Point the finger at low wages, not 'lazy' or 'drugged' workers
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Prime Minister John Key is making international headlines for all the wrong reasons again. In a recent Radio New Zealand interview he shamed low-waged workers, calling them lazy and saying they were on drugs.
Low-waged workers also have no work ethic, he said.
I am one of the hundreds of thousands of low-waged workers in this country and I am devastated by his comments.
Key uses these reasons to justify bringing record numbers of migrant workers into New Zealand to take up roles in work considered unskilled, such as fruit picking, hairdressing, labouring, baking, driving trucks, managing cafes and working in hospitality.
"...Go and ask the employers, and they will say some of these people won’t pass a drug test, some of these people won’t turn up for work, some of these people will claim they have health issues later on,” Key told Radio New Zealand.
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"So it’s not to say there aren’t great people who transition from Work and Income to work, they do, but it’s equally true that they’re also living in the wrong place, or they just can’t muster what is required to actually work."
I want to be very clear here: I support immigrant workers. I embrace the diversity they bring to Aotearoa. I stand firm in solidarity with them for many reasons, the most important being that the migrant workforce is often subject to low wages and exploitation, which are things I also have plentiful and painful experiences of.
But what I do not embrace is John Key pitting workers like myself, someone on poverty-level wages, against cheap-labour migrant workers to perhaps further suppress wage growth and help his corporate mates get richer.
Most low-waged workers I know are some of the hardest-working people you will ever meet. We undertake multiple jobs, which is hard, I promise you, and have no choice other than to do this.
There has been a rise in the casualised and part-time economy and full-time work is harder to come by. We are left stitching multiple jobs together to make up full-time work. We give up our days, nights and weekends to pour your pints, flip your burgers, serve you food we can’t afford, and clean your damn toilets.
Yeah, you know all those jobs people don’t want to do? We do them. I think we work twice as hard as chief executives and other workers considered "highly-skilled" for measly paychecks and in high-stress environments.
"We are left stitching multiple jobs together to make up full-time work. We give up our days, nights and weekends to pour your pints, flip your burgers, serve you food we can’t afford, and clean your damn toilets." Photo: 123RF.COM
We also endure the poverty shaming that comes with underappreciated, low-waged work. Being poor incurs ridicule and put-downs from strangers, people we know, the mainstream media, and now, even our political leaders.
So many of our most vulnerable and precarious workers are women, new migrants and people of colour and we typically have no protection, no benefits and nowhere to turn.
In part this is because consecutive governments have actively undermined and weakened unions through laws such as the 1991 Employment Contracts Act, which made it much harder for them to operate. This has restricted workers’ ability to negotiate pay and access the most basic of benefits like sick leave and holiday pay, and some of us are routinely denied breaks.
So, if we don’t work our fingers to the bone for ruthless employers, we are fired or our shifts are cut. This leaves us scrambling to find other work in a stagnant and flooded job market.
In response we become desperate and therefore easier to coerce into accepting offers for pay below minimum wage and jobs where you may deal with workplace injustices like harassment and assault. I have post-traumatic stress disorder from the number of times I have had guys attempt to assault me and feel me up while I'm working in nightclubs and late-night bars.
There is almost no direct course of action I can take over this as the hospitality sector is unregulated and has no real union representation. So, if I seem "lazy" or wasted on shift it is likely because I am feeling depressed and anxious in response to a demeaning, and sometimes dangerous, work environment.
It is important to note that, while Key said low-waged workers were on drugs, he failed to mention that drug addiction can be a symptom of poverty, and that low wages combined with insecure work induce poverty.
Wanting to check out of this grinding reality can be an understandable, albeit harmful, response to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Comments like Key’s, which shame an entire group of people, make me want to pick up a bottle of booze and down every last drop until I can feel nothing but warm numbness wash over me.
Honestly, this type of shaming of low-waged workers like myself makes me cry. I’m serious. It hurts. It hurts because no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to secure even low-paid and unskilled work for long periods of time.
I am not alone in this struggle. It was Key’s government that introduced the 90-day trial law in 2009, which only serves to compound issues associated with precarious and low-waged work. Thousands of workers had been sacked under this law by 2013 (this is a conservative estimate) and many were simply told they "did not fit in".
Six weeks ago I was subject to the harder edge of this legislation when I was not offered an ongoing contract just five days out from the end of my trial period. The reason? I was told that I did not "perform my duties as a receptionist up to standard".
I had worked incredibly hard for this company, going above and beyond my job description. I’d even lost weight as I spent so much time running between floors to clean, make coffees and teas, and run errands for other employees. I often felt stressed and overworked.
Still, I was told my hard work was not good enough. When is our hard work ever f...... good enough?
"I was not offered an ongoing contract just five days out from the end of my trial period. The reason? I was told that I did not 'perform my duties as a receptionist up to standard'." Photo: 123RF.COM
Being fired under this law was a major blow to my confidence and since then I have struggled to get out of bed. I feel depressed and hopeless and am battling suicidal ideation. I don’t want to die, but I cannot keep bouncing from one job to the next with no chance of economic stability or progression.
This insecurity has been ongoing for years and no matter how hard I work I have little hope that my situation will ever change.
Yet Key has the audacity to say those living in poverty because of low wages, bad luck and under/unemployment are on drugs and lacking in work ethic.
His rotten rhetoric blames us alone for our circumstances, when I think it is his government that further entrenches poverty into the lives of low-waged workers. It was his party’s MP, Paula Bennett, who enacted sweeping welfare reforms and sanctions that made getting a benefit (which barely covers rent, let alone rapidly rising living costs) a humiliating experience.
When you rip gaping holes in social-security nets those with lesser means are left to drown under the rising tide of inequality, structural unemployment and underemployment. Many of us are left with no choice than to take any work, no matter how dangerous or precarious it may be, and how sub-human the wages. What sort of a choice is that?
Young people who are born poor, or fall into poverty and downward mobility, are denied a future, or at least any economic and personal wellbeing. This is not the kind of future anyone deserves, especially our young, and no-one should just accept it as a given.
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No matter what Key tells the masses, the problem with New Zealand’s work economy is not our being lazy or drugged workers who lack work ethic.
The problem is low wages. The problem is a rise in a culture of precarious and casualised work that has created structural unemployment and job scarcity.
The problem is the laziness and incompetence of both right- and nominally left-wing governments that have failed, dismally, to protect those of us who were not born into wealth and privilege.
The problem is that Key is a millionaire who has absolutely no idea about, nor care for, the daily struggles and injustices the working class and migrant workers endure every single day.
Perhaps then, aside from finally dealing with any of these very real issues, at the very least Key should simply stop talking about us as if he knows us.