“What’s going on here?” a middle-aged man asks. He stands at the table set up by Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) outside Addi Road’s Food Pantry Marrickville. I tell him we are helping put together Christmas cards from people who are unemployed and battling, to send them to Australian politicians.
On the first of January, the Coronavirus Supplement will be cut. More cuts are in the wings, to be determined probably over the next few weeks. It all casts a long shadow over Christmas and the coming year. Things are going to get pretty mean again. A lot of people who are only recently unemployed don’t know how dark things can get. If the pollies read these seasonal greeting cards, they might get a genuine understanding of how it feels to live below the poverty line in Australia. Because the cards are handwritten we’re hoping the decision-makers will pay more attention to the messages. Maybe even listen to what’s being said.
The man making the enquiries is angry. “They’re cutting it?! I’m barely surviving now as it is. How much more can they take from me? If it wasn’t for this place,” he says, gesturing back to the open doors of the Food Pantry and lifting his shopping bags upwards to me like an offering … but he does not finish speaking. He stops and starts again, angry still and upset. “If it wasn’t for this place I would not make it. Give me one of those cards. I will write them.”
We get talking. He’s a bit suspicious when I ask his name and then mention it would be good to do a story on him for our social media. “I don’t want a picture with my face in it. I’m ashamed. I’ve been unemployed a while. I feel embarrassed. I have no friends anymore. The friends I used to have, they call me ‘a useless eater’. Because I eat and I give up nothing to the community. But it’s not true,” he says.
I say I can just take a photo of him standing in front of the Food Pantry as long as his face does not appear. I reassure him that we don’t have to use his full name. He says okay, checks the photo, approves of it. “You can call me Peter,” he says.
Peter tells me, “I was a wog. I couldn’t speak English when I came here as a kid. I left school in 1972 at age 13 because of what the teachers told me. Just go get a job, pay your taxes, then when you’re 65 you will get the pension. But they lied.”
“I did the right thing. I went into the clothing business. I became one of the best, working for King Gee. In 25 years I was only one who ever made a bonus,” Peter says. He tells me this at least three times, proud of the achievement and angry it has come to mean nothing. “I done all the right things. I set up my own factory in clothing. All this area up to the [Marrickville] Metro, it used to be weavers, weaving fabric. There were all these fashion stores with clothes being made. All gone. Where have they gone to? Overseas. Manufacturing in Australia got shot.”
Peter blames Labor and Liberal equally for the lack of support he got in the shakedown of manufacturing. He’d bought a lot of expensive equipment. He had to pay it off even after his business went bust. “No one wanted to buy it anymore. There was nothing I could do.”
He almost laughs. “I’m a victim of the system,” Peter says, outlining this history. But the way he says this is sarcastic. He knows people say that kind of thing when they are being self-pitying and blaming others for their own problems. After his business collapsed he was told to retrain. He got a taxi driver’s license. It cost him a lot. The money he made driving was not so good. But he made it work – just. Then Uber came through and that was that. When Peter describes what happened he really does laugh. “I really am a victim of the system. In some ways it’s amazing I am not crazy.”
The intensity with which he speaks makes me feel uneasy. He sees trouble coming for everyone. “It’s not just Covid-19. What about AI and all these robots than can outsmart us. How long do people think they will keep their jobs? What is going to happen? It’s coming fast.”
When he was driving taxis, Peter had to take care of his ageing mother as well as support his kids. Then he had to go through a period of being flat-out unemployed, somehow still managing both commitments. He’s just put his mother into a nursing home. He’s long separated from his children’s mother. Pain and rage are all mixed up as he talks.
Peter describes Jobseeker as “bloody terrible. They tell me to get a job but there aren’t too many jobs for someone like me at my age. I can’t even stand up for too long anymore, after working hard all my life. Even standing here now on this road talking to you I feel like I need to sit down. My body can’t handle it. I’m getting old.”
“If I weren’t in community housing I’d be out in the streets. If I could not get good food at the prices I can here at the Food Pantry I’d starve. I’m separated, but I still have to look after the kids. They come stay with me. How can you sit at a table with your kids and have them say ‘I’d like something to eat’, and you can’t provide it? I’m eating now because of this place. I’m feeding my kids a decent a meal. I have twins, a boy and a girl aged 16, another boy aged 12. They’re growing up fast. It takes a lot.”
Peter changes tack. “It makes me think about what is happening. I hate what they are doing to the farmers. They are making them go broke same way they did to me and my industry. Like with the milk. And all the big supermarket chains. They want to control all our food. Then they can control us.”
“I saw a beautiful video on YouTube that explains it. There’s this guy plucking all the feathers off a chicken. He does it till it is starting to bleed. Then all he has to do is give it a handful of corn and it starts following him around. You see? That is what they are going to do to us. We have not even scratched the surface of where things are going, we have not even seen the ripples in the water. Yeah, I will write the politicians a Christmas card.”
YOU can donate to Addi Road’s food rescue, food security and social justice programs here.
YOU can send a Christmas card today telling your story to an Australian politician here.