• Published allegations of Don Burke's sexual misconduct have had many people talking. (Fairfax Media/ Wolter Peeters)
Celebrity reports raise awareness of common brutality at work but singling out one industry of high-powered individuals doesn't go far enough.
By
Helen Razer

28 Nov 2017 - 10:29 AM  UPDATED 28 Nov 2017 - 11:26 AM

Yesterday, mine was not the only postcode preoccupied with talk of TV gardener, Don Burke. Published allegations of sexual harassment and indecent assault had many talking. Perhaps not talking exactly in the manner of my neighbour, Dimitra, who claimed she wasn’t surprised because, “That man was always very cruel to his rose bushes.”  

Dimitra was not making a careless joke. Like many women in my suburb with its high average age, she takes horticulture very seriously. A post-war migrant from the Peloponnese, Dimitra is one of many whose Greek gardening tradition brightened a Melbourne neighbourhood.

In the 1970s, Dimitra bore three children, worked in a nearby factory and planted a garden. Her roses, which she pruned gently, unlike Burke, remain on show in the front. The backyard is given to edible plants; although, since Nikos, her husband, passed away last year, production slowed.

Dimitra has never been a drinker. I gave her champagne before Christmas once and she said, “When am I supposed to drink this?!” She had a point. Dimitra would be up to the elbows in pastry and grandchildren for weeks.

When Nik died, a Greek-Australian pal advised I bring the widow a bottle of brandy.  This, she said, was the tradition. “But she doesn’t drink, Despina!” I said. “Neither do I. But when my Baba passed, I made a drunk exception.” 

For so many women of different ages and cultural groups, the Burke and Weinstein allegations are unsurprising.

Despina had it right. When I appeared at the door with cognac, Dimitra seized the bottle in one hand, my arm in the other, and insisted, “Come! Ela!” With the help of booze, and an online translation tool, the widow told me dark stories that night. 

There was little to eat in her village in the years after World War II, and she was grateful her parents knew how to grow food. Soon after she and Nik met, they agreed to migrate to Australia. There, they hoped for work and a small home with space for flowers and babies.

Nik became a builder, and quickly learned English on sites. In the factory, speaking any language at all was discouraged. Dimitra sat silently at night at a workbench, inserting wires in fashionable bras. She had a male supervisor whose words she could rarely understand. She presumed them to be vulgar, as he would often grab Dimitra’s breasts, and those of her female co-workers, most of whom spoke little English.

Dimitra stayed silent. She feared the sack if she protested; she feared Nik would be jailed for thrashing this man if he learned what had been done. But, when she was breastfeeding her third baby, she slapped the supervisor’s grasping hand away. “I was full of milk. It hurt so much,” she told me.

He fired her on the spot. Nik demanded to know why his wife was home in tears hours well before her shift ended. Nik did express an urge to punch the supervisor, but said he had a better idea. He called Dimitra’s union, which he had insisted that she join, then dropped her off at their office on his way to the site. A Greek-speaking rep was waiting to hear her story.

She got her job back. She’s not sure if the supervisor lost his, but he never appeared in her part of the factory again. She and her co-workers also received a bump in wages—something to do with the union and night-shift, she said.

He fired her on the spot. Nik demanded to know why his wife was home in tears hours well before her shift ended.

There are not strong unions, as there were in the past, she said. “These girls in the movies and on the TV,” she said, referring to the many recent stories about harassment and abuse in the entertainment industry. “They need help with the boss. We all do, sometimes.”

For Dimitra, and for so many women of different ages and cultural groups, the Burke and Weinstein allegations are unsurprising. And a little frustrating. Yes, that can happen at work. It happened to me and it happened to one of my kids. So, what to do about it?

The assumption underlying the current reports, which focus on media industry allegations, is this: we make these actions unacceptable by shaming a long list of men. I do understand that those who so courageously report and allege believe they are doing the good service. I also fear that in reporting on a single industry, their own, they are not aiming broadly enough to do what needs to be done.

Many in media have spoken of having their dreams crushed, in addition to those other indignities. The fact is, most of us never dreamed of the jobs we end up doing. Most Australians, male and female, work for low wages in the care and retails sectors.  More than forty per cent of Australians work in casual, contract or self-employed positions, where they can be dismissed at any time. For Millennials, job insecurity—or what we call the “gig economy”—is becoming the norm.

More than forty per cent of Australians work in casual, contract or self-employed positions, where they can be dismissed at any time.

These celebrity reports may raise awareness of common brutality at work. They may change the minds of everyday workplace abusers, although this seems unlikely to me—only high-profile or powerful men need fear retribution.

What is not raised is the matter of work itself. Back in the day, Nik could do something about unsafe conditions on the building site; his wife, when she was momentarily able to overcome the social isolation so many migrants feel, was able to do the same.

There is no harm, of course, in the attempt to make abuse in the workplace appear unacceptable through celebrity stories. There would be far greater value in a call to demand job security for all. Empowerment isn’t just feeling the confidence to say “No, don’t do that” to a boss. Empowerment is being able to say that without fear of the sack.

 

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