Week 11, Semester 2
When I heard the head of the Real Estate Institute of Australia telling renters to get a second job, I was so angry I almost had an aneurysm. Thankfully I had a copy of the Fair Work Act within reach, and after reciting a short passage I was able to make a full recovery. I was deeply upset at how Malcolm Gunning’s words of bourgeois lechery encourage a culture of unsocial work. If our graduate wages aren’t enough we’ll have no chance of taking this advice because we might already be working ourselves to death just with a single job.
The topic of work-life balance is a vexed one for us baby lawyers. Between paid work, volunteering, student society commitments and study, we are already working more than 38 hours per week and we haven’t even entered the workforce properly. We are already willing to subordinate ourselves for a chance at joining our overlords on level 10 (I hear they even have domestic servants up there, I’ve seen them in the elevators). The trouble is that we have created a breeding ground for exploitation.
We have already created social rules by which we have normalised unsocial work. Most of us wouldn’t bat an eyelid at giving up our labour for free to gain some experience working for a community legal centre, the LSS or even a corporate law firm. I’ve heard so many horror stories of ‘volunteers’ who aren’t allowed to say no to ‘volunteering’. In some volunteer gigs, there’s no excuse good enough to get you out of a day of work, no matter how busy or how unwell you are. Any attempt to avoid unpaid labour will be met with that haunting response – ‘this is just how it works, honey, everyone’s a volunteer.’
As we know, there is no enforceable contract covering volunteers. Rather, we adhere to a social rule by which we are coerced into subordinating our own interests in favour of whatever commitment we have agreed to, whether it be an unpaid internship or volunteering for the LSS. We are complicit in creating a culture of over-work because we don’t speak out against this abuse of power, and it’s an attitude that we will absorb and take into our future workplaces. If we can’t say no to unpaid labour now, how will we do it when we’re graduate lawyers?
The poor attitude to over-work is even reflected in our institution’s special consideration policies. We can’t even get class recordings if we’re just sick for a day or two, or to get special consideration to attend a funeral they suggest providing a death certificate. Far from fighting over-work like we are fighting for class recordings, we are accepting it as inevitable.
In theory, all full time employees are entitled to 10 days of sick leave, 2 days of bereavement leave and 20 days of annual leave every year. It is unlawful to take adverse action against an employee because of an illness, carer’s commitment or injury. However, we have such little respect for ourselves that as volunteers and students, we already accept less than the National Employment Standards. This attitude to unpaid labour will carry straight into our graduate jobs. We will feel uncomfortable asking our future colleagues for time off because we have never taken the time to stand up for ourselves in the past.
What is the point of living through a full career if we consistently have to work 50 hour weeks? What is the point of working two jobs just to afford rent? What is the point of bleeding ourselves dry at the Sacrificial Altar of Corporate Law if we have no free time to dance, sing, eat avocados and play backgammon? Will we really be living at all?
Work-life balance should start now, not just because we need it in the interest of providing everyone with an equal opportunity to do well in their studies, but because we will keep these habits for life. If we can’t even stand up for ourselves when we need a day off from an unpaid internship, how will we stand up to our future employers when we’re being worked to an early grave? Our peers at law school are the same people who will be our colleagues and our supervisors in 10 years. We should make it normal to say ‘no’ to unsocial work now before it’s too late.