No Minister

172

Hours that is. One hundred and seventy two hours is what shows up in my last fortnightly pay slip for the agricultural contractor I work for.

I finally have a Sunday off. A beautiful, lovely, empty Sunday after twenty consecutive days of 5am wake ups and 11pm bedtimes.

Others have more hours and I’m informed by those who’ve worked here for several years that two hundred plus hours per fortnight is a more normal harvesting season. We assume that it’s because we’ve had a long stretch of fine weather and started a little earlier than usual, so the load has been more spread out than in the past. The boys – and most of them are boys – are not happy about this since such incredible hours are a bonus on top of their other income earned on random jobs during the rest of the year. Without such work, times would be tough.

I’d probably be working longer hours were I on the chopper crews (maize chopping) that use tractors and trailers. Suitable only for short road runs from chop site to stack site, those drivers work deep into the night to get the job done.

By contrast my crews are all trucks because we’re serving customers located fifty kms or more away from the chop sites. The hours are limited by truck driving regulations: a thirty minute break after five-and-a-half hours driving; a ten hour break after thirteen hour driving; a twenty four hour rest break after seventy hours. The thirteen hour daily limit means that they have to be off the road by 7 or 8pm, having started at 6 or 7am – and “off the road” counts even when they’re being driven home by someone else.

Of course my specific work, and those of other members of the crews, like the chopper and stack tractor drivers, means that I’m still left with a one-two hour pack up and commute routine, but at least I’m getting home before midnight.

An alternative title for this post would be: “Rabid capitalist discovers the joy of government regulations” ! I doubt we’ll ever see a union though.

The technology may have changed but harvest has always been intense. I recommend a relatively unknown New Zealand book called Nearly Out Of Heart and Hope”, by the New Zealand historian Miles Fairburn.

It’s based on the 800,000 word diary crafted by one James Cox, an itinerant labourer who came to New Zealand in 1880 and died in 1925. The title of the book is one of the phrases he occasionally used when things were dark. Here’s a short sample of the dairy itself, which he wrote every night for thirty seven years, crafted by candlelight with pencil on little strips of paper (not being able to buy sheets) which he then folded up into tiny booklets:

“my shoes are got very bad… I have only one shirt I can wear, nearly worn out so I am in an evil case and cannot get either money or goods from the firm. Most of the fellows… are getting doubtful if they will get their wages at all. The firm appears to be nearly bankrupt.” 

After an even lower period of poverty in 1892/93, during which he took to the roads as a “swagger”, he found new work:

Things improved a little in 1894 when he found work with a Carterton agricultural contractor. He worked on traction engines harvesting grain until 1902. This was a harsh and unreliable form of work which was anything but romantic.

That sentence barely covers the raw detail provided by Cox himself and the more concise descriptions of such work by Fairburn: unrelenting days of tough physical effort in the heat and dust of Wairarapa summers with no showers at the end and just a shared tent with the other unwashed men. I get to return to a solid home and a hot shower and food, such are the wonders of the modern world. By comparison to that man I’m just slumming it.

James Cox

The book quotes only those portions of the diary that Fairburn can use to make his points, like any good historian. He struggles most of all with why this well-educated, sober and hard-working man never advanced his life beyond such toil. He was probably more suited to clerical work but he could have been in charge of the crews, indeed he was offered such work by his employer, yet for some unknown reason he did it only reluctantly and occasionally. He didn’t like it.

I think the reason Fairburn struggles is that he is trying to imposing rationality on yet another irrational human being (rational humans are the basis of economics and much other social science). When he turns to examining the ideology of the times and how it may have worked in the mind of Cox he fares little better. Niether does the sympathetic reviewer:

His account of the way in which the potent and pervasive Victorian ideology of self-help shut off opportunity for Cox is the best piece so far written in New Zealand on the way in which ideas influenced individual behaviour. Cox never realized that hard work and self-discipline were insufficient means of climbing out of the poverty trap.

Once he recognized that failure was probably a permanent state from about 1893, he maintained the code as a way of ordering his life and reinforcing his sense of superiority over ‘rough’ workmen. It seems that ideology not only justified the success of winners in the social laboratory: it also shaped the actions of losers.

I agree that hard work and self-discipline are not enough on their own. But the unspoken assumption of that reviewer is that they’re not really necessary either if those implied other factors exist: presumably things like unionised wage rates, unemployment benefits, free healthcare and other social welfare assistance (housing!).

In fact without self-discipline and the ability to work hard all those other things will also be found to be “insufficient” for lifting up the James Cox’s of the world. I think we’re seeing that around us every day.

No, in Cox’s case, despite all his admirable qualities, there was a strange seed in his mind that prevented him from rising and doing better in the world. Nothing that any government could have done would have changed that.

… labour reforms which also helped earn New Zealand the title of a ‘social laboratory’ apparently did not reach much beyond city limits and brought little help to Cox. Fairburn wonders if Cox was unusual but the reader is left with the feeling that many New Zealanders on low wages have long struggled to do little more than survive, and ended their days without savings or assets.

The sad and terrible truth I see every day is that this is still the case almost a century after James Cox departed this world.

This is his grave in the Greytown Cemetery and it was unmarked until 2013 when a Wairarapa historian, Adele Pentony-Graham, paid to have his headstone installed, “I felt it was the least I could do for him,” she said.

So say we all.

Written by Tom Hunter

March 28, 2021 at 9:30 pm

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Thank you for a very thought provoking post.
    My interpretation of James Cox, is that he chose the life he had and refused to ‘better’ himself on what we consider to be ‘better’ ourselves. Perhaps financial wealth was not a motivator for him. Without actually knowing the person, it’s only speculation as to his reasoning.
    People like James are still common today, and their biggest limitation is themselves.

    uncoffined

    March 29, 2021 at 11:30 am

  2. […] 172 – Tom Hunter: […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: