WhyNot

Elusive Employment in Unprecedented Times

Words by Kai, 25

The year 2020 brought a whirlwind of change. At least that was what it looked like when Jane*, an old friend, shared a picture from her office farewell dinner.

Her company fired her without warning for “underperformance”, Jane told me. “But they wanted me to still work with them and move into a contract role for less money,” she wrote next to a laughing emoji. “2020 is wild.”

The year threw me into a similar situation. My visa extension was slightly complicated by the pandemic and my employer eventually let me go. I understood the decision – even if everyone was working remotely, employing a foreigner might not be the most practical thing to do due to the added tax paperwork and other potential legal complications. I departed Australia in the middle of the year without a job.

Life went on, and I managed to secure a new role. What I didn’t expect was for my old manager to reach out to me months later. I knew from a former co-worker that they hadn’t hired my replacement – it’s a difficult year for employers and employees alike, I thought. He confirmed that the team’s workload had become untenable and asked me to work for them again as a remote contractor for a few months.

I agreed, thinking the prospect of additional income wouldn’t hurt. And then he came in with the numbers.

“HR says $15-17 per hour,” he said.

I was impressed not only by their audacity to offer a rate way below my previous salary, but also by their assumption that I was no longer worth the Australian minimum wage because I now lived in a developing country.

When I responded with my preferred rate, my manager informed me of his boss’s take, which could be summarised as: “No, that would be too high of a salary for where she’s living.”

I rejected the offer.

I’m aware not every worker would have the luxury to do the same in this economy. Jane has to return to the job market and apply for Centrelink benefits. One friend is dealing with various spec assignments from the companies she’s applying to, requiring her to invest time and resources to complete detailed design work based on briefs just to be considered as a candidate. Another friend, who used to think of union members as slackers – is now working closely with them for the first time after her employer cut her allowances.

Australia has for a while been grappling with the casualisation of the workforce and the pandemic has exacerbated this — as more and more people have to turn to insecure work with earnings as low as $12 per hour. Listings for illegal unpaid internships continue to make the rounds on job boards despite numerous callouts.

The year 2020 seemed to uncover the true face of businesses. While some decisions could be recognised as tough choices, it’s been hard not to grow cynical in the face of opportunistic cutting of corners and blatant disregard of workers’ wellbeing. Narratives persist that this global crisis was/is the perfect opportunity to accomplish productive goals – write a book or enrol in online courses. It’s been hard not to get angry at the calls to ‘upskill’ and enhance employability with all the time that we’ve been supposedly ‘given’.

It was a tough year, indeed. Many companies have turned to self-serving ways at the expense of workers. But the leaf is turning, and it seems to be the time where workers are bound to make decisions that serve their needs too.

Jane found a new job and is now making an unfair dismissal claim against her former employer. The friend who changed her mind about unions is concocting a plan to resign and move into a more accommodating field. While economists are betting on vaccines to generate upturns this year, there still seems to be little hope in sight for a more stable, supportive working environment for us all.

The seasons of change have been brutal – but if anything, this year most workers can now navigate the field with a more sober view of what employers are (not) willing to do and form clearer priorities to guide their career trajectories.

Illustration by AileenYou can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc

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