The rising costs of low-waged work

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I was out on a picket a few months ago to protest low-wage work at Alderman Drive ‘PAK’nSAVE in Auckland. The wages at this particular supermarket were pathetic. Owner Rayner Bonnington had offered his staff a measly 32 cents pay rise even though minimum wage, which sat at $14.25 an hour, had to be raised by a generous (note the sarcasm) 50 cents in Aotearoa this year.

Rayner was paying his staff below minimum wage 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.”

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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 zero hours. 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 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 halved 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.

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.

Casual employees often do not get benefits such as sick and holiday pay and are subject to having their hours changed and reduced at short notice. You can’t budget when you never know exactly how many hours you are going to get from one week to the next.

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 Chloe King’s own website, Posse

20 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article, but I want to pick up on one part of it
    “All over the world tory governments are waging an endless war against the political underclass”.
    I notice how the democratic world has generally turned towards the right in the past decade, with the exception of South America. You only have to read Adam Carr’s excellent website /psephos.adam-carr.net/ to see this.
    I have not yet seen any definitive article written about this trend, why it is happening, how it can be stopped and the damage it is doing to the world, both socially and environmentally.

    • How is it working out for those South American countries?

      I suggest those Pack & Save employees pop over to Venezuela to see how things are going.

      • When the socio-economic problems become too big to ignore I think a lot of nations will swing towards the left.

        Those that won’t will not because they have been brought out by corporate interests that are governed by the likes of the Koch brothers. Unfortunately, this includes the United States, possibly Britain, and if we don’t give National the boot at the next election and elect a government that will put New Zealand and New Zealanders first, New Zealand as well.

        Repairing the socio-economic damage that has been done is basically something that only happy with a ballot box revolution. If Labour cannot get their act together in the next 24 months, we need to be prepared to vote New Zealand First. For a lot of people that will mean biting a political bullet of some sort, but it is obvious National won’t put New Zealand first and I have doubts that Labour will either.

  2. “Absolutely, they are completely punitive towards those most in need and the cost is another generation of disempowered people.”

    And death, don’t forget the death that they cause as well.

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

    they talk about job creation and saying that people out of work should get a job while running policies that ensure 6%+ unemployment and signing free-trade agreements that shift work offshore.

    We need employers that guarantee hours and act with their workers best interests at heart.

    We need to turn all businesses into cooperatives to ensure that workers have a say in their conditions and pay.

    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.

    There’s plenty of work that needs to be done (Building renewable energy generation and decommissioning the fossil fueled generators for starters) but the governments aren’t willing to do it because it reduces the number of employed and thus increases wages for the private sector. It’s been a complaint of the private sector since the 1980s that the government doing anything forces the private sector aside. The lack of unemployed people is the reason for that complaint.

    Our governments, since the 1980s, have been working exclusively for the business sector and against the nation.

    • That is the terrible tragedy of it all. There’s plenty of work to be done, and it can be financed by reserve bank credit. The current political philosophies of both Nact and Labour, however, would never embrace this. The country is governed by philosophical beliefs. How stupid is that.

    • “businesses into cooperatives”

      I don’t think I’d agree with ‘all’ because micro-enterprises, and family-based enterprises, need to be free to serve their customers as they choose.

      However, generally I agree with you. The models I have in mind are Ricardo Semler’s and Mondragon. I liked those. I liked their agility and their ability to provide the corporate overhead component for ‘the little guys’ so they, too, get the benefits of economies of scale.

      The archetypal American models of corporates – well, they’re not as fit for purpose and production as they pretend.

      I wonder if, perhaps, Chris Trotter or Frank Macskasy could explore this topic?

      Forming functioning and profitable co-ops seems a lot more effective than revolutions and uprisings. More practical and agile and less likely to be hijacked…

      If the Co-op Bank can expand and pay its members dividends – yeah. Co-ops. Like ’em.

      • I don’t think I’d agree with ‘all’ because micro-enterprises, and family-based enterprises, need to be free to serve their customers as they choose.

        I don’t see how changing them into cooperatives is going to change that at all. The people working there would still choose how to serve their customers.

        • Draco, like so many other passionate, thoughtful bloggers and commenters who frequent this site, every time I see a comment posted by you I find myself thinking, “I’m not the only one who sees the naked emperor!” I agree with you and Andrea that cooperative businesses run as workplace democracies are the way to go.

          Andrew asks above how things are working out for the South American companies who have rejected neo-liberalism. The situations in South America are far from perfect, but the models they are experimenting with are a distinct improvement on the decades of IMF-imposed austerity (“Structural Adjustment Programs”). Check out this great TED Talk by Pia Mancini of Argentina did on the potential of using deep democracy platforms to run whole countries (http://www.ted.com/talks/pia_mancini_how_to_upgrade_democracy_for_the_internet_era).

          I notice that Draco was (maybe still is) involved in the online policy incubator of the Internet Party hosted by Loomio – an inspiring experiment. Like Pia, I believe that such deep democracy platforms can be used to make political decisions at all levels, including the running of political parties. The NZ Pirate Party also have a Loomio group, and we are toying with the idea of dissolving our Board, and having all decisions which affect the whole party made by the membership using Loomio.

  3. Great article. You have expressed the patronising attitude of many MSD employees really well. It’s your attitude that is the problem, apparently.
    There is a peculiar vibe in our nation and I am having trouble figuring it out. It is a mystery to me why the mass action you mention in the last paragraph is not happening. There is plenty of suffering. You articulate the plight of the job seeker perfectly. I work with job seekers who are in the so-called “revolving door”. The dole is pitiful. Wages are really low. Work is casualised, part-time, and if you are in a low-wage job that is 30 hours a week, congratulations! You have achieved full-time work. never mind that you can’t live off your wages. People can’t afford to rent, let alone buy. There are very few jobs. So why aren’t we rioting, as they did in the 1930s?
    Somehow, the gubbamint manages to keep us just comfortable enough, so the anger never gets to boiling point. We can still watch X factor/idol/block/bachelor/chef. We still have the All Blacks and the Black Caps and other kiwi heroes to make us feel good about ourselves.
    And the nats, form the top down, are modelling values of greed, callousness, and apathy towards the plight of others (Hello Christchurch). They have somehow driven a wedge between the working poor, and those on benefits. So empathy is lacking, and greed is good.

  4. It’s such a shame that articles are not checked for accuracy.

    The DPB is the Domestic Purposes Benefit, not the Dependant Parent Benefit. A Parent is not a dependant.
    The Domestic Purposes Benefit came in in 1975, after 10 years of protest by women’s groups from 1966, in response to rising divorce rates and unequal matrimonial property laws, when women did not get anything from the husband on divorce.

    Check your facts before you comment on welfare, otherwise you undermine your whole argument.

  5. Very well written article Chloe, from your heart. I honestly believe our system has been created, deliberately, with the use of human psychology, to keep us down to the point of being too overwhelmed to fight back and to be in fear. Being armed with this knowledge and creating awareness with articles such as this is the first step in the fight. Another, is to educate the next generation because I guarantee, this information is never going to be something our kids will be taught at school.

  6. The fix???, for the low waged workers who are suffering revolving door employment with equally unstable hours of employment,

    The Government that takes control of the Treasury Benches from National’s present cluster-f**k need to Impose an award system across whole industries,

    A tripartite negotiation between Government/Employers/Council of Trade Unions which would set minimum hours of work, minimum wages for particular industries, and, work conditions,

    IF and when Andrew Little and the Labour Party awaken from their collective slumber and navel gazing and advocate Direct Government Intervention in Tripartite Industry Awards for all industry Labour may gain a little electoral traction,

    The ‘rot’ has set far too deeply in the corpse of low waged working New Zealand to be able to expect what’s left of the weakened union movement to be able to make substantial and lasting change to the employment landscape,

    It is up to Andrew Little to ‘see’ that such ‘rot’ can only be fixed by him as the Prime Minister IMPOSING in some cases such minimum standards across whole industries where employers refuse to agree,

    IF Andrew Little cannot ‘see’ that then i am afraid there is little point in his continued occupancy of his current position…

  7. A very good piece, one I can really relate to. And yes, there has been very little support from any government for years now, but the Natskeys are probably the worst. Viva la revolution.

  8. “National’s recent 2015 budget will push parents on the DPB into work when their tamariki turn three, instead of the previous five”

    This is done purposefully. The government will now be raising your kid as soon as they turn 3.

  9. “think ‘positive’ about my situation” (as if a change in attitude is going to change a stagnate job market) as I hold back tears, ”

    Chloe excellently written that tugs at my heart and I well tears.

    The upper class are so cold and hard, and Government is paid by the people to represent the people so they need to understand who pays them?

    To often those in power and government should realise they are only there because we all pay to keep them there to look after us all not carry out punitive actions in a way of trying to get blood out of a stone!!!

    Don’t we wish they should be on the under end of this stick and they would squeal that they cant stand it either, after all we are all members of the human race aren’t we?

    Keep well Chloe.

  10. Paula “Beneshit” has moved on from being the Minister for Social Development to be the “Social Housing Minister” now, where she and Bill English plan to further hollow out the rights of Housing NZ tenants, same as she did while in charge of beneficiaries depending on WINZ.

    https://www.beehive.govt.nz/minister/Paula-Bennett

    Selling state homes to “community providers” is her job now, and that means forcing them into working within consortia with private real estate developers, who will use much of the Housing NZ land to build new homes on, most of which will be sold to middle class and upper class buyers.

    Under Paula Bennett various social services were outsourced and privatised by the Ministry of Social Development and WiNZ, now using private “providers” for “mental health employment services” and also “sole parent employment services”.

    The one who was quick to kick the lower rungs off the ladder for many, by abolishing the Training Incentive Allowance for those wanting to study beyond level 3, she is a willing mercenary for her government and her masters Key and English.

    Indeed, the mostly casual, part time, marginal jobs there are, they are “suitable” enough in their eyes for sick and disabled to be pressured into, no matter what risk, it seems. But such work is actually not that “healthy” at all, as some research, and also a CTU study from a few years back reveals:
    http://accforum.org/forums/index.php?/topic/16737-work-has-fewer-%e2%80%9chealth-benefits%e2%80%9d-than-mansel-aylward-and-other-so-called-experts-claim-it-can-cause-serious-harm/

    But that did not deter Bennett, and does not deter her successor Anne Tolley one bit, they faithfully follow that mantra from seemingly biased “researchers” in the UK, for whom work is deemed as being “therapeutic” and “beneficial” to health:
    http://accforum.org/forums/index.php?/topic/15188-medical-and-work-capability-assessments-based-on-the-bps-model-aimed-at-disentiteling-affected-from-welfare-benefits-and-acc-compo/

    When preparing the “reforms” that came into force in July 2013, they had “experts” like Aylward et al fly in from the UK, to present their “findings”, ignoring much of what happened in the UK:
    http://accforum.org/forums/index.php?/topic/15264-welfare-reform-the-health-and-disability-panel-msd-the-truth-behind-the-agenda/

    So we got what we have now, a slightly “softer” version of the UK approach, but still “firm” and “relentless” enough to get the results, by exiting more from benefits, into whatever jobs there are.

    But when challenged for presenting REAL and reliable figures about the supposed great “success” of “mental health employment services”, MSD was rather reluctant to present anything that tells us much:
    http://accforum.org/forums/index.php?/topic/17163-mental-health-employment-service-sole-parent-employment-service-oia-info-implies-msd-trials-a-failure/

    An online version of the response can be found via this link:
    https://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/msd-oia-rqst-mhes-waa-other-support-services-issues-reply-anon-26-02-2015.pdf

    Some earlier info they released upon an OIA request:
    https://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/msd-o-i-a-reply-d-power-mhes-waa-information-complete-24-04-2014.pdf

    You would think that if these “reforms” and new approaches were such a success, they would proudly present us more information, rather than statistics about more abuse and threats WINZ workers face now. It seems though, that many people that go through such contracted service providers and end up in precarious jobs experience similar situations as Chloe has, and simply go back to WINZ through ever revolving doors.

  11. I noted that it was the Zero-Hour contract pieces on Campbell Live that preceded and most likely finally precipitated his demise.

    Whether there was truth to the ‘urban myth’ that Key wanted ‘that left-wing bastard gone’, or not, the casualisation, no overtime, mimimal wage economy started by Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and Stan Rodger back in the 80’s has now consigned many kiwis to a life of neo-liberal serfdom and wage slavery.

    With control of a compliant media, the installation of Come Dine With Me NZ to opiatise the masses, the neoliberal revolution is 95% complete and all social conscience and care for fellow kiwis is all but extinguished.

    All we need now is a new flag to erase any past allegiances and create the symbol of the “Big Brother’ Key cult and Brave New Neoliberal colony.

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