Recently I read a book called Hand to Mouth, by US woman Linda Tirado. She is one of millions of Americans in low-skilled, low-paid jobs without benefit of healthcare, job security or pensions.
She and her husband juggle several jobs to make ends meet and if any little thing goes wrong, it's a disaster. If the car breaks down - and that often happens - they must walk or bus between jobs. If they're late for work because of delayed buses, they can be fired on the spot. If the kids need a doctor, one of them won't eat until the bill has been paid.
Tirado needs extensive dental work after a car crash in which the offending driver dodged legal responsibilities.
She couldn't go after him through the courts so chewing causes her pain and she never eats in front of others because of the mess she makes. It also means she doesn't smile, because her teeth are broken.
So she appears to others - her bosses - as sullen and, the worst sin of all, to be ungrateful for her job.
That's what ticks off Tirado the most. Not only is she barely keeping her head above water, not only are she and her Iraqi War veteran husband exhausted from keeping their jobs and holding their marriage and family together, they are constantly criticised, in person and through the media, for being poor.
They are told they could do better, that it's all about attitude, and why did they have children if they can barely afford the rent on their substandard home?
Incidentally, I loved Tirado's response to that one. She says she and her husband had kids because, like rich people, they wanted them. Rich people don't forego the pleasure of being parents even though many of them have acrimonious divorces leaving their kids in counselling for life. In the same way, poor people don't stay childless merely because they can't afford to give their kids iPads.
The book evolved from Tirado's blog post and is more a howl of protest against the way American society treats low-paid workers than a literary work, but it is powerful reading.
Tirado came from a family that sent her to college (she later dropped out) and hers is an articulate voice for the underclass. She isn't theorising about what life is like for lower socio-economic groups - she serves the harsh reality of what it's like to be dirt poor.
Ironically, the book and its publicity will probably help her family crawl up a few rungs of the ladder, but that doesn't diminish her arguments.
I mention Tirado because I was horrified to read that zero-hour contracts are common among many multinational fast-food companies and increasingly are being used by supermarkets and retailers.
Contract work has become common since the Lange and Bolger governments and many people can manage on them.
Many staff and businesses like the flexibility of working by the hour or by the day. When I worked in hospo years ago, I had no guaranteed hours but I had a mutual understanding with my bosses that there'd be enough work to live on.
However, that was based on mutual trust and respect - not a take-it-or-leave-it position of superiority from my employer.
Bosses already have the three-month trial period to sift out the wheat from the chaff. Many adult workers, especially the low-skilled, aren't in a position to bargain. Without a reliable income, it's difficult to rent a home and near impossible to buy one.
Under zero-hour contracts, workers can be rostered anywhere between three and 60 hours a week. Fine, if you're a teenager living at home. Impossible if your wage is essential for a home and a family.
New Zealand has a universal free health care system which America does not, and a better welfare system. But I agree with NZ First. It says zero-hour contracts are despicable, cruel and put workers at the beck and call of bosses. The party wants the Government to ban the contracts.
This government is not one to interfere between employers and employees but it should take a long, hard look at zero-hour contracts.
If it can't see that these contracts are unfair, ministers should read Tirado's book and ask themselves if that's the sort of life they want for low-paid New Zealanders.
• Kerre McIvor is on Newstalk ZB, Monday to Thursday, 8pm-midnight