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Exploiting the housing crisis



The struggle of workers has changed immeasurably since the 1850s, when stonemasons won the right to an eight-hour day. We've seen the rise and fall of union membership, the privatisation of the commons, the rise of contract work and the hustle of the gig economy, where a lot of those fights won by workers don't even make much sense.

Chris Johnston cartoonConsider the following ad from an outer Melbourne resident that appeared recently on a buy and sell Facebook page: 'FREE ROOM IN EXCHANGE FOR HELP.'

'We are a friendly family,' the ad explains, 'of two awesome children (aged five and three), looking for a responsible, reliable and energetic person to child mind while living with us, Monday to Friday. We are a lovely, funny, and very busy family: Dad is a mechanical engineer and works varying hours ... "Just a Mum" has just been accepted at a major university to commence a master in teaching (full time).'

Of course, it's not just a room that's on offer. 'All food, accommodation, internet and basic facilities will be provided in exchange for caring for our two children, bit of cooking and snack prep, bit of housework, and being solely responsible for their drop offs and pick ups to kinder, childcare, swimming and sports ...'

Then comes the clincher: 'MUST HAVE: 1. Full availability. 2. A current drivers license and OWN CAR and 3. A valid Working With Children Check. Please, NO SMOKERS, NO DRUGS, NO GAMERS, NO PARTY ANIMALS and a sensible female is preferred. Our room is clean, fully furnished, towels and linen provided ...'

The ad was innocuous enough that several people liked it. A few comments said it was quite the wonderful thing. Apparently we have transitioned to a bartering economy — now it's fine to be paid in accommodation instead of actual dollars.

The precariousness of our housing crisis, a public issue, is here a private tool. The new nanny's financial situation has just been outsourced to ... well, the new nanny. Money's very invisibility in this ad suggests you are overreacting if you feel like there's anything undignified about this situation.


"The problem isn't that this 'position' won't be filled. The problem is it will, by someone desperate for the digs. It might be a step up for someone who's already living in their car."


The admin of this Facebook group deleted our comments, mine questioning the lack of pay and my partner tagging the Australian Workers Union into the conversation. I private messaged the ad's owner, admittedly with some snark, suggesting she pay whoever is desperate enough to take the job. She replied in a caps-lock fury telling me to BACK OFF. Apparently it is a particular affront to insist upon there being an issue with a job resembling a cashless welfare card.

The deal is a two-way street, she insisted! They have had a LOT of positive feedback and will be accepting a worthy applicant of THEIR OWN FREE WILL. 'We offer a bunch of other bonuses,' she fumed. These bonuses are: food, utilities, accommodation and internet. Laying it on with a trowel there. Not a word on superannuation payments or annual leave!

The problem isn't that this 'position' won't be filled. The problem is that it will, by someone desperate for the digs and willing and able to work in dribs and drabs during the day or night or on the weekend, in between the housework, to fund their tampons, coffee, secondhand clothes, and the insurance, rego and petrol required to ferry the kids around.

This might be a step up, for someone who's already living in their car.

What's not okay is this 'just a mum' can afford to go full-time to do her Masters, and her husband is a mechanical engineer, but they just can't afford to pay this person, who must be energetic but not an eccy-taker, reliable, and super flexible, but at the same time super cool with the financial precariousness that will come from this situation, from fitting in all those flexible online gigs that are gonna be dripping $7.38 here and $93.31 there into their account.

The problem with progress is it doesn't stay progressed. Shove 40 years of relentless economic reform and austerity on a people, insist on them not being able to afford nice strengthening societal things anymore because 'something something something not enough money' and 'something something something the finance industry', and us humans adapt to our reduced oxygen environment. Soon, the hustle is just how it is. Security? Safety? Welfare net? They're luxuries we can't afford.

We can't not afford them. We need to take back what's ours.



Sue StevensonSue Stevenson has had political commentary, essays and short fiction published in New Matilda, Independent Australia, Southerly Journal and The Big Issue Australia. She is an unironical hugger of trees.

Topic tags: Sue Stevenson, gig economy, unions, exploitation



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Existing comments

These kinds of jobs are commonly advertised and I don't really agree with them. Having said that, the people that apply don't do so because they are desperate to put a roof over their head and would be living in their car otherwise. They do this normally as they have intention of working in the child care industry or nannying and this is basically the unpaid internship for being a nanny. I'm not saying it is right, but not sure your article is right either.

Craig | 19 March 2018  

Happened to me, I had a man build my bathroom, $2000 was discussed. Then I had car repairs, necessary as I live on an island. I worked there about five months until my friends questioned me and cautioned to leave. Then man called demanding money and described it as volunteering. I already volunteer for the govt. Newatart

Daryl Gibson | 19 March 2018  

How does this person cover their car expenses?

cyberfysh | 19 March 2018  

A bit embarrassed to admit that I too might have skipped over this on Facebook and considered "The ad was innocuous enough..."; betrays how desensitized we have become to trading in housing (i.e. lack of) desperation and so on. The fear is there will likely be more of it - the new IR norm. I'll be watching out for the BACK OFF comments here! After all, anyone applying for this or any similar position will do so of 'THEIR OWN FREE WILL'!

Richard | 21 March 2018  

Many years ago, I did this type of work, when I was a student, except that I was not expected to supply my car. I was paid for the work I did on top of the accommodation etc. In so many ways working conditions seem to have deteriorated and I thought I was working for social justice in a better world!

Sheelah Egan | 21 March 2018  

Thanks Sue, While saddened and a bit shocked, the story does not surprise me in the least. We seem to be heading back to the 18th century and the time of Charles Dickens in the way desperate people are treated. Sadly workers are losing the hard won rights that the trade union movement took two centuries to win. The Turnbull Government and business response to curbs on 'casualization' of work and abolition of penalties is symptomatic of the increasing divide between rich and poor . I wonder if Bill Shorten and the ALP will reverse these trends when they win the next election. I am retired now, so, NOT impacted by the furore over the free hand outs from the ATO . NOT impressed by the idiotic reaction of the 'well heeled' to his attempts at more equality. I do worry about the future for my kids and their children though. Social Justice? pull the other one!

Gavin | 22 March 2018  

A great article on exploitation of the sinister kind ... to all those people who just want to "get ahead" ... perhaps you could also "get a heart" ... today the whole idea of economy centres on money (the elephant in the room in this story above) ... yet it requires money + more to run the REAL economy ... like the running of a household. Apparently teaching kids ethics in day to day life isn't worth any money (especially if the parents don't have any - ethics, that is) ... as well as keeping the kids safe and secure (at home and on the roads), fed and appropriately supervised and stimulated. Remember well ... these kids will be the ones who look after us in our old age (through decisions affecting us) ...

Mary Tehan | 22 March 2018  

Unpaid internship, gig economy, contractor, independent team member - all seem to be part of 2018 Orwellian speak or 'weasel words' (Don Watson) for 'insecure employment'. Or dare I say, this job sounds to me like being a live-in maid. Did I say that aloud? Concerned that I had to head over to Centrelink and apply as a job-seeker, having applied for 20-odd jobs in my profession (I have 2, registered for 2 prof. organisations), I started to look at volunteer 'gigs' (can I call them gigs?). There is a lot of 'work' out there that needs doing, just no money for them. Some offer a $10 lunch voucher daily. I jokingly said to a friend, there is work out there, I am happy to do it, don't care who pays me, that is, employer OR the gov't via Centrelink. But of course, we know the difference in regard, respect and respectability ... So, Sue, I agree with your article, concerns and feedback, even if FB and the original poster did not. And the person who 'accepts the job OF THEIR OWN FREE WILL' will be doing so, choosing 'employment' over being a Centrelink "client." This shouldn't be happening, not in 2018 Australia, not while we're arguing about imputation credits, tax cheques to 'poor' retirees, corporate tax, etc. But it is.

Kate | 22 March 2018  

This is well beyond fair bartering, The only word that comes to mind is 'exploitation'. Whatever happened to Labor's 'fair wage'. At last reading, even Labor's constitution had a nice capitalist escape clause... not socialist any more. Probably just wealthy socialist policies.

Eric | 23 March 2018  

Not confined to the house, well-fed, unpaid, unflogged; so far, like the Serva or Servus of Republican and Imperial Rome. Hang on a sec! The Graeco-Roman slave was also clothed, often allowed to wed and breed, NEVER had to provide his own equi et carrus to run his owner's errands, and was likely, after years of good service, to be freed with a gratuity - a Lump Sum Retirement Benefit large enough to establish himself in a small farm or business. Will the slave sought here be covered by an Employers' Indemnity aka Workers' Comp Policy? Comrades, come rally! There's never a Spartacus Thraex available when you need one!

james marchment | 24 March 2018  

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