Workplace: Dirt Cheap
Industrial: Daddy Doesnít Live With Us Anymore
Economics: Who's Afraid of the BCA?
International: From the Wreckage
Politics: Infrastructure Blues
History: Meat and Three Veg
Savings: Super Seduction
Politics: Popping the 'E-Word'
Poetry: To Know Somebody
Review: Off the Rails
The Locker Room
Thatís Our Team
Janetís Job No Victory
Royal Finger Lickers
Will $20 Restore Carr?
There was a time, not so long ago, when Australians prided them-selves on giving people a fair go. Now we seem more inclined to blame people for lagging behind. And there are more lagging behind than ever. According to recent figures from the United Nations, abort one in eight people in Australia live in poverty, a failure that stands in stark contrast to the successes elsewhere.
Out of seventeen highly developed nations, Australia manages to have the third-highest quality of life and the third-largest percentage of people living below the poverty line. Despite a prolonged burst of prosperity that has seen the nation with-stand worldwide economic tends, the ruthless restructuring that accounts for its new-found efficiency has left almost one in five families jobless. Those who do have work include 2.3 million casual workers who are largely denied the 'perks of per-manency -- respect, security predictability, paid holidays and sick days. More than one in four Australian workers are casuals, pining for 'perks' like job security; one in three part-time workers want more work than they have; two-thirds of young people have no choice but to enter the labour market as casuals; and the most comprehensive Australian study of the changes in the workplace wrought by twenty or so years of the vaunted economic reforms suggests that one-third of the workforce will be casually employed by the end of the current decade.
Confronted with such figures, representatives of business organisations almost invariably demand more of the same, promoting the fiction that workplace reform benefits employees by giving them more choice over the conditions of their employ-ment, a theme continued by the Howard Government. When the election of 2004 gave it effective control of both houses of parliament, the government immediately promised to press on with its program of labour market deregulation. High on the agenda is exempting businesses that employ fewer than twenty people from the unfair dismissal laws, to save small business owners the trouble of following set procedures before firing employees.
Members of the overclass who promote such reforms have only profited from them, to judge from the widening wealth gap. Unabashed, they continue to scold low-wage workers about the need for wage restraint. Unceasing in their efforts to crank up the revolution they started (as if building a new country on the unloved bones of the old), columnists on six-figure salaries rail against regular increases in the minimum wage, now $24,700 a year. Leading commentators claim that attempts to even up the widening inequalities constitute a failed form of 'social engineering' -- even, God forbid, 'a nostalgia for pre 8Os egalitarianism'. They often point to the United States to bolster the argument that keeping wages low creates jobs, but this argument was less convincing by 2004. On 19 August the New York Times reported: 'The labor market adds only a trickle of new jobs each month despite nearly three years of uninter-rupted economic growth ... there are still about a million fewer jobs in the United States than there were at the beginning of 2001.' Whether or not low-wage workers in the United States earn enough to cover the rent on a trailer home, they can more than the workers in the countries now doing most of the manufacturing.
When I returned to Australia in 1991, after living in the United States for more than a decade, I was dismayed by the signs that Australia was following its lead, with a labour market increasingly divided between an affluent elite and a low-paid service class. In a nation that had been a model of egalitarianism, fairness and equity now barely got a hearing. By 2001, more than one in eight employees were on a low wage, an indicator of working poverty that had risen substantially in the previous decade, in spite of the boom. But its victims were all but invisible. The opinion-makers had succeeded in shifting the focus from failure to success -- from those who were struggling to make ends meet to the so-called aspirational voters, who were doing a bit better. I began Dirt Cheap in the hope of telling the other side of the story, from the inside out.
In my experience as a low-wage worker, the jobs all had one thing in common: I no sooner took them on than I, like my fellow employees, seemed to be rendered invisible. I was no longer consulted on my schedule, nor burdened with explana-tions about the nature of the work I was being hired to do. I found the lack of respect for employees most noticeable in the largest company I worked for, which doesn't bode well for the other half-million or so casuals in retail, the fastest growing industry in Australia. And I left the Store only to be hired by a corporation that didn't bother to spell out the terms of my employment -- a lapse I took to be typical of its dealings with casual employees.
It was as if I existed only as part of a class of people doing menial work for minimum wages, a particular irony considering how few of the people I met identified themselves as working class. Like everyone else in society they were encouraged to think of themselves as individuals, with the freedom to sign indi-vidual contacts. The one I signed, on starting work with the hotels, was presented to me as if my signature on the piece of paper was a mere formality I wouldn't say I was pressured to sign, but doing so finalised the process that made me a permanent employee of the hotels. In effect, this workplace agreement gave the company complete call on my time, 24/7, and didn't include penalty rates for working weekends.
Although I began this book convinced that Australia was emulating the United States by creating a class of the working poor, I've since concluded that minimum-wage employees are generally protected against the real ravages of poverty as long as they work full-time. This is especially the case if they are the workers most often invoked by the advocates of deregulation, namely the 45 per cent of the low-wage workers from house-holds with a second, higher income. I didn't meet one employee washing dishes or mopping floors who went home at night to a wealthy spouse, but many of the older, married workers I met were managing to pay off mortgages on houses on the city's edge by scrimping and saving elsewhere. My friend from the egg factory owned a share of a business in her home town, and my friend from the Princess Hotel had put a deposit on a flat, after she and her husband, an invalid pensioner, had almost paid off their house. This was a far cry from the situation in the United States, where full-time employees earning five or six dollars an hour don't have recourse to the government benefits available in Australia for the working poor who, for one reason or another, are forced to work part-time.
Life on minimum wages is harsh -- perhaps those advocating freezing the wages of the lowest paid should try it for them-selves, limiting their outings to Hungry Jack's once every three months, like my colleagues at the hotel. But it was when I entered the 'zone of intermittent employment', waiting for days on end to hear if I was to get a single shift, that I met employees desperately working two jobs a day just to make ends meet. Of course, there are those who will complacently suggest that poverty ain't what it used to be, when the poor didn't have a pot to piss in, let alone a broken 'entertainment device'. I can only recommend that they spend more time with nursing home attendants doing double shifts, or with teenagers trying to support themselves -- or themselves and their tertiary studies -- on junior rates of pay.
But entranced as I had been by the prospect of doing so myself, the reality was daunting. I tried but failed to do what millions of Australians do every day, struggling to support them-selves and their families on $475 a week -- more than half the average rent for a two-bedroom flat in Melbourne or Sydney. I managed to live on my income only because I had no one else to support and no bills outstanding. I paid for my private health insurance, my home insurance, and the costs of keeping my car on the road out of my savings. I put the $1868 for the car on my credit card and tried to forget it, but $1868 is hard to forget when it takes a month to earn.
When I started this project I was presumptuous enough to believe that in trying to describe what I found, I would be keeping faith with my fellow employees. I had no idea if they would agree. Some seemed to have trouble believing that anyone would bother to write -- let alone read -- a book about their working lives. Though some were suspicious, I was often looked after by fellow employees quick to share their knowledge of the job and ready to protect me from my frequent mistakes. Such experiences helped to replace my illusions with something more profound: a gut-wrenching understanding of what it is to spend your working hours un-appreciated, underpaid and unseen.
Dirt Cheap (Pan McMillan) is avilable in all good book shops
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