Pandemic begs the question: are we rewarding the right people?

When I was at university, searching for part-time work, a friend advised me that you could always land a job in retail by telling your prospective employer that you were a "people person". My friend was very convincing, so when I next went for an interview I used her line. And, sure enough, I got the gig.


Problem was – I'd lied. Outrageously. At 19, I was grumpy and shy in equal measure. The unfortunate retailer who'd employed me ran a store that sold costume jewellery: bright, bulbous earrings, and chunky, colourful necklaces. The sort of thing that corporate women favoured back in the 1990s.

I secretly thought his wares were disgusting and I did a poor job of keeping my secret. Instead of smiling, nodding, and telling customers how great they looked with giant plastic boils on their ears, I'd roll my eyes at them. Needless to say, I was soon fired. Which even at the time, I accepted as being entirely right and appropriate.

In my defence, my bad attitude had been cultivated by working the checkout at a large supermarket for several years, a job that killed any enthusiasm I might have had for the service industry.

As a casual, the pay at the supermarket was OK. At least for a student. I had regular shifts, which meant my income was steady. The work itself was awful: standing in the same spot for four hours at a stretch, scanning grocery item after grocery item, with no break. Even toilet visits were frowned upon. They'd time you, too, posting your scanning-rate on a noticeboard, to shame anyone who dared slow down.

I was young, I scanned fast, and my bladder was strong, so I could handle it. And my co-workers were brilliant. Management, not so much. They seemed to go out of their way to make sure you understood that your role on that checkout was entirely expendable.

So it came as no surprise when one of my fellow workers was arrested, marched out by police on a busy workday, to maximise her humiliation. She'd worked in the general merchandise section, a middle-aged woman who'd been at the supermarket for years. I can't imagine that she'd stolen much, as everything there was so carefully accounted for. Yet they'd decided to make an example of her. A public warning to the rest of the staff.

I don't know what happened to her because we never saw her again. I know she had a young family, and I sometimes wonder what she told her kids. I also wonder why she did it. Whether she had financial problems, or if the theft was just an act of rebellion. Perhaps, she was simply sick of being treated as disposable, of being ripped off, every day, by a big corporation, who were making huge profits, while she slaved for scraps. Full-timers like her were paid abysmally. They still are.

As a child, I remember thinking that, when it comes to wages, we have things upside down. Back then, I understood them as a being a bit like dessert: a reward you got for doing something that you wouldn't otherwise do. Like eating brussels sprouts. So it seemed to me that people who did less pleasant jobs – jobs that are boring, dirty or repetitive – should be paid more. On the other hand, those who do interesting jobs should earn less. After all, no one gets ice-cream as a reward for eating cake.

As I got older, I absorbed a different message. That high pay equates with high importance. Doctors save lives, which is important, so naturally they get lots of money. Futures traders also make squillions – so whatever futures might turn out to be, trading them is obviously vital. Cleaners, on the other hand, are paid very little. So what they do can't be important. Or so the logic dictates.


Warehouse workers and orderlies, night fillers and aged care workers: so many people who do vital work are poorly paid. Over the years, many such jobs have been made less secure, and their entitlements eroded. A relentless signal that society neither appreciates nor values what they do.

I'm not the only one to notice that the pandemic could actually be an opportunity, a chance to reconsider all this. To fundamentally rethink the value of work, and how we reward those who do the difficult but necessary jobs. And I'll give you a hint – I'm not talking about the futures traders.


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