The academy is seemingly obsessed with the working class, but at the same time deeply disconnected from it. While most academics are happy to discuss the poor in theory, few are comfortable when confronted by the everyday drudgery of working-class life, and even fewer have direct experience of monotonous, often backbreaking labour. Of course, many young people and students have to depend on minimum-wage unskilled jobs at points in their lives, but for most this is just a transitory stage.
It is true that Australian tradies are paid fairly well: plumbers, for example, can earn between $50,000 and $75,000, depending on experience, and much more when self-employed. It is also true that an electrician, bricklayer, welder, pig farmer or motorcycle mechanic can more easily seek residency in Australia than a university lecturer or researcher.
This doesn’t mean things are rosy for the working class. As sociologist John Scott writes, ‘Many female and ethnic-minority workers are found in the lower-paid, more insecure secondary labour market, lacking standard labour contracts […] It is among this group that both unemployment and underemployment (where people find that they have periods of employment and unemployment interspersed on a frequent and irregular basis) are most frequently found.’
I am interested in such factors because I have been a member of the underdog class for most of my adult life, ever since I left India for New Zealand and then Australia.
There was a time during my PhD candidature at the University of Queensland when I seemed to be flying high. I found myself attending academic conferences in London and Washington; I was so confident of my research on Shakespeare’s ‘literary exclusions’ that while on a visit to the Folger Shakespeare library, I published a letter in The Washington Post berating our need to read literature towards redemptive and liberating ends.
But after my recent experience casually in an industrial laundry – where I was ‘on-call’ six days a week and experienced wretched working conditions – I find myself wondering why there is such a fractured relationship between the working class and the academy, an institution I see as playing a powerful role in determining the production and consumption of literature. During my recent employment and commutes, I met many other marginalised people whose stories are absent from literature.
In India, my upbringing was comfortably middle class. My father had been born and raised in dire poverty, but he had managed to work his way up the Indian Revenue Service and eventually became assistant commissioner. Like most middle-class young people in India, I lived a comfortable life and never had to work while studying.
In 2002, I emigrated to New Zealand as an international student, later taking out citizenship. It was only after leaving India that I experienced poverty. Within weeks of finishing my honours degree at the University of Canterbury, I was broke and had few options. I signed up with a temping agency and very soon I was sent off to work in Christchurch’s various factories. The agency got a commission for each dollar of minimum wage I earned ($8.50 per hour back then). I was assured these jobs would be temporary, that the agency would find me something better, but I was soon working full time and couldn’t see a way out.
Since then, I have worked in over twenty-five factories – as a general factory labourer, a scrap-metal sorter, an assembly line worker and a machine operator, in stints that lasted from a few days or months to a few years. I have worked twelve-hour shifts, five days a week. At times I have worked eight- or nine-hour shifts, seven days a week. There are no penalty rates for casual workers in New Zealand, meaning that low-waged workers are open to gross exploitation.
While I am reasonably strong, I have terrible manual dexterity and am clumsy with my hands. I have almost never been able to meet production targets, even when I worked exceptionally hard. But I never said no to work and turned up even when sick – exactly what factory supervisors are after. I was also willing to work overtime, including weekends and public holidays.
When I could not secure factory work, I survived on unemployment benefits, credit cards, bank overdrafts and student loans.
When I embarked on my honours degree in 2002, I thought I was headed for a professional job – a journalist, perhaps, or a lecturer. At get-togethers, I loved engaging in robust debates about politics and international relations. I read intensively, maintained good grades and participated in international forums.
Over the years, I have had around 100 letters published in local and international newspapers. I have spoken out against France’s undemocratic ban on Muslim headscarves, the Indian government’s criminalisation of same-sex relations and anti-Asian racism among New Zealand’s political elite. Yet, I have never been offered any writing or freelance gigs. Perhaps, if I had lived somewhere with a strong media and publishing industry, my fate would have been different.
Most of my peers in commerce, biology and engineering found employment in their fields, yet I struggled on in tedious factory jobs. I soon noticed a distance forming between those who found professional work and myself. As a young factory worker, I didn’t mind. I had literary ambitions, and those who wrote about people on the margins – beloved writers like John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver – were my idols. I also admired the tenacity and literary grit of someone like Donald Ray Pollock, who went from being a factory worker to an acclaimed writer in his fifties. Back then, I was convinced that a working-class existence was no barrier to literary success. The naivety and arrogance of this youthful ambition would cost me enormously in so many ways in years to come.
The rift between the academy, the literary world and the working poor is ever widening. Katy Waldman’s recent article in the New York Times recounts how writers and artists used to have day jobs. Today, it is nearly impossible to have a sustained literary career without being affiliated with a university. Humanities education is deeply invested in creating academics with narrow specialisations (and, in my experience, an excessive passion for bureaucracy) rather than socially engaged and empathetic citizens. Decades ago, Edward Said identified the dismal phenomenon of ‘professional humanists’ on university campuses, lamenting that the reading and study of literature had been reduced to ‘a cult of professional expertise’:
We tell our students and our general constituency that we defend the classics, the virtues of a liberal education, and the precious pleasures of literature even as we also show ourselves to be silent (perhaps incompetent) about the historical and social world in which all these things take place.
Within these specialisations, students are made to consume and analyse literature in disparate fragments under the theoretical labels of postmodernism, structuralism, deconstructionism and so on. To non-academics, such theoretical compartmentalisations appear baffling and absurd.
As one anonymous academic explains in The Guardian, it is not uncommon to write scholarly books merely as an exercise in professional development – and something to add to the CV. These highly priced books can go straight from a scholarly publisher to university library shelves and warehouses.
But where are the literature academics like Overland founding editor Stephen Murray-Smith, who believed in the democratic ethos of literature? He envisioned Overland as a forum ‘to talk of books and writing in an unselfconscious way with the assumption that there was no reason whatsoever why “ordinary people” should not enjoy such writing and participate in it’. I cannot recall one established literary academic who has sincerely expressed similar ideals to me in recent years.
While there has been a resurgence in popular and scholarly books on the white working class – for example, Hillbilly elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis and Hand to mouth: Living in bootstrap America – those who directly live this experience, much of whom are people of colour and migrant workers, are rarely given the opportunity to craft such narratives. White working class: Overcoming class cluelessness in America is perhaps the best example of how these selective portrayals suit narrow academic frameworks. In the book, Joan C Williams segments the working class by race, which is weird enough, but the book is also riddled with observations that do not hold up. For example, she notes the professional class’s tendency for workaholism, and then states that, in contrast, ‘Working class men find this obsession with work off-putting.’
This is absurd: most working people I have known – white and non-white – work long hours and weekends. Many of them take second jobs, even if it means breaching labour laws, because their families cannot survive on the low wages of a standard working week.
In 2009, after the recession hit, I worked as a labourer in a printing press; I was offered two 7.5-hour shifts per week at $12 an hour. Every week, I used my credit card to pay my rent. Tired and broke, I eventually signed up for the dole. When standing in the dole queues became too demeaning, I accepted work in a seafood factory that offered four-hour shifts starting at 6 am. It amounted to only fifteen hours per week at minimum wage. I was also charged tax on that meagre income because New Zealand does not have a tax-free threshold. Conversely, New Zealand has one of the lowest tax rates for high-income earners, with a top rate of only 33 per cent.
Pushing thirty, I decided to go back to graduate school. This would mean getting paid less than the unemployment benefit and accruing student debt each year. Still, it was a reprieve from my own personal hell. After earning an MA in English, a PhD seemed like the only option: my grades were good and a scholarship sounded like winning a lottery, given that my annual income in ten years had always been below a non-taxable PhD scholarship.
I had no problems being accepted into degree programs when I was a paying customer, but I hit a wall when I applied for funded PhD programs in New Zealand. Most institutions didn’t even bother to respond to my research proposal.
One evening, without hope, I sent queries to three overseas institutions: Macquarie University, the University of Queensland and Victoria University (Canada). Professors at all three sent enthusiastic responses and urged me to apply as soon as I could. Maybe it is true – as reported by Hamza Bendemra in The Conversation – that PhD students perform 57 per cent of research in Australia and are thus a cheap source of labour, but I can only see these offers as acts of benevolence.
As a New Zealand citizen, I had no need for a special study permit in Australia. I flew across the Tasman on a maxed-out credit card and used an $1800 bank overdraft to cover my plane ticket and rental bond. It is a miracle I made it to Brisbane and survived those first few weeks. Fortunately, my landlord in Brisbane was kind: he was an English immigrant who let me pay rent late so I could use my first scholarship payment to fend off my creditors.
I soon settled into the life of a scholar. I worked far too hard, nearly seven days a week. I held no other job nor did any tutoring. I am perfectly happy with a spartan life, so long as it pays my food and rent, and keeps the wolves at bay. I was in love with my research topic on the much-ignored racial and religious exclusionary humour in Shakespeare’s plays.
Fast forward to 2018: my battle to survive continues …
A day after I submitted my PhD, I started looking for administration jobs. Since I had zero office experience and no-one was responding to my applications, I quickly downgraded my search to factory labourer. Even these jobs in Australia needed people with recent experience, and often a driver’s licence and car. I had none of these.
Left with very few options, I signed up for the University of Queensland’s temping pool, which fills casual admin jobs for various schools. I called HR and they were confused as to why I was applying. ‘Aren’t you looking for an academic job?’ the person asked, before adding they do not have time to train a newbie.
I eventually found work in a commercial laundry in Darra, about 14 km southwest of Brisbane CBD. The laundry runs two shifts (6 am to 2 pm, and 2 pm to 10 pm), Monday to Saturday. I was hired as a casual, on-call worker because of the increased workload from the Commonwealth Games. I imagined working three shifts per week, enough to cover my basic living expenses, while still allowing time to pursue my intellectual life and look for a postdoctoral fellowship. This was quickly increased to six days a week. But when you’re on ‘short notice’ – where you can get a call or text to come in anytime between 6 am and 10 pm – there is no such thing as a day off. It is worth adding that on my afternoon shift, the forty or so workers were all Asian, African and Pacific Islander (the day shift had a few white workers).
The laundry services a large number of factories, hotels and hospitals from all over Brisbane. It is divided into three sections: linen, garments and a sorting area, with ten to fifteen workers in each. I would always arrive early and sit in the air-conditioned break room, a lifesaver after walking from the train station under Brisbane’s scorching sun.
Before becoming famous, Stephen King worked in a commercial laundry’s sorting area; he recounts the horrors of handling bloodstained sheets and napkins with rotten food and worms in them. In the sorting area in the Brisbane laundry, workers had to wear protective masks and gloves, making it both difficult to move and incredibly hot. One sorting area worker told me how distressing it was to sweat constantly without being able to drink or wipe the sweat from his eyes.
The linen section where I worked was the least labour intensive, and we were permitted to keep small water bottles with us. Freshly washed sheets and towels continually arrive on conveyor belts, where waiting workers collect them, sort them and feed them into ironing machines.
Before the laundry, I really had no idea that feeding wet sheets into a commercial iron could be so exhausting. Even though I used enormous force, I was still the slowest of the workers. I struggled to quickly find the corners of the slick wet sheets so that I could slip them onto the ironer’s jig. I was constantly told off because of my pace.
My biggest problem was always the heat, which would leave me profoundly depressed and disoriented. I started at the height of summer and the combination of a Brisbane heatwave, lack of sleep, mental and physical exhaustion, and a smattering of panic attacks made for an overpowering experience.
The outside temperature on my second day was 38 degrees – but it was much worse inside. On blistering summer days, the laundry is suffocating. The heat and humidity of the ironing area makes it feel like being locked inside a sauna for hours on end.
As soon as you clock on, the race to meet ‘target’ begins. Who has time to care about health and safety? You are much more likely to get fired for not working fast enough than for shirking some government regulations. If you slow down, you lose your job – it is as simple as that.
After finishing a PhD, you are supposed to hunt for postdoctoral funding and continue publishing scholarly articles, in the hope of securing a position as a lecturer and researcher. This is my plan, but how do I earn a living in the meantime?
It usually takes about a year and a half to secure a postdoctoral fellowship. Most fellowships, such as Australia’s Discovery Early Career Researcher Award, accept applications once a year, and the timeline from submission to confirmation to actual start date is enormously long. New Zealand is perhaps the only Western country that has zero government funding for humanities postdoctoral fellowships. My search has become global: I am considering places all over Australia, the UK, the US, Canada and Ireland. Interestingly, Australian fellowships (if you can get them) are some of the world’s best paid and last for three years, as opposed to two in the UK, US or Canada.
An additional problem for me is that Australian research in early modern studies is almost exclusively Eurocentric. Australia is perhaps the only Western country where no major university has started a research project into early modern Europe’s encounters with, and representations of, non-Europeans.
I have been involved in higher education for the last eight years and during that time I have been flooded with narratives glorifying the poor; idolising working-class lives has become a standalone academic industry. Even the Shakespeareans have worked overtime to prove that Shakespeare, like themselves, is a friend of all manner of socio-economic underdogs. This passionate embrace of the working class begs the question: off the journal pages and outside the university classrooms, who among the academy actually knows what working-class lives are like?
‘It is a kind of duty to see and smell these places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist,’ George Orwell wrote in Road to Wigan Pier. Even before experiencing the drudgery of a commercial laundry, when I was working on my PhD seven days a week in the library, I was horrified by the conditions endured by the university cleaning staff, many of whom I talked to on a daily basis. These cleaners are employed by an outside company and many of them work on part-time or casual basis. University toilets are horridly filthy. Often bored or frustrated students smear shit as a prank. They urinate all over the floor and by morning it is congealed and reeks abominably. That is when the cleaners start their thankless task of cleaning the filth. These cleaners are ignored and forgotten. I am yet to see humanities students or academics speak or agitate on their behalf.
In late January, a Renaissance studies journal accepted my article on Hamlet’s Ghost. It was called ‘original’ by one anonymous reviewer and ‘convincing’ by another. This was a very nice vindication for someone working in a laundry. More good news arrived two days later, when I was offered a one-hour tutorial per week, beginning late February. It would pay almost as much as toiling a whole day in the laundry.
A lot of casual university tutors moonlight in professional jobs or are involved with editing, publishing or journalism. Some might be earning as much or even less than a full-time laundry worker, but they do not carry the stigma. Indeed, they proudly display their work associations and activities, many of which may involve Leftist advocacy for the underdogs, like the kind of articles one may find in The Guardian or Overland.
Someone earning their living in a manual job cannot claim these social perks, or the self-esteem that often accompanies white-collar work. Instead, they are haunted by a sense of shame; many would feel alienated at a wine-and-cheese get-together of students and academics.
I stopped working at the laundry in early April. The work ran out, plus I couldn’t put up with it any longer. (I must add that, despite my experiences, the laundry allowed me to pay my bills. It worked as a short-term solution, and it is common for laundry casuals to quit after a few weeks.)
There is a silver lining here. I had been so lost in research libraries for the last four years that I never realised I could join the underground ‘casual tutor’ industry. Of course, campuses are full of embittered casual tutors with PhDs, battling it out for a few scraps.
In light of my work history and years of physical labour and debt, being a casual tutor, if I get enough hours, feels like a luxury. With casual tutoring I also get to read and research because it allows me to retain library membership, some desk space and other facilities. Others tell me that after some time in the casual tutoring business, I too will become bitter. All I can say is that I will cross that bridge when I come to it.
If you enjoyed this essay, buy the issue