Why are vulnerable workers, vulnerable? This is a complex and heart wrenching question. Every day, I speak with people who are young and not so young, who have no economic stability and feel their futures have been stolen from them. So much of their grief and hopelessness for their futures is connected to what type of jobs and education they can and cannot access, and therefore what resources are available for them. Structural insecurity is a defining condition for so many in Aotearoa, especially if you sit a little or a lot lower on the class/privilege ladder. This structural insecurity is induced, in part, through a rise in precarious and insecure work where employers routinely refuse to guarantee hours and offer poverty wages which do not meet rising living costs or inflation.
You can’t budget when you never know what your pay cheque is going to be or even if you have a job one week till the next. Thus an acute sense of anxiety is the low background hum for those who can only find precarious and lowly paid work which blocks upward mobility and offers zero economic stability. Overwhelmingly, those being offered this type of precarious work are women, people of colour and new migrant workers. And if you suffer from a disability or do not fit into our new work economy, accessing any work becomes even harder.
I spoke with Rachel*, a 40-year-old sole mother of one, who because of ongoing physical health issues finds it hard to get and maintain conventional employment. Rachel told me the only work she feels she’ll be able to access with her compromised health is work she creates for herself,
“[I] feel shut out of my own future and I’m struggling to visualise a meaningful future for myself. I feel empty. I feel disengaged and disconnected. I simply can’t see how I’m going to build any security for myself and my daughter, and I worry about too many things.”
As jobs are increasingly automated away and pay and conditions continues to shrink, workers are left with constricted choice when it comes to their employment options. The more desperate and destitute the worker, the more likely they will take poverty wages and accept contracts such as zero hours and casual, which undermine workers’ rights and entitlements and hands all the power to the employer.
Welfare sanctions and cuts have resulted in the unemployed and economically struggling being easily coerced into taking any work no matter how poorly paid and/or dangerous. This creates a desperate and easily exploitable workforce and serves to pushes down wages; if workers are lining up at the door, employers have no incentive to offer contracts which benefit the employee or pay competitive or fair wages. This is reflected in ‘real wages’ not going up in 10 years.
Worker vulnerability is also compounded by the decline of unionisation which began in 1991 when the Employment Contract Act was introduced which made it hard for unions to operate.
Some of most deregulated and casualised industries with the lowest pay-rates such as hospitality, have the least union representation and protection which leaves workers vulnerable. I should know as I have worked in this industry for over a decade so I can tell you that cut shifts, low pay, workplace harassment, denied pay-rises and wage theft (through, for example, docked breaks you never took), aren’t just common, it is a given.
The only contracts I have ever been offered in hospitality are and were casual; what this means legally is my employer does not have to guarantee me even one hour’s work a week. How is this an excepted ‘deal’ between worker and employer? I have been told by two representatives from E Tu, which is the union who are meant to represent us, that my industry is too hard to organise as it is a transient workforce. In fact, E Tu do not even list bartenders or wait staff as workers they represent on their website. This is problematic as hospitality and tourism is the largest growing industry in New Zealand, yet we have no union able or prepared to represent us. The Unite union has had incredible success in organising precarious and low waged workers in the fast food industry but unfortunately they do not have the resources or manpower to extend representation to large numbers of hospitality workers.
Trade unionist Helen Kelly, wrote in a detailed report titled, Under Pressure,
“Insecure work, for most people, means their lives are dominated by work: waiting for it, looking for it, worrying when they don’t have it. They often don’t have paid holidays – which can mean no holidays at all. They lose out on family time. They often don’t have sick leave. They are vulnerable if they try to assert their rights or raise any concerns. They are exposed to dangerous working conditions and have to accept low wages” (page 1).
It is estimated that one-third of casual workers and over 170,000 workers in total are without a contract. This is particularly prevalent in, “agriculture, forestry and fishing, where 20 per cent had no written agreement, followed by construction and accommodation and food services at 15 per cent”. No contract compounds the vulnerability of low pay and workplace insecurity.
I spoke with Michael*, a 29-year-old who in the past two years has cycled through seven different jobs, ranging from call centre and graphic design work to answering surveys online. I asked him what employment insecurity had done to his mental health. “It has made me anxious”, he said, “I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder and the professional opinion was this disorder stems from job insecurity.” For so many of us, casual work is not some ‘stepping stone’ before we land a great job, with a salary and benefits – it will be the only type of work we can access, leaving us bouncing between depression and anxiety and one insecure job to the next for the majority of our lives. What kind of future is that?
In the last two years, I have cycled in and out of five jobs ranging from hospitality work and most recently a job share position as a barista/receptionist. Seven weeks ago I was fired under the ‘90-day’ trial period, five working days out before the end of the trial. This round of unemployment has been devastating for my self-confidence and mental health. And this is how you keep workers vulnerable: actively seek to erode a worker’s self-esteem, ensure through casualisation and wage suppression workers are both economically and time-poor which forces us to trade everything we have for money and shelter. Then reduce access to economic support such as welfare and, finally, the last blow is to weaken and undermine the very institutions who empower and protect workers: Unions.