Shane Te Pou: A tribute to my Mum – worker, voter, everyday hero
My Mum’s name was Te Kuru Te Pou. She left us late last year.
Aside from her death notice, and the fact one of her sons happens to have a newspaper column, lives like Mum’s don’t make the news. But you know what? Maybe they should.
For most of her working life, Mum cooked fish and chips at a local takeaways in Kawerau. Always on her feet, never skipping a shift.
When she was 69 years old, she held down two jobs – at the fish and chip shop, and at a dairy down the road.
For years before that, she would drag me and my brothers along to pick fruit in the summer – a brutal task under the Eastern Bay of Plenty sun – and we’d supplement the pittance that made us by packing eggs, earning cents by the tray.
This wasn’t some exercise in enlightened parenting, mind you. She didn’t take us along to impart lessons about the value of hard work. There were eight of us kids. We needed the money.
These days, I work in human resources for a tech company. Words like “productivity” get thrown around a lot, including by me.
When it comes to Mum, though, no fancy algorithms or theories are required: it’s just not humanly possible to extract more honest toil from one lifetime.
She worked every hour she could, never expecting a promotion or an Employee of the Month prize. Mum didn’t experience personal or professional growth. She didn’t get time in lieu or generous maternity leave. What she did every day was arduous, repetitive and exhausting – and the only return came in the form of the minimum hourly wage.
Her whole life, Mum turned up at the local polling booth on Election Day to proudly cast her vote for Labour. That’s why my brother was shocked last October when she told him she wanted to vote early, on the Friday before the election.
It was soon obvious why. She was terribly unwell. In truth, her health had been in decline for more than a decade, but she’d somehow always found the energy to plough on, never complaining.
On Election Day, by now bedridden, she kept her eyes open long enough to catch a glimpse of me pontificating on telly, and until she knew for sure Jacinda had been re-elected. I’d like to think both things made her happy.
But, over the next 12 hours, Mum quickly deteriorated. She passed away early the next morning.
I tell this story not just to celebrate my Mum’s life and mourn her passing, but as homage to all the Kiwis – Māori, Pakeha, immigrants alike – whose contributions go almost entirely unnoticed in our skew-whiff economy.
If not a fish and chip shop, a supermarket or nursing home, a kindergarten or construction site. The people whose labour keeps the shelves stocked, the buses going, the lights on.
Covid shed useful light on the vital role of the essential worker, but the big unanswered question is whether we will begin to value their work accordingly.
First things first, this Government has both the mandate and a moral duty to make the minimum wage a living wage. Employer groups go to great lengths to defend low wages on the grounds it helps young people into the job market – a self-serving myth that ignores the reality faced by so many like my Mum, who remain stuck in minimum wage work for the duration of their working lives.
“Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity,” Martin Luther King told striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee on March 28, 1968, “it has dignity, and it has worth. All labour has dignity.” A week later, back in Memphis, King was killed by an assassin’s bullet.
If we can agree – and surely we can – that work has dignity, then isn’t it time we dignified it with wages and conditions that allow families to live a decent life? In this Aotearoa, this land of plenty, how can we justify otherwise?
In many ways, Te Kuru Te Pou, my dear, departed Mum, had a rich life – certainly if you measure it by the love she gave out and received in return. The rivers of tears and gales of laughter at her tangi were testament to that.
But Mum worked harder and longer than she should have needed to, for less reward than she deserved. In her memory, those of us who grieve will use our voices so that the same will not be said of generations to come.
Tuku aroha ki mua
Tuku aroha ki muri
Kia tu te aroha o naianei
Send love to the past
Send love to the future
Be love today
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