First published in Metro Magazine, New Zealand, 2013 by Leilani Tamu in collaboration with artist Janet Lilo
Six months ago, I quit my job. After years of working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I decided to take a risk. It wasn’t an easy decision, although I don’t regret it. One of the reasons I decided to leave MFAT was because of the way the “restructure from hell” was managed. My overseas position (in Tonga) was cut, and I was given the option of either staying on for one more year, or going back to Wellington to work in headquarters. I was lucky. Some colleagues were just made redundant.
After seeing so many of them treated appallingly, despite their years of loyal service, I felt compelled to leave. Loyalty matters a lot to me, as does treating others with respect. As scary as it was, the decision to step into the unknown gave me an opportunity to do something different.
So we packed up our life in Tonga and moved back to Auckland, where, after about eight weeks I found a fulltime job. In contrast, my husband went through six months and 40-odd job applications and has only recently managed to get work. He wasn’t picky or idle. He applied for everything he thought he could reasonably do, including bar work, gardening and rubbish collection. He really wanted a job.
While living on one income, we made some lifestyle decisions. We bought all of our furniture and clothes from op-shops. We started growing our own veggies. And we decided to stay in Auckland over the summer break, so we wouldn’t have to spend money on petrol. We also made a conscious decision not to use debt (overdrafts and credit cards) as a buffer. We wanted to stay debt-free. Each of those decisions helped us survive, but over time things kept getting harder.
The car broke down and there were rises in our life-insurance premiums. Small monetary decisions started to become hugely significant. Not being eligible for Working for Families tax benefits or childcare subsidies (because I earn “too much”), we had to take our daughter out of daycare. We were both stressed all the time.
My husband asked WINZ if he could apply for the unemployment benefit. But they said my salary was large enough to support us all. That was not our experience, despite the fact we were making all the sacrifices we could. There was little empathy within social services for our situation. It was our loved ones, our family and friends, who gave us the little bits of extra support we needed to make it through to the next month’s pay cheque.
When the job offer – bus driving – eventually came through, we both wept. The value of a job had never meant more to either of us.
We know there are lots more Kiwi families like ours, struggling to survive. We know what it’s like, behind the headlines about more job losses, at Mainzeal, Solid Energy, Telecom, Contact Energy… When I heard John Key’s public response to Telecom’s job cuts announcement (that “we live in a flexible labour market”), I wanted to vomit.
Where’s the love? Where’s the help, within our local communities, for those in need? I met a young man sitting on Queen St recently. The cardboard sign he held in his lap said: “Any jobs please or a donation to buy I.D. to find work.” I bought him a hamburger and had a chat with him. His story was like my husband’s.
After a while I left and watched him from afar. The people walking past him were choosing to ignore him. No one even bothered to toss him a coin. I remembered a similar scene I’d observed a couple of years ago in San Francisco. I met a man sitting on the sidewalk there too, but his sign said: “What’s love got to do with it? I need money for drugs.” His hat was full of coins.