Wednesday, June 7, 2000

A Kind of Violence - Australian workers and workplaces

"I particularly enjoyed one story of the stunted lifestyle - social, sleeping, family - of those whose lives are always chopped and changed by their work. In fact, next time someone asks me "but what's night shift like?", I might just hand them this."


A Kind of Violence - Australian workers and workplaces
By Yossi Berger
The Vulgar Press, 1999

Tales of workplace violence


Yossi Berger has written a detailed account of health and safety conditions and problems in Australian workplaces. Whether it's in a factory or an office, on a farm or a construction site, violence, both subtle and in-your-face, is common.

The book is arranged as a series of short accounts of particular workers' and workplaces' experiences encountered by Berger as a health and safety officer for the Australian Workers Union.

The subject matter is taken very seriously. It does not stop at the obvious and sensationalised workplace accidents involving loss of life or limb, but examines all their insidious forms as well: stress and strain injury, the psychological damage caused by victimisation and ostracism. Many of the stories will have familiar aspects - they remind you of your work, or maybe the schoolyard bully.

Workplace health and safety is a far more complicated issue than ensuring management keeps to the rules. The attitudes of workers also play a big part, albeit they're often aided and abetted by complacent, complicit or intimidating managers.

Berger depicts the "She'll be right, mate" attitude of workers, and the excuses managers use ("All chemicals can be harmful in high enough doses"). But he also shows that not all workers are happy with this attitude - "The odds of winning Tattslotto are very small too, but some lucky bastard wins it every week or two, don't they?", one worker says.

There are plenty of horrifying stories. Like the one about the dodgy chemical storage shed where Berger saw a metre-long centipede (tell me that's an exaggeration!).

As a shiftworker myself, I particularly enjoyed one story of the stunted lifestyle - social, sleeping, family - of those whose lives are always chopped and changed by their work. In fact, next time someone asks me "but what's night shift like?", I might just hand them this.

Berger has an odd storytelling style. There are scattered quotes from Umberto Eco and Les Murray as opening comments. The narrative is scattered with bits of italicised comments - usually these are quotes from the workers, but sometimes it's a little hard to tell if they were representing maybe the thoughts of the author, or someone else.

At one point I became a little confused as to who was narrating the story, to whom. A lot of the story is related as if verbally, maybe to the author's child after work - "Well, wait and I'll tell". Sometimes this becomes a bit too much.

I certainly enjoyed this book, not because it was exciting or uplifting, but for the (almost perverse) pleasure of seeing some of the least pleasant aspects of people's work conditions, attitudes and lives - often quite familiar to me - exposed to the general public.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly issue 408, 7 June 2000.

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