Sunday, March 13, 2005


Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

The Age of Melbourne runs a glowing review of Elisabeth Wynhausen's Dirt Cheap: Life on the Wrong End of the Job Market:

I came to Dirt Cheap , Elisabeth Wynhausen's account of a year working for minimum wages, fully expecting to hate it. An Australian knock-off of Barbara Ehrenreich's best-selling Nickle and Dimed seemed eminently cringe-worthy - a book about McJobs had itself been franchised. And, despite Ehrenreich's critical success, the presumption of a journalist speaking for the poor after 12 months of slumming rather stuck in the craw. Yet Wynhausen's powerful, impassioned prose won me over almost immediately....

From dead end job to dead end job, Wynhausen documents the inadequacy of the institutions supposed to protect low-wage workers. Individual contracts, say the ideologues, are a matter of personal choice but when she answers an ad for a hotel job, the penalty-rate-free contract arrives "as if my signature on the piece of paper was a mere formality". The Occupational Health and Safety regulations that look good on paper prove impossible in practice. "I could just imagine what (my supervisor) would say if I followed the order in the manual and advised her that the slippery floor around the tray wash machine was a workplace hazard." Accepting her own powerlessness provides Wynhausen's biggest challenge.

Along with the spread of such accounts from other countries, I've come across similar accounts over different eras as well, with journalists "slumming" in poverty level jobs from the 19th century as well. It brings up a curious thought: has anyone ever anthologized writings from this genre?

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