirado wrote in her book:
“Some people have the luxury of asking themselves whether a job fulfils their career hopes and ambitions. I’ve got my own metric to gauge the fabulosity of a job. Does the job require me to keep my boss informed of the inner workings of my gastrointestinal system, or am I allowed to go to the bathroom at will? It’s physically uncomfortable to hold it forever, and it sucks to stand by for the okay like a dog waiting for someone to open the door. But for me, the indignity of the whole thing is less about potential bladder infection. It’s more about the tone of the place. In my experience, the jobs where the boss regulates your urinary tract also tend to demand a bunch of other degrading shit.”
Nearly every low-paid service job I have worked has demanded I keep to a strict compliance of telling owners and managers what I am doing down to toilet breaks; it’s like they don’t trust you to function as a thinking human being capable of making decisions yourself. I got fired once from a bar job because I forgot to tell a manager I was going to the bathroom. I got told I put the business in jeopardy because I missed service on a table in my absence.
In this capitalist system is it always profit before people.
Your bosses don’t notice or care if you work like a dog for them but they sure as hell notice when you don’t scrub a table clean or smile big enough for some pretentious, entitled customer.
When you work crappy jobs you have no rights or at least owners and employees actively deny you your rights. You can be fired at any time without warning; at least this is how it goes down in Hospitality. Maybe you looked at a customer wrongly? Fuck, who knows. I’ve been fired for turning up two minutes late just once. I have been fired because a manager was a sexist arsehole and I called him up on it. I have been fired because in all honestly I hate working in hospitality and it shows. Between customers who treat you like a trained monkey and are rude to you more than they are polite and employers who refuse to give you consistent hours or pay you a livable wage, it can be hard to feel any sense of pride for the job you are working or any sense of hope for the better.
I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety (it gets pretty stressful not knowing if you have a job next week or not and it’s not like you can save for a rainy day on minimum wage) which I am pretty sure was situational; it is crushing working so hard for such little money in a job with no hope of moving up.
Caring about some shit job and smiling on cue for customers becomes difficult when getting out of bed is a minor miracle. Mental health days are a luxury of the rich.
The sexual harassment you experience as a female bartender doesn’t help anxiety levels either. I once had a customer tell me there was something wrong with the toilet. So I went up with him to fix it, he pushed me into the cubical, locked the door and shoved his tongue down my throat. The most a manager has ever done when I reported shit like this was to get the bouncer to kick them out. I’ve honestly lost count of how many times I have had my arse and breasts grabbed by customers; yes, sometimes by male managers. It is easier to laugh it off than say anything and risk your shifts being cut.
I’ve been told by people (usually they found jobs, with security and benefits, straight out of University and can not imagine how you did not either) more times than I can count “you should just be grateful/happy you even have a job.”
I can not begin to tell you how fucking sick I am of hearing this.
Grateful for what? For being treated like I am worthless and expendable by employers? Grateful for zero job security? The only job security I have ever had was when I worked two bar jobs; if I lost one job I had another to fall back on. Grateful that I can work up to three bar jobs and not even crack five hundred bucks a week in one of this world’s most expensive cities? Minimum wage in this country is $14.25 it is estmated you need $18.40 to survive in Aotearoa. Grateful for ‘casual contracts’ which mean the employer has the right to cut my hours at a moment’s notice, while expecting me to be on-call just in case they need me?
“I resent the fuck out of it every time my schedule’s been cut and then I’ve been called in for tons of extra hours, as though my time wasn’t worth anything,” wrote Tirado “just so that my boss can be sure not to pay me for a minute that I am not absolutely necessary.”
In Aotearoa the use of ‘Zero Hour’ contracts is growing. These contracts mean the employers, namely giant profit driven companies such as Burger King and Starbucks, don’t guarantee any hours of work and employees have to be ready to come in when they’re called. One week you might have forty hours the next none – as you can imagine budgeting becomes impossible. These contracts are mainly being offered to women (this includes overwhelmingly women of colour; so often when we say “women” we think only of white women), young people and those over the age of 65 who are the most easily exploitable and therefore most likely to be desperate enough to sign these types of contracts. These contracts aren’t really being offered to Pākehā men. “These contracts are despicable and cruel, and designed to put workers at the beck and call of their employer,” Mike Treen from Unite Union said.
Stop telling low-paid service workers to be grateful for what they have; it is patronising, defeating and reeks of the arrogance and ignorance on the part of those who say it.
I wrote most of this blog on Christmas Eve. It is the first time I am not working some fifteen hour shift serving irrationally irate customers who want to buy little Sally some shit, made-in-China toy she does not need (possibly made by a child even younger than she) or serving Joe Dickhead a beer he also probably does not need. Employers/owners operating in the service industry rarely pay you extra or give you a bonus at Christmas time even though you work three times as hard and the company most likely made record profits during the Christmas shopping period. Other than time and a half or quarter (depending on how stingy the employer is) on Boxing Day and during the ‘jolly season’ in my ten years working the service industry I at least never got paid extra . They might give you a bottle of wine with a bow on it – if you are lucky.
Employers expect you to smile at rude customers and to not complain; just be happy you have employment no matter how underpaid or unfulfilling. But service workers around the world have had enough.
I was working on this blog when I heard that workers at the fast food restaurant Wendy’s, on Dominion Road in Auckland, had walked out on a strike. Joe Carolan of Unite Union messaged me saying those who walked out on the job are tired of zero hour contracts, bullying in the work place and irregular ten minute tea-breaks.
It was not only fast food workers that were tired of getting a raw deal. Nadia Filistin, an anti-poverty activist, updated her Facebook near midday saying:
“There is an ANZ strike today- Christmas Eve. Members are striking over the banks refusal to pass on record profits to the workers who made them happen in the form of a decent pay increase. Never mind that their boss, CEO David Hisco, highest paid CEO in the country earns over 2k an hour and gave himself a 14% pay increase this year.”
3News reported it was an 11% pay rise but in all honestly I think I would trust the words of a grassroots activist, who is committed to the struggle such as Nadia, over the MSM who often report disinformation to create static and minimise people power and protest.
The United States of America has, let’s face it, really run with this whole capitalist thing. Thousands of Walmart workers have been protesting and striking for over a year now. They are demanding better work conditions, more stable hours and a livable wage of fifteen dollars an hour. The six heirs to the Walmart fortune have more wealth than the poorest 30 percent of Americans. “They can’t even form a football team,” wrote Russell Brand in his book Revolution “how are they going to stop a revolution when we act on the unfairness of that statistic? The heirs to the Walmart fortune, whose dad was “good at supermarkets” do not support paying Walmart workers anything above poverty wages.
Recently hundreds of Walmart workers marched on million dollar mansion of Alice Walton, who is one of the heirs to the Walmart fortune, to deliver a petition demanding Walmart start paying their employers $15 dollars an hour. Walton called the police and 26 of the protesters were arrested.
People deserve to be treated with dignity (not having to ask to go to the bathroom might be a good start), respect and compassion by their employers and paid a fair and liveable wage.
After all, you get what you pay for. If you pay people sub-liveable wages they owe you, as their employer, NOTHING.