City Standard

Rise of the robots: Welcome to a world without wages

Johnny von Einem
Josh Geelen
Eddie White
Royce Kurmelovs

It was supposed to be a job for life – but Dave Grant had only been at the company for five years when the end came. One day, the Mitsubishi American executive flew into town to tell everyone at the company their jobs were safe for years to come. The next minute, the executive quit and Mitsubishi was shutting what was left of its Australian operation.

“At the time I was just thinking about dollars,” Dave says. “Nowadays I miss the shit out of it. Good money. Good wage.”

Around the same time, Dave’s marriage came apart. It was his second and his best. The end, Dave says, had nothing to do with losing his job. To cope, he hit the bottle pretty hard, until he decided his severance money wasn’t going to last forever and he needed a job.

Dave tried going back to carpentry, but since he had never been formally qualified, the company asked him to drive the delivery truck. He didn’t have a licence, but it was a job, so Dave did it at least until the government paid for him to pick up a licence through a fund for ex-car workers.

After that he drove delivery trucks and eventually went to work running deliveries for Electrolux, five times a day. He had his own ABN and all the paperwork. There was no leave and no union, but it was a job.

Starting out, he was pulling $18 an hour, which went up to $18.50 after a few years, and $19 by the end. He was making about $700 week at the time, though he lost $100 when Electrolux outsourced part of their operation.

Dave doesn’t work anymore, though. He doesn’t drink, either. He quit cold turkey one day years ago, and his son nagged him into quitting smoking three years ago. Dave’s grateful for that. He’ll be 58 in October and he’s living in the “good part” of Davoren Park, he says. His sister works in finance and mortgages, so she’s doing alright. She bought him the place so he’d have somewhere to stay after the cancer diagnosis.

When the doctor first told him about the tumour in his prostate, he’d suggested Dave take a year off work. Dave couldn’t afford that though. He owed money on his four cars – his only possessions that mattered – so he kept working for a year before it all got too much, and he had to draw on $20,000 of superannuation from Mitsubishi to settle up.

Now Dave’s getting his blood checked every six months, and he’s waiting to hear back about his application for the Disability Support Pension because of the spinal injury he picked up at the plant. His crook back makes it hard to get around in the morning. Sitting down hurts.

Outside, a kid no older than 14 walks by smoking a cigarette.

“That kid’s got no idea,” Dave says, and starts talking about the future. It’s all immigrants and imports, he reckons. Everything comes in from overseas, cheap, and when it falls apart, we go out and buy more. Someone out there might be getting rich, Dave says, but it isn’t him.

“We used to build quality,” Dave says. “We used to build our cars beautiful.”

-RK

Someone out there might be getting rich, Dave says, but it isn’t him.
Holden’s manufacturing plant at Elizabeth shut down in October 2017

The story of manufacturing’s demise in Australia is old news. In the last decade, 25,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared from the SA economy alone. But, the end of manufacturing is only the beginning of an era that will see the twin forces of automation and globalisation wreak havoc across all our industries – eviscerating the weekly wage and the social stability it supports, and leaving an unknown future in its place.

In the lobby of the Elizabeth Holden manufacturing plant, a polished car sits at the edge of a run of red carpet bearing the licence plate “LAST UTE”.

CityMag’s expectation of entering a factory filled with the clanging and banging of mass manufacturing jarred against the calm silence of the office staff who motion us toward the sign-in sheet.

Through the glass doors of the lobby’s back entrance, there are hints of the scene we’d imagined – an expanse of manicured lawn, adorned with a large ornamental fountain, stretches out toward other factory buildings.

The entire Holden site is a regal 122 hectares.

A relic of the past on display at the old manufacturing plant

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