Penny’s story demonstrates the importance of sustainable work as opposed to precarious work. Her community work also demonstrates how much people have to offer despite being in poverty.
Penny was born in Salford, and describes her early days, “We had no cots, the babies slept in wooden drawers. It was a big old Victorian house, which had half a roof, and the windows were missing. It was so cold you might have well been outside. We would burn anything we could just to keep warm. How we didn’t set ourselves on fire I don’t know.”
Her family moved to Reddish in Stockport and she attended Reddish Vale High School. She didn’t go to college, “Higher qualifications were never a thing for us. Going to college was unheard of unless you were wealthy”, she says. Instead, Penny went into work straight from school. She packed cornflakes in “a big old Victorian mill, just by the Reddish bridge. A big local employer. My first wage packet was £43 after a week’s work. I felt so rich it was unbelievable. But like much else, the factory doesn’t exist anymore.” She then worked for Adidas in another local factory, overlocking (sewing and cutting clothes). “I pushed myself really hard six days a week, fired up because we had grown up with nothing.” Penny became Head Overlocker, training others and managing the apprenticeships.
Penny has a big smile, remembering her life at 30, when she had never had it so good. Money was plentiful, work was secure, and she was good at her job, respected and valued by her local working community. But then the Adidas warehouse closed and production moved to China. “Everything started unravelling for me. The Adidas warehouse was my home, and when it closed we all lost our livelihoods. When you’re young you don’t think of it like that. You think you’ll walk into another job. But I never felt I belonged in any of them. They were all short term. And there was a lot of local competition for work, what with factories closing.”
Penny, now back living in Salford, had started a family when at the Adidas factory, but when the work dried up, and with two children, she had to turn to the social security system to survive. “I was struggling day to day existing, never really living. I was just trying to keep my children safe, having them do well in their education was my major struggle. With minimum wage and zero hours contracts jobs, half the people in Salford who are working have to have their wages topped up by benefits. This is dark age Britain, and so many people are struggling, it’s not fair. They hide behind doors, afraid to come out of the house.”
“In Salford we’ve got big companies with zero hours contracts. They say, ‘we’ll employ you for a bit, and then you’ll have 8 or 9 weeks with no work.’ I still have to go to the Jobcentre every fortnight, and sit there, feeling degraded. Maybe I could go to McDonalds and get work, but they’d give me a zero hours contract. The problem is if for 2 weeks I don’t get paid, 2 months down the line I’m out on the streets with the kids. That’s the reality of it. You might get a job so the Jobcentre can tick the boxes, but they don’t look at the deeper situation. You will be thrown out of your house.” Penny is also critical of housing policies. “When you’re made homeless, you go to housing at the town hall. Because you’ve got kids, you get put straight away in a B&B or a hostel. So the DWP are paying you to be there instead of helping to pay your rent arrears off. How does that make sense?”
Penny, as well as being a commissioner in the Salford Poverty Truth Commission, now does a lot of community work to support those in her local area. “A lot of it is to help the homeless” she explains. “I’m starting a social enterprise, called Street Support Salford, we want the community involved, supported with money for bus fares and dinners. It’s made me more of a whole person. Seeing people suffer and even dying could send a person over the edge, and it nearly did for me, but I carry on regardless, helping the homeless and my community with no conditions. I wish I could do more, but I take comfort in the small things that do make a big difference to people’s lives – it’s not always about money. Caring, love and trust is what people need, and hope in all its forms. There’s a lot of families around here who don’t have enough to live off, and I want to help them to live instead of just existing.”
“People on “zero-hour contracts” are more likely to be young, part-time, women, and/or in full time education. Around 1 in 3 people (31%) on a zero-hours contract want more hours, with most wanting them in their current job, as opposed to a different job which offers more hours.”Source: ONS Paper “Contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of hours: September 2016”
Interview carried out, and photo taken, by Peter Cruickshank for Greater Manchester Poverty Action’s Beyond Poverty report