20 Jun 2019

Refugees and the living wage

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:17 pm on 20 June 2019

Ibrahim Omer is an Eritrean refugee and a spokesperson for Living Wage Aotearoa, spreading the word about how important it is for refugees to earn a living wage.

Ibrahim Omer at the exhibition

Ibrahim Omer at the exhibition Photo: Supplied

Omer left Eritrea when he was 17 - he says it’s one of the most oppressive countries on earth.

“The circumstances I left under were quite dangerous, there was a shoot to kill policy, I was quite lucky enough to make it to Sudan safe.”

He didn’t mean to end up here, but he had to leave Sudan quickly and was detained and accused of being a spy.

“Long story, but here I am.”

Settling in, Omer felt safe

“You don’t have to look over your shoulder and you don’t have to worry for your safety, but there was a lot of challenges obviously.”

But he says as a young person with a dream and drive, as a refugee in New Zealand you often find yourself getting a job that pays very poorly.

“Low wage means doing 50,60,70,80 hours…you just work like a dog 6 to 7 days.”

It took him five years to be able to save enough money to go to university - he was working two full time jobs when he decided to enroll.

Omer says he was quite lucky that in 2014, his pay went from minimum wage to the Living Wage. Now he works as a union organiser and campaigns for others to get the Living Wage too.

“There’s a lot of work to do and someone has to do it.”

The living wage is currently $21.15 and minimum wage is at $17.70.

“Three dollars makes a difference; buying school uniforms, shoes and cutting some of the hours that you do, being able to spend time with family…it goes a long, long way.”

Niguisse Fenja with his photos and son Emmanual.

Niguisse Fenja with his photos and son Emmanual. Photo: Supplied

Omer says when people work hard it should be recognised, they should be able to live a dignified life and the Living Wage is the least that people deserve.

Young people working day and night to achieve their dreams are missing out and unable to fulfil their potential, just as parents working two jobs are missing out on their family time, he says.

“We’ve got a man who has five kids and he was working 80, 90 hours. He cut most of those hours now, he gets to spend a lot of time with his kids, he gets to take them to the parks and he’s a happy man and his relationship with his partner is improved as a result of that.”

Often people argue that the Living Wage is not the answer to poverty, he says, but this isn’t the case, real stories speak volumes.

Omer says former refugees are some of the hardest working people – they’re hungry to change.

“Hiring them, you’re not going to regret it. We’re talking about the people who strive. They came with nothing but they want to do something with their lives, so they are very productive as the Kiwis…give them an opportunity.

“We are very proud, we love this country, and we would like to do work ourselves to give back. It’s not enough but we’re trying to do our bit.”

The exhibition My Life To Live launched for World Refugee Day at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery. It celebrates the contribution of refugee workers in Aotearoa, and also highlights some of the challenges they face. You can find details about the exhibition here and donate to Changemakers here

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