Let’s take a moment to reflect and rewind…
In 1992 I lived in a dramatically cold flat, the top floor of an old wooden house that was gradually falling to bits. Seven of us shared three bedrooms. Showers required a clean leap between wet floor and metal showerbox, lest one be grounded with a foot in each camp. Fortunately, we we could seldom afford the electricity bill.
Ah, the providence of poverty!
We were all around the same age, 15-17 and we’d all been working full time for a couple of years. I worked between 40 and 50 hours a week at a steam laundry. I counted and sorted incoming dirty laundry, mainly from the hospital, without gloves, shoes or religion.
My flatmates and I were all trying to stay alive until we reached 18, at which point we could get the dole when we inevitably found ourselves out of work. The dole paid $117 a week.
I had just over two years to go.
I began the job at the laundry about a year after the introduction of the National Government’s Employment Contracts Act, (ECA). The ECA did away with previously negotiated labour agreements, keeping just the minimum wage. There were no unions, no penalty rates and, as I was constantly reminded by my boss, I could be let go within the first three months without notice. Little did he know I’d let myself go already. The joke’s on you, sir!
I was relieved to make the three month mark, as it was the point at which every job I’d had since I’d left school had ended. Under the new Employment Contracts Act, Employees were free to negotiate a contract with their employers. The National Government of the time cheerfully reminded us employees that if our contract wasn’t satisfactory we could simply choose another employer! This was the Beauty of The Market!
As it turned out, The Market was flooded with keen young things lining up to scavenge through festering piles of sheets in a rainbow of early decay. My ‘bargaining position’ therefore, was poor. It should be said that it was better that most of the other women I worked with, because unlike them, I could read.
The Employment Contracts Act did away with penalty rates, so we could work 17 hours in a row and get paid the same amount for the first hour as we did for the last. Budgeting was a breeze!
I was under 16, so once I passed the 3 month probation my pay reached just under $6 an hour, before tax. This was, however, more than the minimum youth wage. I considered myself lucky.
I also got 50c “Dirt Money” payable upon delivery of an item covered in blood/pus/vomit. These items were sighted by the factory supervisor who sat in an elevated perspex office overlooking the factory floor, where he ate chocolate biscuits and children, and had furniture cobbled together by Dickens and Foucault.
My pay paid my rent, but only just. We shared groceries, helping to carry them home on a Monday night. I had a bowl of Weetbix for breakfast (we all agreed we would only eat one serving a day), and my lunch order – a bread roll with beetroot and a slice of cheese – cost $6. Most nights were dinner free, but on weekends my flatmate often worked the closing shift at KFC. So, two nights a week she would wake us up at 2am to eat the ‘last batch’ of chicken left over at the end of the night. Bliss.
I was 178cm tall and weighed 48 kilos.
1991 also saw the deregulation of the health system, bad news for those of us on a diet of newly retired KFC and nits. At one point during the year we all got scabies but the new GP charges meant it would cost each of us around $8 – $10 for a visit to the doctor. Rumour had it however that there was a German doctor in town who would see multiple patients in one appointment. She was clearly a communist. We split the cost of the visit and the prescription and were sent home with instructions to wash all our bedding in hot water. She might as well have told us to soak it in Dom Perignon. The scabies galloped on, undaunted.
Three months later, in a sleep deprived fit of itching hysteria, my flatmate scratched through her dermis and into the muscle with a hair-clip. The resulting infection festered for a week, causing a kidney infection that raged for another three days.
She grew more and more ill but was adamant that we should not take her to the hospital, as she couldn’t afford it. In 1991 the National government, as part of its ongoing privatisation of the healthcare system, introduced a per night charge for hospital stays.
The charge was to discourage people from using the hospital ‘unless they really needed to’ (disregarding the fact that Doctors are generally slightly better equipped to determine the ‘need’ for hospital admission than the average punter with an axe in their face).
Initially this charge was set at $50. I seem to recall health minister (soon to be Prime Minister) Jenny Shipley saying that it cost about $170 a night to stay in a full service hotel, so the $50 hospital charge was relatively cheap. This was perhaps unfair media treatment. With the benefit of hindsight Shipley may have chosen more considered words, but it’s since emerged that she was ‘doorstopped’ at home at the exact moment she’d started carving a glue-sniffer. The media can be unkind.
My flatmate was rightly nervous about going to hospital. Outstanding debts were swifty on-sold to Baycorp. In a penurious town there is no-one more zealous than the debt collector who is himself only one pay cheque from the other side. I distinctly remember discussing this contingency: obviously we had nothing BayCorp could or would take (they were famous for taking belongings at an address, regardless of the provenance), but they could ruin her credit rating, and she was the only one of us who was old enough to be on a lease.
The kidney infection continued unabated. My dear flatmate raged, fainted and puked her way through another three days while we waited for market forces to rationalise the extent and outcome of her illness.
Finally, after a week she fell unconscious. We borrowed a friend’s car, scraped together $3 petrol money and a carried her down the stairs and off to hospital, where we were told she was three hours from death. She was back at work later that week, the entitled bitch.