Pick me, mate

The fine drizzle hung, almost suspended in the dull gloom of the early morning. Slowly the crowd gathered in front of the locked gates. It was freezing and the mist created by warm breath on cold air lingered in the silence. There was the occasional nod of recognition and then quickly averted eyes. There was nothing to say. Today was the same as yesterday and the day before. Hunched backs, heads bowed with hunger and lack of hope. Humbled and unseen in dirty overcoats, woollen hats and dusty boots.

Gradually the assembly increased in numbers as the morning slowly wore on. As the newcomers arrived the early birds took up premier position in front of the thick wire grill that was the gate and fence around the yard. It was the place to be seen first, to get eye contact when the decision was made. It was a lottery so you had to increase your odds if you could. The risk of being crushed against the fence by the anxious and angry bodies behind was worth it.

Suddenly a door slammed behind the fence and through the lifting gloom a man strode from one of the buildings in the compound. Although there was an element of purposefulness in his movement towards the crowd the work supervisors face was grim and he seemed somehow reluctant. He knew many of these people. Some lived in his neighbourhood and many had worked here before. Months or years ago. This was a thankless task and he hated the role.

The supervisors appearance transformed the crowd. Dramatically, like a demon disturbed from its sleep, it came alive. A roar went up as everyone started yelling at the same time. It was almost impossible to understand what was being called out. Hands waved frantically and those at the front grabbed the wire mesh and screamed to be noticed by the work supervisor now only metres from the fence. It was a mob of desperate, hungry people.

Sir, sir, I have kids starving and I cant get welfare. Ill do anything.

Hey, mate. Give us a go. My mortgage is due and Ill lose the house.

Help me, help me. My wife needs an operation and I cant afford to get her on the waiting list.

The supervisor scanned the sea of movement before him and picked out a familiar and reliable face. Sometimes he spotted those the company had branded as troublemakers. It wasnt worth his job to make the mistake of picking them. Then another. Ten times he did this with very little eye contact. Impersonal, quick, as if to end the pain for all of them as soon as possible. As soon as he had made his choices he shook his head sadly, at no-one in particular but at every soul baying at the fence, and turned back to his office.

Silence came over the crowd again and the gloom seemed to descend once more. The grey mist felt even thicker. All their energy was spent in this short flurry. Hunger and hopelessness dont provide much fuel for fighting. Slowly they turned away, heads and backs bowed once more. Hands thrust into pockets. Into the sad, empty streets.

Sounds like a scene outside a factory in 1931 during the Great Depression?

In fact its 2009 at the gates of any major corporation in Australia and perhaps other countries throughout the globe. The draconian industrial relation laws, introduced by successive right-wing governments, the collapse of unionism, the concept of industrial terrorism and the undermining of neo-liberal values and the rights of the economy, a major recession fuelled (excuse the pun) by oil shortages, a reversal of globalisation and increased isolationism by countries, and a takeover of the world economy by multinational corporations have begun to bite hard.


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