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, and has the knowledge and skills to place her experiences in the context of industrial relations laws. She is able to show, in fact, how the daily experiences of her fellow-workers arise directly from the the failure of regulations to protect workers from abuse and exploitation. Freedom to negotiate is meaningless where one party to the negotiations has all the power - can the mouse negotiate with the cat?

If her journalistic skills make Wynhausen especially well qualified to report on the problems, her ingrained journalistic objectivity tends to mute her gut reactions. Yes, she does make her own views clear - but far too politely. It will take someone with a passionate individual voice, another Steinbeck, to rouse us from our indifference to the increasing unfairness of Australian society.

If we can't have that, perhaps we should ask for something even better: can we 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?

Macmillan, $30

March/July 2005
Review previously unpublished.
Page updated June 2008

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