Interview: The Wet One
Bad Boss: Like A Bastard
Unions: Demolition Derby
Corporate: The Bush Doctrine
Politics: American Jihad
Health: Secret Country
Review: Walking On Water
Poetry: The UQ Stonewall
Month In Review
The Locker Room
The Legacy of 11/9
The CFMEU Race Debate #2
Keeping it Clean
Sue the Leaders?
Wrong Way, Go Back
Shame on Murray
Use or Abuse of Long Term Casuals
Speaking in Tongues
When Penny returned to the office she saw, seated around her desk in a semi-circle, the three older women she had met earlier that afternoon. She sat down at her desk and, confronted by the silent figures, suddenly felt under siege.
She gave them her brightest greeting and asked how she could help.
The woman in the leopard-skin scarf, positioned in the middle, leaned slightly forward.
"Good afternoon. Once month ago our factory close it down. We are machinists there. We want to find new job. We look everywhere, but no can find. Maybe you help."
Her idiosyncratic English was fluid and confident, matching a face that, although haggard, wore its generous application of foundation and lipstick with a certain faded glamour. Penny liked her immediately. But at the same time she thought: oh no, TCFs. No one knew what to do with textile, foot and clothing workers: they were virtually unemployable. Once the government had brought the tariff wall crashing down, factories and workshops across the country had come crashing down with it, unable to compete with cheap Asian imports.
Penny knew the situation well. She had had first-hand experience of it when, two years ago, she was involved in registering the first batch of down-sized TCFs for retraining. Crowded into a lecture hall designed for two hundred, more than five hundred women turned up to hear what the government had to offer. And as Penny registered their details, she came face to face with a generation who had devoted all their spare time for the last twenty years to supplementing the family income at sewing machines, overlockers and buttonholers, and who were now desperate to find another job that would allow them to pay off their homes more quickly, build a granny flat if it had been paid off, or buy the dinner sets and mix masters their husbands sometimes refused to shell out for.
"What kind of factory was it?" Penny asked, buying time to think.
"Women fashion," answered the woman to the right. Her navy-blue blouse was covered in large silver flowers and her dark work skirt stretched across her thighs.
"I have new job, but is piecey-work only," she continued. "We lose our job, and we get new job at home. The pay much much low. Man comes, gives too much work, quick quick he say, no time he say, later he say work no good, sometimes pay less. Piecey-work no good." As she spoke her grey-blue eyes widened with indignation. Penny realised she was older than the others, in her early 60s at least.
The woman to Penny's left was silent. She wore a baby-blue cardigan that contrasted with her dyed auburn hair. Her thin eyebrows, shaped and darkened with make-up, arched over a complacent expression.
"Are you doing piecework too?" Penny asked her.
The women in the scarf translated. Her friend nodded calmly, her auburn tint glowing in the late afternoon light.
The women fell silent and sat with their hands folded in their laps, waiting for Penny's response.
Penny paused for that moment too long, and she instantly sensed they all knew there was nothing she could do.
There was, however, procedure to follow. And much of being professional, Penny knew, was following procedure whether it meant anything or not.
"Let me check the computer for any machinist vacancies," she said, pointing in the direction of the JAT. "It won't take a moment."
"That machine?" The woman in the scarf laughed. "I think it was bank machine. You know, to get out money."
"No, it's got jobs on it. It's for everyone to use. You can come in and look whenever you like. Come over now and I'll show you how it works."
She seemed reluctant.
"Look, it's really easy. I'll take you through it. If you learn to use it, you can help out the others."
After a quick conference with her offsiders she agreed. She followed Penny over and took her place at the console. Occupying the top half of the screen were milky grey letters that said:
Welcome to JobNetwork
An Initiative of the Commonwealth Government
in proud partnership with Telstra
Below this was a small box with a headline that said
Win a Holden Barina!
"What I do now?" the woman asked.
"It's a touch screen. All you have to do is press on the screen."
"There, where it says Press Here."
She paused to absorb the information, then raised a worn finger to the screen, her skin the texture of wrinkled butcher's paper. It lingered a moment over the Barina offer (Penny was half-tempted to condone a quick detour: she had never owned a car), but it soon made hesitant contact with the government's electronic welcome mat. Nothing happened.
"Press a little harder," Penny told her. The women's finger stabbed at the screen as if she were poking someone in the eye. A map of New South Wales appeared, neatly sliced into different coloured zones. The small territory that marked Sydney was a canary yellow. Underneath it blinked the banner
DO YOU YAHOO?
"Now, press on Sydney."
This time she pressed with more control, bringing into view a map of the city which in turn was subdivided into the city's regions. Below it was an advertisement for FISHER & PAYKEL, THE INNOVATORS. In its illustration - animated by the latest multi-media software - a tiny woman opened the door of a slim-line refrigerator and a tiny man opened the lid of a smart-drive washing machine.
"Where are you looking for work? Inner West?" Penny asked.
The woman wasn't listening: she was too busy watching the toy-town figures perform their actions over and over again.
"Inner West?" Penny prompted in a louder voice.
She nodded and pressed, utterly absorbed by the JAT. Nor was its effect lost on her former workmates, who were craning their necks and looking over with curious stares.
Penny waved at them to come over.
The woman with the scarf was eager to keep going, but Penny made her stop and wait until the others were assembled. They started from the beginning.
The woman with auburn hair did her best to hide an expression of complete boredom. The older women, at the sight of the animated graphics, said:
"My sister son. All day all night play with bloody computer. No good, waste time. He 30 year old and he never leave house. My sister go crazy." She crossed her heavy arms, hrrumphed, and glared at the machine with contempt. Before Penny could say a soothing word, the women in the scarf turned from the screen and delivered what sounded like a short, sharp, but nevertheless honeyed reprimand. The older woman hrrumphed again, uncrossed her arms and pulled down sharply on the hem of her blouse.
A list of job categories now filled the screen, each word encased in a band of orange.
"Press on manufacturing, that's where the machinists jobs will be listed," Penny said in her most neutral voice: she could still feel the older woman seething behind her.
The orange bar flashed a phosphorescent blue at her touch.
To Penny's surprise, two-thirds down the list, was a sole vacancy for a machinist. The woman in the scarf spotted it immediately and let out a small gasp of excitement. The two others leaned forward. She pressed on it and the full listing, in no-frills black and white, appeared.
"What for making?" the woman in the scarf asked.
Penny only briefly explained that it was a short-term job making festive banners for a government arts event: she had noticed the words 'special conditions' and didn't want to get their hopes up before she knew more details. She asked the woman in the scarf to press the More Info key, but she was already deep in conversation with the others. Penny pressed it herself.
Special Conditions: Work for the Dole Project.
"Excuse me," Penny repeated, trying to make herself heard above the hubbub. "Excuse me, everyone!" she finally shouted. They abruptly stopped.
"You can't do this job," Penny told them.
The women in the scarf looked at her as if she were crazy.
"Why no? We can do this job easy. Is nothing to make these banner. They must need plenty machinists, so big job."
"No, no, I don't mean you're not able to do it. Of course you can do it. I mean it's not really a job. This job is a Work for the Dole job. The government has probably outsourced its contract to a small one-off company. And that company looks like it will take advantage of the new government policy by using people it doesn't have to pay for out of its own pocket. The job's more for young people. Even if they let you do it, they couldn't work out any way to pay you unless you were on the dole."
The woman said nothing.
"Do you understand?" Penny asked.
"Work for dole?" The woman's incredulous tone showed she understood that part perfectly.
"You mean we must to go on dole?"
Penny nodded again. "But you probably can't anyway, because if your husband earns..."
But the woman had stopped listening: instead she was responding to questions from the others, who had instantly noticed something was wrong. Out of the stream of foreign words that followed, the English phrase 'work for the dole' emerged again and again, and by end of the discussion it had become a single unit with a shape and rhythm all its own: workfedoll, workfedoll, workfedoll.
For a few moments the women fell into gloomy silence.
Arms once again folded, the older woman turned to Penny. The stare of contempt she had trained on the JAT was now trained on her.
Penny met her gaze.
"I'm really sorry, but there's nothing I can do."
She hated how weak it sounded.
The older woman's bitter stare answered for her. She then turned her head, slowly, methodically, her arms clasped so tight they seemed to crush the silver flowers printed on her blouse. Her stare came to rest on Laura Zhang, still at her cubicle, still rubbing away at some bit of paper.
"They bloody Chinese," she spat. "They take our job. Take everything from us, leave us nothing. Why government let them come here?"
Laura, oblivious to the attention she was receiving, held a piece of A4 up to her face. Her cheeks hollowed as she gently blew away the last few crumbs of graphite-stained eraser.
The older woman walked out.
For the next few minutes the woman in the leopard-skin scarf apologised profusely for her friend's behaviour. She was a widow who lived with her sick, ageing mother. She had had a very hard life and she hoped Penny would forgive her outburst: she really was a very nice lady and never said anything against Chinese people before. She also wanted Penny to know that she and her other friend thought Chinese people were very hardworking and they had every right to be here. As for workfedoll, well, they had never heard anything so stupid and insulting in their entire lives, not that this was Penny's fault. They had always paid their own way, and they weren't about to stop now. Explanations over, the woman became all smiles again. This small banner company, it might still have something for them, mightn't it? Couldn't Penny, you know, give her the exact address, or at least the phone number of this company? She could contact them independently, maybe strike some sort of deal. You never know, something could come of it.
Penny asked her to come back tomorrow, early in the afternoon. She wasn't promising anything, but she would see what she could do. The women in the scarf bent forward and clasped her hand.
"Thank you very very much," she beamed.
The woman with the auburn hair, copying her partner, also muttered her thanks.
They walked out of the room and joined the older woman who, back turned to them, was waiting on the verandah, a hunched silhouette against the afternoon sky. Their heels sounded heavily on the wooden steps as they left.
Penny went back to her desk, relieved they had gone. When she crossed the spot where the old woman had stood, grey-blue eyes bright with rage, she was struck by an idea that filled her with vague terror.
No matter what you do, no matter what you say, some people will always hate you just because you are who you are.
Capital, Volume One, Part One was published by Allen & Unwin.
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