Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Menial" Release Day: Christchurch Rebuild Making The Point Loud and Clear

Release day has arrived! "Menial: Skilled Labor in SF", edited by Kelly Jennings and Shay Darrach, art by Jael Bendt, and published by Crossed Genres Publications is now available in ebook ($US4.99) and paperback ($US11.99) editions. More information and ToC is available at the link, and I'm proud to say my story leads the ToC.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to build a new city from scratch, with all the cultural and financial challenges that will entail? It's a massive job, almost science fictional in its scope. And yet, I'm living it, here and now.
I live in Christchurch, New Zealand, which has suffered a series of devastating earthquakes. The first of which was September 4, 2010, and the Big One that dropped the CBD and 'red zoned' (made unlivable) various suburbs occurred on February 22, 2011. Since then there has been over 11 000 recorded aftershocks. Major damage occurring aftershocks, which were classed as new events in their own right, occurred on June 13, 2011, and December 23, 2011.

Much of Christchurch was built on reclaimed swampland, hence the historic levels of liquefaction seen post earthquakes. Some of the city's historic architecture was in the style of Victorian mock Gothic, and many of these beautiful old buildings came down in the earthquakes, including our iconic ChristChurch Cathedral. Many of these buildings were also in the central business district which is being extensively demolished. An extensive rebuild plan includes a reduced central business footprint, a "green belt" of park lands around the CBD and along the red zoned suburbs, and a seven-story building limit.

This rebuild is projected to take up to twenty years. In effect, I'm living through historic times. Already there is dynamic infrastructure and culture filling the gaps, including temporary container retail spaces and art projects.

But not everything is fantastic living in Christchurch now we're past the hard parts when really the 'hard parts' are only just beginning. There's the mental health toll a disaster creates. The earthquakes came in the midst of a recession, crime has risen in the city, unemployment has risen dramatically in New Zealand since that time and is especially felt in Christchurch as many businesses are not returning or relocating, and we have a government taking punitive measures against people on welfare, students, and low wage earners. We have people struggling with jobs, insurance companies, finding new places to live in a tight accomodation market, and many family and social networks broken as people move away.

How does all of this apply to a science fiction anthology about labor in the future? We're living the future now, rebuilding on a massive scale, which requires a massive influx of workers willing and able to undertake a lot of skilled and 'unskilled' work. And of course since we don't live in a perfect world, this brings a lot of social and cultural upheaval, not all if pleasant.

I put the word unskilled in quotes, because I believe that no job comes without skill. Whether you wield a brush in a toilet or painting a wall, it is still an effort of body and mind. And yet because of the rebuild we have the word being bandied about in association with migrant workers coming to the city in search of work.

There's a lot of coded racism and classism behind such assertions, from a major political figure implying they'll get the job done cheaper and quicker, to others complaining that "good honest kiwis" should be put forward for the jobs first, and that illegal migrants are some sort of bogeymen we should all be afraid of having in our city. It's classic victim blaming; lets not look at the employers who are exploiting workers for less than minimum wage and without the constraints of proper employment law, and instead throw around the words "unskilled worker" and "illegal immigrant" as fear mongering buzzwords.

Here's a thought: how about making those workers skilled as part of your employment mandate, and those migrants legal because in the end all they want is a better life, just like the rest of us. People who feel valued and wanted contribute to a community and the economy.

This is a city of the future. It will be incorporating many cutting edge technological advances in construction, and creating unique social, retail, industrial, and ecosystem environments. In effect, our rebuild is somewhat of an experiment, a science fiction about to become fact. It would be a step in the right direction if at the same time we could work towards fixing the human toll. I sure would like to live in a city that recognizes the efforts of everyone involved financially, legally and socially, including the laborers doing the hard yards of bringing about the vision of our new life.

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