Dirt Cheap, by Elisabeth Wynhausen

More than one in four Australian workers are casuals, pining for ‘perks’ like job security; one in three part-time workers want more work than they have; two thirds of young people have no choice but to enter the labour market as casuals.

When Elisabeth Wynhausen took a year’s leave from her job as a journalist to join the ranks of the minimum-wage workers, her friends and family told her she was crazy. That didn’t stop her. Soon, she was one of the casual workers, travelling in search of work and learning what it was like to work long hours for low pay and no respect.

As a journalist, Wynhausen had often written about the working poor. Now, she decided, she would join them, working alongside them and trying to live on the wage they earned. She wanted to see what it was like working menial jobs for low wages – and trying to live on earnings below the poverty line.

This is an offering which is, on the surface, entertaining. Wynhausen’s skill with words draws you into the story, almost allowing you to forget that this is not a fictional tale, but real life. She experiences boredom, injury and fatigue, along with the frustrations of having work doled out on a seemingly adhoc basis. She exposes the difficulties of living on minimum wages and on being treated as both dispensible and insignificant by bosses and employers who look to cut costs at every opportunity.

By joining the workforce in this way, Wynhausen offers a unique viewpoint of life from the shop floor in several industries – including retail, hospitality, cleaning, aged care and manufacturing.

An eye-opener.

Dirt Cheap, by Elisabeth Wynhausen
Pan Macmillan, 2005