IT’S A TABOO in Irish society to talk about money or wages, but I guess when you have neither, it’s easy enough to break taboos. So here goes.
As the election looms, the Fine Gael line is that work should always pay more than welfare. Which is fair enough; of course work should always pay more than welfare, but it seems pretty clear to me that the blueshirts intend to ensure work always pays more than welfare by cutting welfare so much that no matter how rubbish your wages are, you’ll still be worse off on the dole.
I work a zero-hour contract.
I’m angry, depressed and very, very broke. I’m also someone who – financially at least –would be literally better off on the dole.
Not knowing if I have work today or not
A zero-hour contract works like this: I wake every morning and phone my employers’ number. The recorded message tells me if I have work today. Sometimes they don’t record the message till the last minute, so I lie in bed, drifting in and out of sleep, calling back until I know whether or not my day is work or a grey, shapeless depression.
Days I don’t work, I sign on.
I get the dole for the days I don’t work. (About €30 a day.) I’ve always paid my taxes and I’ve always worked. I certainly never wanted to be a burden on society, but I lost my job when the recession hit and – rather than sign on – I was grateful to take this as a stop-gap, despite its obvious drawbacks.
But here’s the thing. Despite Joan Burton braying at every opportunity that Labour “preserved core welfare rates”, I don’t qualify for rent allowance anymore. That’s because – though I’m very lucky in a good winter week to earn €100 and often I earn nothing at all – in the summer I sometimes earn perhaps €350 per week after tax and the welfare officer looks at my bank statements over the course of the year. (Under this Government, welfare thresholds have, if not lowered, then at least tightened.)
Normally, I wouldn’t care. I’m not about money and I never have been. As long as my rent is paid and I can afford my dinner and a few books and the odd (or even) pint, I’ve never cared that I don’t dress so well or take holidays or that my car is – frankly – a joke.
Things are bad at the moment
But when things get bad, as they have of late, then they get really bad.
The dole is – if you’re lucky enough to be over 26 – €188 per week. (Actually, as my hair gets ever-greyer, I’d dearly love to be under 26 again. Maybe I could lose weight by eating grass.)
Because I do a bit of extra work, my dole is means-tested. Long story short, and to be honest I’m very uncomfortable telling you this, but when I’m out of work for a week, I don’t get €188. I get €100. Because I don’t get rent allowance, I’m often left, once my rent is paid, with literally nothing on which to live.
Employers will do what they have to do, and what they can get away with. I don’t mean to whine and I’m very aware of how extraordinarily lucky I am.
The Cork Penny Dinners is a wonderful institution. In essence a soup kitchen dating back to Victorian times. In 2011, they supplied perhaps 100 meals per week.
Nowadays, that’s closer to 1,800 meals a week and they have –these past five years – seen a remarkable shift in the socio-economic profile of the people they look after.
Once upon a time, the people calling to Cork Penny Dinners were – almost exclusively - homeless. Now more and more of those calling in have homes and work. These are people who earn a weekly wage but who – once they’ve paid their rent or mortgage – simply cannot afford to put food on the table.
Not just for the homeless
I used to make small donations to the Cork Penny Dinners. I’ve never been well-off, so it’s always been a fiver or a tenner. I’d like to think I was just being a decent human being, but maybe sub-consciously I was making a deposit for the “There but for” days.
As someone starting to feel the strain, I know why people are falling between the cracks. It’s because we don’t have in this country, a living wage. It’s because we don’t have in this country, the idea of work certainty. It’s because we don’t have in this country, a desire to ensure that there is a safety net – a proper safety net – for all of our citizens.
It’s election-time and all I have to my name is my vote. I’ll be asking my local candidates where they stand on a living wage, on zero-hour contracts and on the idea that every citizen should be treated fairly when they fall on hard times.
The “There but for” days are closing in on me now and I’m feeling pretty lonely. Still, though, so long as we allow employers to get away with zero-hour contracts, I guess I’ll never really be alone.