Dirt Cheap

cover of "Dirt Cheap" by WynhausenAbout fifteen years ago I took on a reviewing role with our local newspaper. My motives were somewhat mixed, as were theirs, but there were enough benefits on both sides that the arrangement continued for five or six years. I have posted several of those reviews to Green Path under their original dates (examples here) but in this case I wanted to comment on what I wrote all those years ago.

Here’s my review.

Dirt Cheap
Elisabeth Wynhausen
Macmillan, $30

Elisabeth Wynhausen, a senior Sydney-based journalist, recently took a year off from her regular job to gain first-hand knowledge of the life of the working poor. She took a series of unskilled, mostly casual, positions in hospitality, cleaning, retailing, industry and aged care, working for a few weeks in each before moving on. She discovered what a lot of us already knew – that life is an endless struggle for those lacking education or trade skills.

The problems are real and steadily worsening. Many unskilled Australians are trapped in poorly paid full time jobs. Many more are even worse off, stuck in part time casual work with no security of employment, no guaranteed minimum income, and often none of the benefits (sick leave, holiday pay, penalty rates) of even the lowest-paid full-time employee. And it is this casual workforce which is growing fastest in our business-friendly deregulated economy.

Dirt Cheap is a laudable attempt to make the rest us aware of the everyday workplace reality of a fifth of the Australian workforce. Wynhausen is far more articulate than most people caught in the situation. She also has the background knowledge and the skills to place her experiences in the context of industrial relations laws, but her ingrained journalistic objectivity mutes her personal responses. It will take someone with a passionate individual voice, another Steinbeck, to rouse us from our indifference to the increasing unfairness of Australian society.

The review could well have finished at this point, as I knew, but instead I inserted a short note to my acting editor (my usual editor was on holidays at the time) saying, “The rest is just daydreaming. I don’t really think it ought to go in, but you can decide!” and I continued with:

If we can’t have that, perhaps we should aim for something even better: to make every newly elected politician take an immersion-training course in industrial relations and community services.

Putting each of them, without any resources except $100 in their pocket, in an underpaid, insecure, part-time casual job in a depressed country town, with no escape for three months, would teach them more than any number of Canberra briefings. Long-serving politicians really deserve sabbaticals on the same basis, too.

Who’s overdue for one now? Does the Kajabbi pub need a part-time cleaner?

I submitted the review in March 2005 but it was not published, then or later, with or without my cheeky optional ending. After waiting a few months I submitted it to “Big Issue” (which I still think was a good choice) but once again it vanished without trace so I put it up on my own (older) website for anyone who happened to come across it.

I’m returning to it now because I wanted to quote it in response to a discussion on social media: Dirt Cheap is every bit as relevant now as it was fifteen years ago. In fact, the situation it depicted is now far worse. Casualisation has spread right through the workforce, up to and including the academic staff of universities, and workers’ rights have been steadily eroded.

New terms have entered our vocabulary: the “Gig Economy” is one of them. It particularly applies to Uber, Air BnB, etc, which are themselves new – but only new in their outer form: scratch the surface and they are just new ways of getting people to work for a pittance in a completely unregulated (because quasi-legal) environment.

I was slightly surprised to see that “neoliberalism” had apparently not entered my own vocabulary fifteen years ago, but it’s the word for the ultimate source of this kind of misery.

And this kind of misery is adding to other kinds of misery, courtesy of COVID-19. People who are so poorly paid that they can’t afford to stay home when they are ill, or have to work multiple part-time jobs because none of their employers will give them a secure job, have become the vectors of the virus. It isn’t their fault: it’s the way the system was designed to work, although the powers that be were able pretend otherwise until COVID-19 made it impossible to ignore. It’s the employers’ fault, and governments’ fault for letting the employers get away with it.

But why does industrial relations belong on an environmental blog? Ultimately because neoliberalism is inextricably linked to environmental degradation and to climate change. We won’t solve either problem without taking some very big steps towards social justice. And unless and until we do that, the poor – worldwide – will suffer disproportionately from pollution and catastrophic weather.

2 thoughts on “Dirt Cheap”

  1. On a related topic, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-16/work-from-home-tracking-software-monitoring/12766020 says:

    with many people working from home, some companies are using time tracking software or surveillance technology to check in on what workers are doing. Most of the software on the market can take screenshots of what’s on a worker’s computer (sometimes in real-time). Some also offer keystroke logging (what you type), and GPS tracking.
    Elizabeth Lyons, who studies technology and management at the University of California San Diego, says it’s tracking pretty much anything an employee’s doing in work hours. “The things employers are really looking for is what websites are employees on, are these productive or unproductive websites, what apps are they using, how much time are they spending on their different tasks.”


    It’s not just desk-bound workers being tracked. When she’s not studying Emma works in the warehouse of a clothing company. Everyone working in the warehouse is tracked. If they’re falling behind a supervisor will review their stats with them. “In order to get shifts we have to keep a certain average of productivity,” Emma says.
    She says she liked trying to improve on her performance and that the company would ask for ideas on how to become more efficient.
    Her bosses realised that people listening to music were faster because they didn’t talk. So a new rule was added — everyone has to have headphones on, or not talk. “It was all kind of: how can we make this the most machinelike, without human flaws,” Emma says.
    Lauren Kate Kelly from the United Workers Union says people need to look past the technology and see what surveillance is doing to the power imbalance between companies and their staff.
    “It’s corrosive. Particularly in the context of insecure forms of work, which is where it really takes root.”

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