Life in Auckland's CBD
Most people come here with a simple, yet indefatigable dream – that of a better life; a life where it is possible to live in relative peace, unshackled from the tyranny of government and the abject misery of economic oppression. Brazilians, Pols, English, Irish, Turkish, Nepalese, Chinese and a multitude of other races all move in tandem, like moths to a flame, toward the promise that this far-flung land appears to have on offer – freedom. Surely, a nation as removed from the rest of the world geographically as can possibly be must also somehow exempt itself from the chaos that now engulfs much of human society, or so the logic goes. Surely, we think, there must be one bastion of hope left on this earth; one place where predatory capitalism does not rule from up on high, making slaves out of men and princes out of thieves. Surely there is at least one country where hard work and decency are still honoured and rewarded with the simple yet coveted treasures of existence – solace, strength, fortitude and maybe even, dare I suggest it, upward progression.
New Zealand paints itself as a paragon of peace in the pacific; an oasis of purity among a vast, endless sea of turmoil and moral decay. Compared with other nations, it is easy to enter, not impossible to stay, has a low crime rate and a fairly benign government, is environmentally conscious, protective of indigenous culture and values, and rarely engages in combative military operations, unless out of some misaligned sense of loyalty to the British crown. All races being equal in the eyes of the state, the plethora of nationalities present here appear to live in harmony and, at least on the surface, racial strife is not very visible. There is peace here you think – solitude – and a chance to make one’s way in the world unmolested by political theatrics and economic parasites.
The image of this nation, carefully cultivated, is indeed pristine, which explains why travellers from all walks of life (with much to flee from back home) find themselves at its doorstep; world-weary and ravaged by man’s inhumanity. The fact is, however, that the image New Zealand projects of itself is a sort of neurotic fallacy maintained by a thinly veiled mystique of self-aggrandizement and outright lies. Those who arrive here, whether to study, work, travel or holiday, almost immediately discover that whatever they had believed this place to be, it is most certainly and unapologetically not, but by then it is often too late to turn back. Indeed, considering the geography of the country and conditions of entry, it is not uncommon for most new arrivals to have invested everything they had in moving here. Understandably then, when they inevitably experience that gut feeling that all is not as it seems and that the fantasy they had been encouraged to construct in their mind’s eye is entirely out of sync and out of wack with reality, they attempt to ignore it as best they can.
Within one hour of landing on kiwi soil, my better judgement was telling me something was wrong, but because I had been travelling for almost two days and was half delirious, I tried to shrug it off as jetlag. At the same time, however, I could not help but acknowledge the terrible state of depravity foreigners were dwelling in at the hostel I had booked and the tragic symphony of stories almost everybody I met there seemed eager to divulge. As the days wore on, my fears began to grow and swell inside of me and I couldn’t dismiss the overwhelming idea that I had made a colossal, irreversible mistake. I suddenly found myself in a kind of catch-22 – I had to stay longer to see if I could actually grow to like the place, but the longer I stayed the less likely my chances were of leaving should I realize that I didn’t. A truly terrifying and confusing few weeks I spent in this quagmire and by the time it dawned on me that I should have listened to my initial instincts and left for Australia or somewhere else, it was already too late and I was already on the verge of bankruptcy.
Panic set in then – sheer, unadulterated panic. For weeks I had been searching for work in vain only to be set upon by criminals and vagabonds, attempting to exploit me in any way they could to make a quick buck. Corporations posing as charities and NGOs, middlemen whose propositions went nowhere, conmen trying to lure me into the sex trade and a vast array of other peculiar, borderline illegal entities whose sole purpose is profiteering from the shattered dreams of misguided foreigners pounced upon me all at once and eventually I was exhausted and dizzy from fending them off. Soon Auckland struck me as a place steeped balls deep in corruption, overrun by bandits and pimps, where immigrants are exploited by corporations with even less constraints and less oversight than the rest of the western world – a real achievement unto itself. The majority of foreigners I met with professional careers, degrees and prospects in Europe or elsewhere had reduced themselves to barmen and/or strippers just to survive. Whether you were once middle or lower class in your home country no longer mattered a jot – foreigners here, regardless of class or profession, all fall under the same category: sub-citizen, sub-human.
Of all the countries I have lived in, which are many, I have never experienced this level of systemic racism. I say systemic, because the people on the street couldn’t care less if you come from Zimbabwe or Honolulu, it is the state itself and the corporate masters it serves which objectify you and use the visa structure as a sort of hierarchy of exploitation. The lowest of the low are the “working holiday visa” folks who are truly susceptible to toiling in the worst jobs, who have basically no rights whatsoever and who are therefore vulnerable to suffer all kinds of abuse. On the next rung you find the “working visa” people – those who have striven to get sponsorship (paying extortionate fees for the privilege), but are still as precarious as the WHV folk. These foreigners get treated slightly better, but in many ways they are still highly vulnerable to abuse since they depend on their employer to maintain their visa status and, due to the nature of the modern labour market, may be demanded to work more for longer hours and less pay, or let go at any time.
During the six months I’ve been here so far, I have had three jobs, each of which were pretty awful in their own unique way and each of which I was let go from, for one reason or another. I had never been fired from a job before, so this was a relatively new experience for me, yet due to the nature of my temporary visa status, it is something I have come to expect. My qualifications and experience don’t count for much here, so the general attitude of my employers is that I should be grateful for what I am given and thankful I am not in the brothels like the other girls. The last company I toiled at expected me to do the same work as those who were paid three times the amount, taxed half as much and treated with at least some semblance of dignity by the management. I, on the other hand, was, from the first day, looked upon with scorn and suspicion (verging on disdain), in spite of the fact that I tried my best to maintain a professional attitude at all times, even in the face of the utter belittlement and deprecation that I consistently received. After four months of endurance, I felt myself to be entirely burnt out – my body was wrecked, my spirit broken and my financial affairs not much improved.
Now I am unemployed again and once more on the verge of bankruptcy, living in a city of thieves and junkies, Asian millionaires who shove past you in the street with an air of self-absorption that is shocking to behold and destitute Maoris who litter the pavement like discarded bundles of clothes, holding out their plastic cups in a final salute to the dawning of the end of the world. Auckland's CBD, though visually not much to behold, brims with life in the day and buzzes with the sound of desperation at night. After a while here one cannot help but become jaded to the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and extreme plight, to the unbridled snobbery amongst scenes of unimaginable misery and to the constant, never-ending stream of foreigner workers shuffling, brows bowed against the wind, toward whatever corner of the city they have come to call home.
Strangely comforting is the silence outside of Auckland and in the little towns and cities in the valleys beyond. The mountains and hills stretch on for eternity with hardly a soul to disturb them; nature living almost at total peace with itself. What mesmerizing landscapes, what sights to see away from civilization – the desire to retreat into the wild becomes almost overpowering. And yet sorrowful is the acknowledgement that in order to survive one must eventually trudge back to the great drudgery and desolation of this, our great city.
In many respects, one cannot blame the people of this once noble country for the way it operates, for in reality NZ is merely a vassal state and Kiwis the lost sons and daughters of empire. This nation is as much a victim of the silent invasion of Neoliberal capitalism as most other states across the globe. Foolish was I to be surprised that this pernicious ideology, having taken the rest of the world by storm, could cast its nets of dominion so very far. It saddens me deeply to recognize that human enslavement to neoliberalism is now truly global and truly complete. Governments, in whichever country they appear to preside over, are now merely the keepers, the administrators of the corporate machine that reigns supreme over us all. The nation state, as we once knew it, has become utterly defunct for it has abdicated its power to the corporatocracy and is entirely beholden to the whims and fancies of global corporations. Our age-old institutions operate in the ancient way, within the confines of national boundaries, yet corporations have no such limitations. They make states compete for the taxes they hardly ever pay, while decreasing the standard of living for the population and contributing ever more to the degradation of the planet. The response of states is to sell off their citizens in a desperate race to the bottom, never stopping for moment to realize that the price paid in the end is far greater than anything money could ever buy.
New Zealand, though perceived otherwise, is no exception to the doctrines of predatory capitalists and Auckland’s CBD is the centre from which the greed and depravity of neoliberalism spews forth, spreading its molten sickness like lava far and wide across the land, ensnaring natives and their hapless foreign counterparts alike. A word of warning to my fellow travellers wherever you may roam across this earth – the predators have won.