April 24th, 2015

pigtails

I'm not dead

I'm becoming very uncomfortable with the racial aspect of social stratification in New Zealand, especially in employment. I don't know if it's a factor of my increasing middle-classness meaning that I now utilise service industries more (taxis, waistaff, cleaners, etc), or whether it's actually a changing environment. Chances are it's the former. How do I know this?

Well, I come from a pretty working class background. 15 years in shearing gangs, freezing works, casual labouring (mostly seasonal market garden services) - and in every case as a white person I was in the minority. Now, I'm middle class and the majority in my industry are white - this despite my workplace being very diverse with a number of nationalities from Macedonian to Brazilian, Indian to Korean.

So anyway, as part of this new white, middle class thing I seem to be doing, I went to a conference. Part of the conference was a bus tour of factories. So there I was in this group of entirely white employers, businesspeople, and industry representatives, walking through the factories watching the staff go about their work. The staff who were overwhelmingly male and brown skinned (ladies in the packing room). I remember what it was like having groups tour through the factory while I was working, and we always thought they were clueless wankers with no real concept of what life was about. They were so far removed from our existence that they weren't really real, and I resented being observed like a zoo animal by these people while trying to make my living.

Now here I was on the other side, knowing what was probably going on in the minds of the staff we were watching and also knowing the truth of what it's like to be one of the wankers as well - not quite so clueless as freezing-worker me might have assumed, but still very very far removed from anything that would give us common ground. I'll be honest, I know what it's like to live on $14000 a year but I don't live it and I haven't for a long time. I've become part of the stratum that benefits from the exploitation of low-paid, brown skinned workers to make my own life easier.

So I was pretty uncomfortable doing these factory tours. I became even more uncomfortable when we visited a place where the 'tour guide' manager dude bragged about how there are no union members employed in that workplace, then went on a rant about how the Labour (centre-left) government 'ruined manufacturing' in the 1980s, how this company had ruthlessly taken down all opposition, and how they only employed very carefully selected staff - a particular type of person. When we got onto the factory floor, I realised that what he meant was white people. I counted 9 brown faces among about 65 employees - 4 were of Indian cast, 4 were of Asian cast, and one was Maori. Two women. So yeah -white guys.

And that made me even more uncomfortable, because while living in a society that funnels people into particular types of work because of their skin colour is pretty gross, encountering an example where even those types of work are denied just made me feel ill. It didn't help that as part of the tour we were shown a room with 5 workers in it, and the manager waved his arm airily while talking about a planned automation - "Of course the workers aren't happy about it because they'll be losing their jobs, but they can retrain!"

And my companions laughed and nodded along.

I realised then that these people I was surrounded by were not my people. They were businesspeople and employers, and they think of their staff as labour costs to be minimised. Many people would not be so open about their exploitation as this manager was, but they obviously approved of his approach.

I wonder how many of the people touring that factory have been on the other side of the factory-tour equation? Is it necessary to have been there to have empathy for the position of another, to understand or be uncomfortable with inequality? Is a lack of empathy necessary to run a business successfully enough to be going to conferences that have factory tours? Did any of them even notice the segregation of white managers/brown staff enough to be surprised when we went somewhere that was all white?

I don't have any answers but the whole thing basically made me want to drop out of society and go raise sheep, apples, and bees on a farm that's nowhere near any of this stuff tbh.