Monday, January 7, 2013

Menial vs Skilled

The Crossed Genres anthology "Menial: Skilled Labor in SF", containing my story "Diamond in the Rough" comes out on January 21st. The book attempts to discuss the framework for the dirty jobs of the future - will the race, class, gender, and disability lines be crossed? Will capitalism make way for better wages for these jobs? Will capitalism even be relevant in the future?

My story includes a fictionalization of better wages for the people who do the jobs others don't want to do - sanitation, the heavy lifting, the repetition, the security muscle. And it is fictionalization, because nothing proves the point of the degradation and discrimination of poor manual labourers better than a local article that popped up today about a worker shortage in Christchurch.

A quick background. In the last few years, the New Zealand government has been instituting policies that are pro-business and anti-worker. There has been demonization of unions and workers who choose to use unions to undertake their negotiations (The Hobbit filming curfuffle was an excellent example of this). A 90-Day trial period has come into effect, where a business can fire any worker in the first three months of their employment contract for whatever reason they like, with no repercussions. From April of this year a youth wage for 16 to 19 year olds will be introduced which is less than the legal minimum wage. The last rise in minimum wage in April 2012 (a pittance of 50 cents extra an hour, taking it to $13.50/hr), in an era when The One Percent, Occupy, and poverty in New Zealand were big issues, was met with the disdain it deserved.

And this is just New Zealand, whose employment law looks positively liberal compared to other countries.

In promotions for "Menial", a comment has recurred enough times to illustrate how well many people buy into the capitalist ideal - that there is only so much of the pie to go round, there's a hierarchy that needs to be maintained, that "certain people" don't deserve a better crack at life (insert your favourite -ism). And that comment goes something along the lines of: aren't the words "menial" and "skilled" in the title of the book an oxymoron? Isn't the dictionary definition (that grand go-to for all well skilled trolls *cough*) of menial as unskilled as it gets?

To that I say: "bollocks". And also "try working a minimum wage job buster, then tell me how unskilled you have to be". The idea that the poor are lazy is disingenuous, and completely erases disability from the question. The idea that only the uneducated or "stupid" people (ugh, ableism again) undertake these jobs erases choice from the equation - many people get satisfaction from working with their bodies or creating primary resources, and the education level they bring to the job may broaden and better the horizons for that industry. But there is also the other side of it - sometimes there is no choice, no class mobility, no social systems in place to help people discover their potential if all they're doing is making enough money to survive.

I've worked a few minimum wage jobs in my time, mostly retail, and I could tell you many stories: about drunk and physically threatening customers; the hours on your feet in ill-fitting, hot and cold uniforms; kids pooping on my counter; irrational customers; political schemes and sexual harassment from co-workers; the burns, scrapes, cuts, and concussions, no matter the good health and safety devices in play; working a full shift after having just spent a full day at study and/or another job (yes, I once worked two full time jobs to get by); and the low pay, and the fear that if you miss just ONE day that working week, you're going hungry. Check out (the customer is) NotAlwaysRight.com. There is a lot there that's very familiar, and very real to me and many other people who work service jobs.

Take a look at some of the classic "menial" jobs. Nannying or child care - requires stamina, patience, strength, empathy, flexibility, planning. These are skills. Retail work - requires stamina, patience, strength, empathy, maths, ability to deal with people. These are skills. Cleaner - stamina, repetition, strength, ability to work alone, time management, strange hours. These are skills. Sanitation - heavy lifting, driving trade levels, ability to cope with smell and mess, strength, repetition. THESE ARE SKILLS. And many of these jobs can be boring too - being able to deal with repetition and boredom, keeping yourself mentally limber, is one heck of a skill. Boredom is a source of stress just as much as the size and scope of a work load, especially when you can't see a way out of the menial job treadmill.

Being physically and mentally capable to undertake a job like this requires a toughness and skill set (or lack thereof in their eyes) many people associate with the lower classes. If you undervalue these jobs, then you undervalue the skills and the people required to do them. If you undervalue the people, then you're setting up class warfare. And race and gender warfare too, because many of the undervalued industries, such as child care, hospitality, retail, elderly care, cleaning, harvesting and so on are where you'll find women and PoC.

The above linked article about a worker shortage in earthquake hit Christchurch (where the cost of living is currently high due to a housing shortage) makes no bones about it's racism and greed. "Some of Christchurch's biggest employers are calling for more unskilled immigrants to be allowed into New Zealand to fill job vacancies." They don't want locals who are demanding better pay, rights and conditions in an adaptable market, they want disposable, cheap employees.

It's not fair, it's not right, and it's time to start imagining a new world. One where we lose our tenuous throwback to the industrial revolution. One where we look beyond our knowledge economy. One where we make the One Percent accountable. One where all educational levels, from trades to human care to knowledge, are valued, and the way people undertake their education is flexible and accessible, not just a rote factory line (to a piece of paper; to the industrial prison complex; back to poverty). One where a participatory society is a healthy society. One where menial jobs and the people doing them have value and status, their skills recognized. One where all this is not science fiction anymore.

ETA: A relevant article by essayist s.e. smith popped up on my dash today, discussing the drawbacks of part time scheduling for retail workers: A Part Time World

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