7-Eleven, [not] Subway and Bill Shorten’s misdirected concern

Following the other day’s revelation that 7-Eleven has been systematically underpaying and generally exploiting employees (mostly those employees who are temporary residents in Australia and on student/limited work visas), Bill Shorten made this comment:

We’ve all been appalled and disgusted by the scenes at Subway, thousands of people are being ripped off.

A dreadful mistake, commenting on Subway (who I’m sure have a wonderful track record on fair employment), when actually 7-Eleven is the subject of this scandal. But although this comment was called out by Mark Di Stefano , and this was the part he apologized for, it is another comment he made that made me sad and frustrated:

We want to make sure that we don’t see people coming here on visas being exploited and undercutting Australian jobs. [emphasis mine]

Exploitative work is bad, and it’s always bad. But this suggestion that the worst result of foreign workers being exploited is that Australian workers may in turn be exploited is insular and jingoistic. The argument that foreign workers undercut Australian workers is a favorite of racists. “They come over here, taking our jobs …” It’s rooted in the idea that people consent to being exploited in order to secure a job that would otherwise be filled by someone who would refuse to be exploited.

It’s racism and xenophobia. It’s victim blaming. And so transferring your concern to hypothetical potential Australian victims of exploitative work, when actual real people are being exploited is shameful.

The problem is that employers systematically exploit foreign workers where they would simply not exploit Australian workers. These employers know that temporary residents with limited work visas don’t have easy access to fair work resources. They’re not likely to join – or even want to join – unions. They’re not likely to seek advice when they are being exploited. And after some months or a small number of years, they are likely to go away and never pose a risk of exposure. They don’t “undercut” Australian jobs, because these exploitative positions are just not available for Australian workers. And most importantly, foreign workers whose employers exploit them in these abusive ways are not responsible in any way for any undesirable working conditions that Australian – or any other – workers face.

Bill Shorten should be appalled and disgusted by the way the actual people whose employers have actually abused and exploited them, rather than directing his disgust towards hypothetical Australians who he’d prefer as more ideal victims to be concerned about. Condemn abusive employment because it’s bad, not because it could happen to us.

He should care because it’s worth caring about, not just because it could be worth caring about.

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Prepaid Welfare Cards, Drugs, Alcohol, and Fish & Chips

Talk of paying welfare benefits via pre-paid cards comes up again and again. The idea is to ensure that welfare recipients spend their money on “essentials” rather than drugs, alcohol and gambling. I hate the idea.

I think back to when I was claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) in the UK, maybe ten years ago. Money was very, very tight, but I still liked to have fish and chips on a Friday night and a couple of pints in the pub. To me, that was essential: some enjoyment in life, rather than simply meaninglessly existing was essential – essential to my sanity. So for some people it’s fish and chips and a pint in the pub. For some it’s a joint at the weekend, or perhaps playing the pokies, or going out to a nightclub every now and then and doing tequila shots and maybe a couple of pills. For some it’s scraping together whatever money they can to buy some low-quality heroin because it’s a fucking mammoth addiction that the fucking health service is too underfunded to help them with in any way. But whatever, different people have different essentials, but for everyone it is essential for their life to mean something, and not simply to exist.

I think part of the problem is people who have never claimed benefits making decisions on – and passing comment on – welfare policy without consideration of the experiences of the people it affects. For all people, leisure and entertainment are essentials. Yes, not needed for basic survival, but essential nonetheless. To suggest that the poorest in society deserve nothing but survival is unfair and extremely misguided. It’s cruel and unjust. For many, a period claiming welfare benefits comes either after or before a long period in work, paying tax and contributing in a full way to society. If it’s taxpayers’ money it is then by definition their money. They are, were, or will be taxpayers. There are a small minority – a tiny minority – who are chronic welfare recipients (and it really is a tiny minority, despite perceptions caused by media focus). Some consider that to be problematic (I don’t) and something that should be punished. I disagree even there, but either way we have to let that go – otherwise we are punishing the majority simply out of spite.

When I was claiming JSA, the money I received was mine. I didn’t need permission for how to spend it. I needed serious and meticulous budgeting skills, but the money was mine, and mine to spend as I pleased. Often I spent the money on alcohol. Sometimes on drugs. Sometimes existence was painfully hard, and balls to anyone who would have denied me a little pleasure and a little entertainment.

Welfare is not a “lifeline to survive” – it’s a package to ensure that people who find themselves in financially impossible situations are able to maintain a decent and dignified quality of life. By denying those people all but the bare minimum to survive as living organisms, you would deny them dignity and the freedom to exist as humans and valued members of a functioning society. Welfare is there to prevent that – not cause it.

The Thought of a Plebiscite is Truly Scary

As I say at the start of most of these posts, I’m not really a huge advocate of gay marriage, but on balance, I slightly support it. I have written previously about the reasons, and this post is not an argument for or against marriage, rather some musings on the process.

I think it should be fairly clear to everybody that same-sex marriage in Australia is an inevitability. There is no “if”; it’s all about “when”. With large parts of Europe (including most recently Ireland), most of North America, South Africa, Israel and New Zealand all recognizing same-sex marriage, it is inconceivable that Australia will not see it sometime in the near future, despite resistance.

What is now happening is fairly tedious discussion of the process of bringing this about, with the main options being a parliamentary vote and a public vote. And the prospect of a public vote is frightening and offensive.

Frightening because we will be subjected to months of a hurtful and damaging campaign against same-sex marriage. We won’t, of course, hear from queer people for whom marriage represents further oppression and control; rather we’ll hear homophobes attacking our lives, our families and our right to exist. We see this already when there isn’t a vote looming; we will see it tenfold if any plebiscite goes ahead. And these campaigns won’t just be upsetting to us; they won’t just be hugely damaging to our mental health; they’ll rile up homophobes and recruit undecideds, risking our physical safety. We can avoid this and weshould avoid this, but it seems to be government policy that we be subjected to this.

Offensive because we’re being told that we require consent from mainstream society to live our lives how we choose, and to express ourselves the way we choose. Because we’re being told that an administrative change to three words in a piece of legislation is a major upheaval of society, and that we’re to blame. Because our very dignity is deemed suitable to be decided on by the largely disinterested electorate.

Federal MPs will have an opportunity to end this, to protect us from the harm we face by this ongoing campaign – even if they disagree. Will they put our health, our safety, and our dignity before their own careers? Our fight will never end until we win – even if parliament says no; even if the public says no – so I beg them: end this swiftly. End this now.

Another reason I’m on the YES side

I’m in the process of writing something a bit longer on gay marriage/same-sex-marriage (or what you will). I’m not really an advocate of marriage at all (gay or otherwise), but I was just reminded of something which highlights a reason I support amending the Marriage Act to include same-sex couples: a quick story I’d like to share.

About a week before the last federal election in 2013 I was in the break room at work having lunch, and generally minding my own business. A colleage was also there having lunch with her manager (the manager is no longer with us). She said told him she was unsure of how to vote, and if he had any advice. Her dilemma was partly based on a conflict between her support for certain LNP policies and her support for same-sex marriage.

The manager’s (pretty blunt) response was that she should vote Liberal, saying that “if gays want to get married, they can go to New Zealand”.

Like I say, I’m not a huge advocate of gay marriage, but I don’t ever want to have to overhear anything like that again. There are lots of reasons I’m on the “yes” side, and not wanting to be told to fuck off to NZ is one of them.

On Joe Hockey’s Comments

“The starting point for a first home buyer is to get a good job that pays good money”

Joe Hockey, 9 June 2015

I guess, technically, he’s correct. That is the starting point.

Of course, it’s still a deeply insulting thing to say. It shows a complete lack of compassion or understanding about our situations, and the time we live in. This is not the 50s, or the 60s, or even the 80s when having a good job – well anyjob – was all you needed to be able to afford to buy a home. This is 2015, a world where the bulk of property in our cities is owned by baby boomers and private landlords. Even with good jobs, we are locked out

We live in a society obsessed with house prices, and we see growth in the property market (that is, houses becoming more expensive) as a good thing. Government policy is designed to ensure that house prices continue to rise, and anyone who owns property, especially mortgaged property, needs the value of their home to increase over time. Sadly, even with good jobs, our wages are not increasing at the same rate, so homes are becoming increasingly unaffordable. Even with good jobs, we are locked out.

But perhaps what is most insulting about this statement is the sentiment behind it. I live with my partner in a rented two-bedroom unit in Sydney’s Inner West. We can comfortably afford the rent. This suburb suits our lifestyle; we have good public transport links to the city, and I can easily get to work by car. We can afford to live in this suburb. I’ll repeat, because it’s important:

We can afford to live in this suburb.

What we cannot afford to do is own a home in this suburb. There are other suburbs where we almost certainly could afford to buy a home, but we don’t live in other suburbs; we live in this one. So much of the property market revolves around rental – creating suburbs where middle-income families can afford to live (but not buy), funding our landlords. Even with good jobs, we’re locked out: locked out of our own suburbs. It’s the opposite of trickle-down economics; it’s a system designed to have money flowing upwards, and lock us out in the process.

Joe Hockey’s right: having a good job is the starting point, but as long as we’re locked out by astronomical house prices, by such short supply of homes and by our landlords, we will never get off the starting blocks.