Happy International (Working) Women’s Day!

The official theme of International Women’s Day this year is “Inspiring Change”. It’s a little vague, a little aspirational, not too confrontational – fairly typical for this kind of awareness-raising exercise.

But it is 2014, and it’s an election year, and the way we talk about women, and women’s work, does have the potential to inspire change in New Zealand.

Right now Kristine Bartlett, with the support of the Service and Food Workers’ Union, is breaking new ground. She’s worked in elder care for years, doing incredibly important, physically and emotionally demanding work, for $14.32 an hour. I think everyone can agree those kind of wages are pitiful. But the argument is bigger than that.  It asks not ‘should a woman be paid the same as a man for the same work?’ – a question which, I’m sorry to say, is still not settled for some employers – but this:

Should a traditional ‘woman’s job’ be paid the same as a traditional ‘man’s job’ which involves the same skills and experience?

There are difficulties and complexities and all kinds of side issues which get raised – Kristine’s employer Terranova just wants to make the whole issue about how much funding they get, and a lot of armchair experts will opine that it’s comparing apples and oranges and this lets us ignore the fact that a lot of traditional ‘men’s work’ gets paid a lot better than ‘women’s work’.

But the fact remains that we’re talking about ‘women’s work’. We’re talking about the terrible wages a woman-dominated workforce is paid to do a vital job in our society. Take the gender issue out of the picture, and we’re talking about how capitalism exploits people who have such compassion and caring in their hearts that they’ll look after others for $14.32 an hour – and that’s not right.

And as Jan Logie has noted in her blog, our current government has a terrible track record on ‘women’s issues’ – along with everything else. On this International Women’s Day, let’s inspire a change – of government!

(I do note that the concept of a “women’s day” isn’t perfect.  There are still a lot of women who are marginalised or erased in discussions of “women’s issues”, and a lot of people who reject the man/woman gender divide.  Their lives deserve recognition too.)

How to build better beggars

In the United States, the street beggars have great patter.

Despite what South Park would have us believe, when you walk down the main street of a major city, you don’t get hordes of people shiftlessly shaking cups at you, asking for “change?”

There are a few.  But far more often, there’s a story.  I did two tours of Iraq and I just need to get my clothes dry at the laundromat.  I need 20c for the bus, or $5 to get the train to where my kids live. My girlfriend’s out in the parking lot, I just want to get us some chicken.  They are practiced, and polite, and very aware that they’re approaching a young white woman on the street and need to ensure they’re utterly unthreatening, because the lives of poor men and especially poor black men probably aren’t worth crap if a pretty white girl complains to the cops around the corner.

When a country has the kind of inequality the US does, people get really, really good at begging for money.

On the same rainy day I meet the Iraq veteran – and I have no reason to doubt that he’s served his country, and been tossed aside for his trouble – John Kerry, the secretary of state, is on MSNBC talking to Andrea Mitchell about what’s been happening in Ukraine.  He speaks in admiring tones about how the people of Ukraine have risen up against their oppressor, how they’ve had enough of a leader who sleeps in mansions and lives a life of luxury.  And to an outsider, it sounds so disingenuous.  Does Kerry not see the parallels with his own country?  Where a presidential candidate can forget how many homes he owns,  while the people who are fortunate enough to have employment waiting tables are entitled to just $2.13 an hour?

The United States is a nation thoroughly captured by the idea that we can all pull ourselves up with our own bootstraps.  That a government safety net, universal healthcare, even the right to vote is something some people just don’t deserve.

New Zealand has inequality, too.  But we still have some of the basics in place – our current government’s efforts notwithstanding – and I have faith we can turn things around with a strong progressive government, starting in 2014.