Thursday, June 30, 2005

Dirt Cheap, by Elizabeth Wynhausen

Elizabeth Wynhausen is a senior writer with Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, and has written for various other major publications. Inspired by journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed about her experiences working for minimum wage in the United States, Wynhausen decided to do the same. She took a year unpaid leave to take on various poorly paid jobs. Her rule was to do each job for about a month and then write them up as separate chapters. She would also try to live on what she earnt.

I was a bit dubious about what the merits of such a book would be. A well paid Murdoch journo deciding to slum it for a year? Big deal. Despite this prior prejudice, and a determination not to be impressed, I soon found myself taken away by her roller coaster prose and crackling wit. ‘Liz’, as she called herself to workmates and employers, has a sense of humour that is right up my alley. If you think that this book might be about a well heeled, guilt ridden middle class woman trying to spend a year off sympathising with the proletariat, you’d be greatly mistaken.

Here is a description of two of the author’s workmates at the Hotel, Svetlana and Rita:

‘The conversations Rita initiated often had a wistfully prurient edge. The first thing she said to me after we were introduced was that she had five boyfriends and would give me one. When we sat down on the stairs nursing strange-tasting beverages from the automatic cappuccino machine, her pride and joy, she started joking about going out with a boyfriend the night before. The security camera forgotten, Svetlana entered into the spirit of the thing.
‘Where you go with boyfriend, honey baby?’
‘Take me to restaurant,’ Rita replied, smiling.
Which one was it, Svetlana asked, McDonalds?’

The various places the author works at include a hotel, an upmarket club for retired Toorak type toffs, an egg factory (her worst job), an office cleaner, an old people’s home and a chain retail store. When Wynhausen started at the retail store, she thought that this would be her best job, but it proved a miserable disappointment. Stuck on a register which didn’t work properly (you had to fight to make sure you got a decent register), told to read through a weighty manual on how to use the damn thing without proper training, told that as a casual she could be called up any time and didn’t have to be given work if there was none on, she found the job miserable. Not only that, because there were so many casuals coming and going you never got to make friends or develop any proper working relationships with your colleagues.

If you’ve worked in crappy jobs at some stage in your life, or continue to do so, then this is your book. Elizabeth Wynhausen should be commended for courageously plunging into the bottom end of the labour market and giving us a Orwell like down and out view of what it’s like to work ‘underpaid, unappreciated and unseen’. Essentially, to be treated like shit.

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