Island Life by David Slack

A one night stand with Ronald

The universities, institutions of higher learning and of course, wananga, are a little quieter this month, so let us now all spare a moment's thought for the army of young New Zealanders who are presently using their available holiday hours to wash our dishes, pour our wines, flip our burgers and do the bidding of obnoxious property developers and tax lawyers all over the Viaduct Basin. Been there, done that, got the lifelong aversion to wankers.

Let us also spare a moment to compare the size of the pay packet I took home for more or less the same work - making due historical allowance for the muscle of your friendly trade union - two decades ago.

I had an entertaining conversation with Matt McCarten the other day about his supersize my pay campaign, and his unionist-versus-boss debate on Nine to Noon with Vicki Salmon about the world's first Starbucks strike. I told him I'd all but picked up the radio and given it a shake to see if the speaker wasn't distorting, because I could swear I'd heard her described their nine dollar an hour employees as "partners".

That's a good one, I said. You heard right, he said. In fact, he said, he'd become so accustomed to hearing that kind of management gilding of the lily, that he really doesn't notice it any more.

Our partners! I've led a life a little too ordinary to comprehend all the permutations of the typical SM predilection, but I'm willing to bet that even your most elaborately nipple-clamped, cuffed and blindfolded love slave is unlikely to characterise a nine dollar an hour relationship with an international conglomerate as a "partnership".

This was more or less verified in the next sentence or two, when Linda Clark pressed Salmon on their level of staff turnover. Why, they had the best in the industry, she declared. The average was something like 135% per year, while Starbucks boasted a mere 75% or so. Again, I may be a relatively white bread sort of guy, but in my assessment, if 75% of them are moving on within a year, honey, you're not conducting relationships with "partners"; you're having a succession of one night stands.

Matt knows the numbers, and he can no doubt demonstrate to you how much better-paid, relatively speaking, I would have been when I had my turn as a "partner" in the fast food business. I can't recall for sure, but I think in 1978 I was getting $2.40 an hour.

Come with me now as I relive that wonderful first year in Wellington before I got my big break and a decent job in a pub. Once that happened, I was truly as happy as a pig in the squelching stuff, I have to say. It was still worth about 2.40 an hour, but it translated into colossally better pay thanks to the longer hours, overtime rates, and weekend penal rates. But first you have to pay your dues, and mine began at the Courtenay Place McDonalds in the winter of 1978.

What an exciting place this brand new McDonalds was to visit on a Sunday afternoon. We'd fill our trays with Big Macs, Quarter Pounders with Cheese, Hot Apple Pies and coffees and fall upon our feasts. We were way-impressed, and - it probably goes without saying - easily. I asked for a job.

Step behind the curtain; the magic evaporates. The onion comes in bags as big as your torso: desiccated little pellets that reconstitute in water. You heave the fries and the apple pies out of bathtubs of oil, and into their attractive packaging. It's a very clean kitchen with thorough procedures for keeping it spotless, but as the shift wears on, you get filmed in oil.

You also get to wear a paper cap that does nothing to imbue you with any babe magnetism, and when that gorgeous woman from your English 101 tutorial presents herself at the counter, you hope she's looking past the smock and cap and into your soul which, even as you stand there shaking fries into paper bags, suggests a certain Parisian world-weariness and great wisdom, informed by deep questions of existentialism and the theatre of the absurd.

She may have seen all this, and more besides, but it's hard to tell as she turns on her heel, makes for the door with her cheeseburger, fries and coke, and in another moment is through the doors and gone from your life for another day.

Approximately 45,000 other young people work in this store, but at closing time, just two of you are rostered on to hose down all the grease-lined trays and extractor hoods, and a vast array of small implements of preparation. An hour or two before day-break, it feels, you stow away the last of them and trudge back up Manners Street and Boulcott Street to your flat.

After a month or so of this you think: I wonder if they have any jobs at Homestead Chicken. By the next weekend, you are dumping chicken pieces in bathtubs of oil in a busy outlet on Adelaide Road.

Here, you discover that the small local chain is a bit more rough and ready than your big American one. Procedures are a little more ad hoc. The floor begins the day spotlessly clean, but within an hour you're skating across a deep film of chicken grease, which rises with every passing hour. A combination of oil and water completely soaks your socks and sneakers and begins its way up your trousers, reaching your knees by the end of your shift.

None of this is taxing work compared to three good hours on the farm, but it's pretty dreary, and you don't feel especially pleased for the customers when you see trays of cooked chicken falling to the floor, being scooped swiftly back onto the serving tray and slotted into the warming cabinet.

You may have to work a bit harder now to believe me when I tell you that this was far and away a superior-tasting chicken to the one on offer at Kentucky Fried. The shop was also quite generous at giving you plenty to take home; the flatmates loved it. I didn't trouble them with the hygiene details.

And then the summer holidays arrived. Homestead could give me a couple more shifts, but not a full time job. So I rang Kentucky Fried in Johnsonville. I had experience. At Homestead chicken. Excellent, they said, I could start on Monday. But I couldn't work for Homestead as well.

Excuse me?

They're the opposition. You'll have to choose.

This is ridiculous, I said to myself. What am I going to do? Steal the colonel's secret recipe? I decided to do both jobs and say nothing.

Johnsonville has never struck me as a very dynamic or interesting place. There was nothing about its Kentucky Fried store that offered anything to change my point of view. Business in the daytime was slow. You took your pieces of chicken, you coated them in flour, you got your great big barrel of the colonel's secret recipe of herbs and spices (which looks like gunpowder - a sort of metallic grey, with a strong smell of pepper), you shook that all over the chicken and then you loaded it all into the fridge and waited for lunchtime when you cooked a few desultory trays' worth, and watched the clock tick slowly by.

I like Bob Marley, I really do; but the summer of 1978, Is This Love was playing every seven minutes all day long on Radio Windy and it became the soundtrack of my long dull days in Johnsonville. If I ever hear the tune again it will be too soon. That and Hot Child In The City, which had the further handicap of being a piece of complete shit to begin with.

This might have all rolled along uneventfully had I not been reading a chart of sales figures on the notice board one morning as I enjoyed a cup of coffee and a smoke.

I spend every spare moment reading. I will read a muesli packet if that's the only thing on the table at breakfast. So that morning, I read the sales chart as I enjoyed my coffee and my Rothmans.

The manager was deeply suspicious. Why could I possibly be interested in this information?

Why was I reading it?

More significantly: had I really quit my job at Homestead?

I'm a keen reader; I also prefer not to lie very much. As a matter of fact, I said, I was still working at the other one. Well, mate, he said, you have to choose right now: them or us.

Too easy. The chicken tasted better at Homestead and they didn't play Radio Windy. I bailed, and got myself a second job washing dishes at The Coachman. Staff ate well at Des Britten's restaurant, and he never once asked if I was washing dishes for any other leading Wellington chef.

The next installment in this story, if you want to keep following it, appeared here last year but it doesn't exactly address the Starbucks strike issue, which you'll recall was where we began.

David Young wrote an interesting piece about the minimum wage in the Listener this week that suggested that although it may not be a job killer, it may nevertheless push the whole wage scale up. That's worth bearing in mind, but I have to say I'm behind Matt McCarten's campaign nevertheless. How far would you say 9 dollars an hour would take you?

There's an argument that low pay rates motivate people to move on up and out of these jobs and keep the skill level rising. We appreciated the opportunity, and we were willing to do a decent day's work, but I don't recall meeting anyone at McDonalds or Kentucky Fried or Homestead Chicken or the Coachman who had any plans to spend the next twenty years hosing down greasy kitchen equipment.

And we sure as hell didn't see ourselves as "partners".