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"You've got to come," Sue said. "It's going to be a really great evening."
Petra moved the phone away from her ear to mute Sue's enthusiasm. "Spell it out for me," she said cautiously.
"It's the awards night for the Employment Industry Association," Sue said. "It's our big event for the year." Sue ran an employment agency.
"What sort of awards?"
"Innovative work practices," Sue said. "Inspired new contracts. Revolutionary employment conditions. Radical developments in staff selection. Our job is to streamline the operation of industry and commerce by facilitating the transition to more appropriate work environments."
Petra nodded to herself, hearing but not believing. "Why me?"
"You're an employer, aren't you. You need to know about these things."
Petra glanced across her tasteful grey office, fortunately enlivened by some impressionist posters, to the grey desk occupied three days a week by her sole employee. "I'm not really in that sort of league," she said.
"It doesn't matter."
"What's the real reason?" Petra asked.
Sue hesitated for a moment, then came clean. "Kathy was coming but she's pulled out. Said she had a subsequent engagement. Something environmental, I'd guess." She paused again to muster her argument. "It's important that we get a good roll-up."
Petra flicked reluctantly through her desk diary, hoping to find that she was already booked. No luck.
"Where is it?" she asked.
"Northside Community Centre."
"I thought these things were held in five star hotels."
Sue went silent again. "The last couple of years, we've had a few problems," she said.
Petra dug deep and had a vague memory. Sue had been very vocal at the time. "Remind me," she said.
"Year before last," Sue said, "we were at the Convention Centre. Nation-wide live TV coverage. As the MC stood up at the mike, the lights went out. Everywhere else in the neighbourhood was back on in minutes, but not us. We were told there'd been a power surge that'd burned out the switchboard and, would you believe, the emergency generator. We had to pack up and go home."
"No better. Visually, much worse. Five star hotel. I won't tell you which one, but you can guess. Fully catered. Emetic in the prawn cocktail. Two hundred people vomiting, live to the nation."
"So this year, nobody would have you?"
"We thought we'd be a little more low key. We're not doing a full meal. Just nibbles."
* * *
The Northside Community Centre was a barn of a place. Bleak, bare and very, very cold. Long trestle tables with white paper tablecloths, aligned with the line markings for obscure games, set with bowls of chips and peanuts. Cask wine was being served in plastic glasses from a side table. Scattered knots of people were rugged up in coats, hats and gloves. The air was hazy. Too many people breathing out, Petra thought. She looked around. "Is the TV here?"
Sue nodded towards the back corner. A man in full arctic gear, his camera cradled in thick mittens. "Local news," she said. "Hopefully they'll report the presentations, but that's not really what they're after."
They reached the table that Sue was heading for, right by the stage. Two thickly wrapped figures shuffled aside to make room. Reserved seats on benches, was Petra's thought.
Sue introduced her around. The big, aggressive woman opposite was Carmel, President of the Employment Industry Association. The little rat-like man beside her was her husband, Christian. The craggy male beside Petra was Ziggy. He asked her what she did. She told him. Consultant to the Arts industry. Instantly, they were engaged in a deep and meaningful dialogue about the fragility of the artist's existence (and the constant need to find other work which somehow didn't interfere) and the subtle nuances of the relationships with potentially generous funding bodies. From his apparent level of interest, this man might even have access to disposable money, Petra thought, though she doubted it.
The hall filled, to chatter and the crunch of chips. There were stirrings on the stage, a loud "Yuk!" from Petra as the MC, a big man in a silver-grey suit, marched out. Sue looked hard, then nearly said it herself.
"Is that the best you could get?" she said to Carmel.
"Last minute replacement," Carmel said. "Our Distinguished Local Businessman pulled out."
"The story of our lives," Sue said.
The silver-grey suit was Des, former used-car salesman and now promoter of shonky tours to failed states in the local oceans. Not Sue's favourite person.
"We had to pay him in advance," Carmel said.
"I'd have preferred you to MC it," Sue said.
"I'm not a distinguished local entrepreneur," Carmel said.
"Nor is Des."
Petra peered though the thickening haze for the gorilla-like form of Robbie, Des's business partner, but she couldn't see him. She relaxed a little.
Des launched into a paean about modern workplace management, the opportunities provided by the modern industrial relations system, and the outstanding level of innovation stemming from those present here, which made the new system so dynamic and inspirational. "We must applaud the ingenuity of the best practitioners in the industry, appreciate what they are doing for businesspeople like myself, and envy the workers who benefit so much from their sterling efforts." As he spoke, a halo seemed to build up around him. He shuffled a wad of envelopes, pulled one out, opened it and began to read. "Our first award goes to Simplistic Systems for ground-breaking reinterpretation of the important concept of flexible working hours."
A big man in an ill-fitting suit shambled up on the stage, amid cheers and applause.
The man fiddled with the microphone. "Yeh, well, you know, there's lots of really good people out there who work better than lots of other people. You know. Get a lot more done in a lot less time. So, well, we reckon they ought to get a reward for it. But, you know, we don't want to break the bank. So the way we do it is, we say, if it takes a guy three hours to do what someone else does in one, then we pay him for the one hour, not the three. Outputs, you know, not inputs. Way it should be done. So the quick workers, they get more than the guy next to them, so they're happy. The slowies get what they deserve, so there's no way they can complain. It works real well."
He retired, clutching a small statue, amid applause.
"Our next award," Des was reading, "Productivity Plus, for its innovative approach to the Work-Life balance."
There was a stirring beside Petra as Ziggy got up.
"Damn," Petra said. "I thought he might be all right."
"He's a snake," Sue said.
"Most of us are aware of the need to preserve the work-life balance," Ziggy began. "Most of us believe that effective disincentives to overtime are valuable in this respect. That is why, in all our contracts, we not only do not pay overtime, but we expect any employee working overtime to contribute their share of the cost, in terms of electricity and security, of keeping the office open for them." He surveyed the thickening haze with a smug grin. "However, you will appreciate that, in a project-oriented industry such as ours, where meeting deadlines is crucial, some overtime, however undesirable, is inevitable, so that this formula also has a positive effect in that it can result in a significant contribution to business overheads." There were cheers and some clapping. There was a scuffle at the back of the room. Someone shouted "Slave driver!" Peanuts rained down. Monstrous shapes converged in the gloom and hauled something away. A door banged. Ziggy sat down cradling a statuette of a kneeling serf.
"We call then Johns," Sue whispered, pointing to the statue.
Des returned to the microphone, just a shape now in the swirling mist. "A highly commended goes to Ranulf Nightingale of Perpetual Endeavour," he said, "for his superbly comprehensive tax pack length contract, outlining every forbidden activity, with inbuilt penalties for every breach. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us, because, unfortunately, he neglected to forbid his employees from setting fire to their employer's office during working hours. He will be greatly missed."
The automatic clapping from the back stopped almost before it began.
"How on earth do you get your clients to accept contracts like that?" Petra asked Sue.
"They're not our clients," Sue said. "Our clients are the employers. They're the ones we have to please. Our customers are desperate. They'll accept anything, provided it's a job and it pays something. If they don't, it's starvation or gaol, depending who sent them to us."
"I'm going for a walk," Petra said. She had a theory.
She stood up and vanished into the mist. She knew where she was going. All halls were much alike. She felt her way around the end of the stage, round a corner, and down the back stairs to the basement. She could hear the rush of water from the showers, and the roar of a water heater running full blast. Gouts of steam billowed from the open doors of the change rooms. A gorilla in a boiler suit stood up as she opened the door of the caretaker's room. Robbie. He said "G'day".
"So that's where you are," Petra said.
"What did you expect? Someone's got to be responsible for the place. Leave it to you lot, and it'd be a heritage-listed bonfire in no seconds flat."
"What's with the showers?"
"It's cold outside. You wouldn't want the pipes to freeze, would you?"
Petra looked at him, puzzled. "I thought you were an entrepreneur these days."
"Naaah. That's Des. I'm just the victim of the exploitative entrepreneurial ego, clinging to the paths of righteousness despite the desperate need for tainted cash. Plus the odd bit of solidarity on the side, like now, to salvage the conscience. Des has his uses, though. That's how I got in."
Petra climbed back up the stairs.
The function was breaking up. Shadowy figures moved slowly through the fog, tripping over benches, banging their knees on tables, knocking over glasses, scrunching on discarded chips.
"We gave it away," Sue said. "Nobody could see. It's a pity. The best awards were still to come."
"Think we'll get on the local news?" Petra said.
* * *
It was lunch time. Sue had insisted on sitting outside, at the black steel tables on the footpath, even though the icy wind raised crests on the rapidly cooling coffee.
"It's too steamy in there," she said. "I'm allergic to steam at the moment."
"How'd it go then?" Kathy asked.
"Disaster," Sue said. "How was the subsequent engagement?"
"Good. Sorry I couldn't get to yours, but it was the only night everybody was free. It was the inaugural meeting for the RSPCW. Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Workers."
"What's it supposed to do?" Petra asked.
"In theory, everything. In practice, I'd guess not much. A bit of name and shame. The occasional threat of prosecution. The best idea was a Dob in the Boss competition. Guaranteed anonymity. Best submissions go into an annual prize draw."
"What sort of prizes?"
"An interesting, well-paid, secure job with good working conditions."
"You mean, there are some still?"
"A few. We're aiming to heritage list them."
Copyright © D.W. Walker, 2007
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