Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London springs to mind, but, as Wynhausen acknowledges, this compelling inside account has a more recent precursor. In 1998, American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich set off for low-wage America, posing as a housewife newly returned to work and taking whatever unskilled jobs she could get for her best-seller, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Inspired to try the same thing in Australia, Wynhausen took a year off work, invented a c.v. and started knocking on doors.
As she moves from one low-paid job to another, Wynhausen finds that for most of her co-workers, the concept of job security, let alone job satisfaction, is pure whimsy. What she experiences is the backwash of one of the labor market's great transforming trends: Australia may be enjoying its lowest unemployment rate in 30 years, but a quarter of workers are now casuals, and two-thirds of all jobs created since 1990 were casual positions.
With no sick leave, superannuation or any other benefits of permanent work, casual employees, Wynhausen discovers, live in a state of grinding uncertainty. When taken on at a large retail store, she's told her hours could be anywhere "from nought to 38 a week" - and she might only find out at the start of the week. A three-hour shift might be 10 days away - even if rent day isn't. In this world, unions seem largely absent or ineffectual: when Wynhausen and her co-workers are paid the wrong rates, or expected to work overtime without pay, there's no white knight to help them. Her new work life, she says, calls to mind Australian wharves in the 19th century, when desperate workers used to gather each morning to jockey for a day's work. The difference now is that contenders are kept at arm's length: "They just left you waiting at the other end of the phone."
Wynhausen is at her wry best recounting the exhausting and mind-numbing work at a rural egg-packing plant, where she contends with fast-moving eggs and machinery as if she were doing battle. In a "grim, rancorous atmosphere," she and her co-workers sort, stack and pack about 47,000 dozen eggs a day, in busy periods working 10 hours a day, six days a week. By the time she has paid for rent, food, petrol and newspapers, she has $A7 left for the week.
It's a relief when she swaps her yolk-smeared clothes for a cleaning job. Yet it's here that she learns what it is to be truly invisible. When she ventures to speak in one office, "the balding man whose office it was looked about, frowning, as if the vacuum cleaner had developed a voice." The treatment at two Melbourne hotels where she works as a breakfast attendant is better, although she still finds herself serving breakfasts that cost more than she earned in one and a half hours. Her final job, working in two nursing homes, is eye-witness journalism at its best in its disturbing depiction of the grueling labor and the wretchedness of the fading lives around her - some residents tied to chairs, others wandering in a distraught daze, looking for their children.
Coming from a profession where opinions are constantly and loudly expressed, Wynhausen at times can't curb her outrage at the way she and her colleagues are treated. Her co-workers urge her to be careful, for fear that she'll lose shifts or even her job. As Wynhausen admits, having a career and a mortgage-free home to return to means she can never experience the low-wage world as its inhabitants do. She befriends a few people - and reveals her project to them when she quits. But most of her co-workers treat her with suspicious reserve; some, fearing that as a new worker she'll take their shifts, are positively hostile. Sharing a break or a sandwich is as close as she gets to them. As a result, they move through the book like wraiths, leaving readers with little sense of their family lives and aspirations, or how they endure the monotony or survive on their meager pay packets.
But this doesn't take away from the fact that while she's packing eggs and washing dishes, Wynhausen is performing a far more important job: bringing into focus a part of Australian society that's too often overlooked. Aching, belittled and run off her feet, she can soon barely afford the basics on what she's earning, and in at least one job has to fall back on her savings. "I tried but failed," she writes, "to do what millions of Australians do every day." She begins her book with a dig at high-profile media colleagues who are, she says, too often more preoccupied with being players in events than with faithfully describing them. "I'm more intent on vivifying the flash of color and the blur of movement down below," she writes. There should be more of it.