We were celebrating an achievement the night before last, myself and some ex work mates. One of us, Sherry, had managed to score something remarkable and rare. We were very excited for her. We all agreed that it was well deserved, and she had worked in a painstaking fashion for it for some years. She was jubilant, talking about how this would impact on her life and that of her children.
So what had Sherry achieved? A PhD from Harvard? A partnership in a prestigious law firm?
No. Sherry had gained herself a job. An actual job. A permanent, 8 till 4.30, Monday till Friday job with sick leave and annual leave and all the trimmings. She has worked on the qualification for this for two and a half years. She has worked in places where you can get fifty hours a week or twenty, where you can work for thirty six hours straight, counting the sleepover shifts, where split shifts wreck your day, where you are away from your kids in the evenings. Managers can decide suddenly that you are working less than 20 hours a week, in which case you lose your child support and your Working for Families top up for those on low wages with children.
Sherry's new job pays just on the Living Wage, estimated to be $20.20 an hour in New Zealand in 2017. The Living Wage is an amount that covers not just the basic expenses, but enables people to participate in society. It is $5 above the minimum wage. Sherry has benefited from ferocious union activity in her industry, resulting in a pay equity claim that forced the government to subsidize the largely female work force.
I have written before about life in the precariat, the new class that experiences income precarity and often accommodation precarity as well. We talk about 'hours' not jobs. Getting enough hours this week. Losing hours. Our jobs may be permanent on paper, but how much we work is subject to the 'just in time' economic thinking that gives us the split shifts and the being called at no notice. Even professionals work like this. Teachers, for example, are employed term by term. You may have a good income for now, but you can't plan and you can't have a stake in your work environment. Precarity keeps us edgy, a little hungry, a little worried, and leads to short term decision making. There is no long game. We discount the future. We dissipate our scarce energies. We are depoliticized.
As we partied, drinking cheap beer and cider and eating ice cream in a chilly kitchen, I took a moment to think about how Sherry had achieved something that used to be common. A steady, full time job was once considered almost a right, especially for the family man. It was certainly the norm. Maybe it wasn't great back then. It was stultifying and monocultural after all. Now, we have the opposite problem. We are grateful for anything that gives us stability and enables us to separate leisure and work and spend time with our kids.
So, go Sherry you good thing. And we raise a glass for you, and your kids who will now see you regularly every evening whether they like it or not.
A Note on searching for images - if you google 'Working Hard Images' you get a heap of stock images of
a) men sitting at desks
b) quotes about how you must work harder
I can't begin to describe how little this means to the working class woman.