Rent, my single biggest expense, is E100 a week for a reasonable sized room in a reasonably priced part of Dublin. So, I have to work at least 16 hours a week just to have a roof over my head. After paying ESB, gas and phone bill and buying food to meet the basic necessities of life, there isn't much left over for any of life's little luxuries.
Health-care is a more serious issue. The potential implication for your health is probably the worst aspect of surviving on a low wage. I'm lucky that I'm in good health as otherwise I could be in serious trouble. Earning minimum wage, you're not entitled to a medical card and you have to pay the equivalent of 6 hours work for one trip to the doctor. With a better paying job, getting health insurance would be the first change that I'd make in my life.
I'm also in no position to have a family. There's no way that I could afford to pay all the expenses that go with bringing up children on the wage that I earn. Having the security that comes from buying a house is completely beyond my reach.
Even though I work roughly 40 hours a week, the work is comprised of shifts which vary from week to week and my employers classify me as a part-time worker. This allows them to arbitrarily cut the hours of 'troublesome' workers. For example, if you were to demand holiday pay, sick pay or other basic benefits that employees are entitled to, you might find that your shifts suddenly dry up. This phenomenon seems to be quite widespread in the low-wage retail sector. Working conditions are also uncomfortable as my bosses are unwilling to spend any money on improving things which don't affect them or their profits.
The turnover of staff in minimum-wage jobs is very high and there are many non-nationals working in such jobs. Many of them are happy to be getting such high wages relative to what they could be earning at home but many of them are also just as conscious of the same issues as I am. I've noticed that it's often Europeans or those who have been living in Ireland for longer who are more aware that they are being exploited. They are aware that sick and holiday pay are basic entitlements and at the end of the day, they too have to deal with the same high rents and cost of living in Dublin.
The nature of my job means that there is only one employee working at any one time and there is little opportunity to form a good relationship with fellow workers aside from chatting when shifts change and one employee replaces another. Without the opportunity to develop good working relationships with co-workers, there is little possibility of us organising to change things and get better pay, respect or working conditions.
A sense of solidarity and long-term commitment is needed for any serious move to change things for the better. Most of us (including myself) see the job as a step towards getting a better job. The problem is that some of us end up getting a new job which is merely different - but not better - and that those who replace us in the old job still have to deal with the problems of surviving on a minimum wage.
This edition is No82 published in September 2004