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Injuries at work, and some implications

February 14, 2008

I haven’t been around a lot lately. Besides the time spent being exhausted from work, I have also thrown out my back slinging around 25 kg sacks of potatoes. (Hardly surprising, that.) This is my second week off work, while waiting to get in to see a doctor who can give me some papers to wave at management–welcome to the NHS. I went straight to a (quite helpful so far) osteopath, but employers are apparently less likely to be happy with a sick certificate from him. Since I can sit in this chair for more than two minutes at a stretch now, I thought I’d finally post some more.

This situation has helped provide some good illustrations that the personal is, indeed, political. Since this job involves food, even with the more rigid gender roles in Britain, it’s considered great work for the “weaker sex” (major cognitive dissonance, with all the heavy lifting and carrying)–with the attending low pay and lack of interest in Health and Safety. Low value is placed on the work, and on the workers. Low regard for safety led directly to my being injured two days in a row. The lingering headache from getting hit in the head the day before probably helped distract me from lifting as safely as possible. I was sent home without the head injury being listed in the accident book, because I didn’t know to insist at the time, besides being half-addled; the same with the back injury. It would be monumentally stupid for me to go back and do the same work under the same conditions, now that I can stand up straight again; I’d be amazed if the medical clearance includes heavy lifting, since what I’ve heard so far is that I never should have been doing it in the first place. Even if I wanted to continue doing it, I strongly suspect that now I’m considered a liability, and will be let go for one reason or another.

All of these factors are political, as is the fact that I’m purposely not mentioning the company’s name in a public forum. I’d also throw in the conditions leading to a crappy job in a grocery store looking like my best opportunity in this economy–including the adversarial, piss-poor formal education I received thanks to being a Native girl with slightly unusual neurology, high test scores, and blazing dyscalculia. Then there has been the fun of trying to find work as an immigrant woman with about 3/4 of a B.S. and no U.K.-equivalent qualifications. Then there is feeling like it’s in my best interest to keep quiet when the manager repeatedly makes ignorant, xenophobic comments about immigrants, Muslims, and the unsavory fact that Obama is multiracial and has still gotten support from the Kennedys (I wish I were making that one up; I still can’t figure out what is the least wrong thing about it)–all in front of the friendly neighborhood multiracial immigrant of a different religious background. This type of conversation is possibly even more uncomfortable, and definitely more likely, when one is wrongly assumed to be a member of the “in” group. That’s one hell of a situation to be placed in, and unfortunately common here, IME. The U.K.’s xenophobia problem is hardly limited to BNP supporters, as so many prefer to pretend.

On a more domestic note, there is also the fact that, in spite of myself, I found myself feeling guilty for being physically unable to stand up in the kitchen and cook supper several evenings. I actually apologized one night for asking DH to pick up some takeout. I’m fighting feeling guilty about still not being able to do a lot of cleaning, even knowing that it’s an unreasonable expectation in multiple ways. I’ve done a hell of a lot more than I should have around the house, given the state of my back muscles, which should come as less than a surprise.

None of this is whining, it’s all political, and I could continue ad nauseum. It’s gone close enough already.

The entire situation in which I’ve found myself recently has made me very aware of the privilege I do have, and upset that it matters so much. The really huge, obvious chunk of privilege is economic: we don’t need the money that much. DH works in IT, and we’re not about to starve for lack of the pay from a half-time job in a grocery store. My pay has mostly added a security layer for paying to have Punkin put back together again a while back, and buying some extras. Yeah, it’s also a political concern that DH pretty much automatically gets paid more for having a penis, besides getting more encouragement toward a higher-paying type of job. To the best of my knowledge, he wasn’t pushed toward becoming a K-12 art or music teacher by the system, in a time when headlines were screaming about arts education funding being cut.

This is a very different situation than the one my mother found herself in when she was not much older than I am: devastated financially by a divorce, and trying to support a kid and a husband who was badly hurt in a car wreck and then had cancer. With a college education, she worked a series of physically demanding jobs because that’s what she could find at the time. She got hurt about as one would expect, and just had to continue working with the bad back and other injuries and illnesses. When she tore a rotator cuff, the insurance company handling worker’s comp just refused to pay and let her (with the joke of a union) take them back to court, over and over, until she just couldn’t do it anymore–meanwhile she unlawfully dismissed, of course, and the employer did the same thing to avoid compensation. Now she’s been worn down into pretty bad physical shape, so that she’s had to go on SSDI. All that said, she was still in better shape than a lot of other working women, in that she did have the safety net of family support to fall back on, with enthusiastic child care and my grandmother’s huge meals when she was too tired to cook after work. They helped in a lot of other ways, too.

It’s truly frightening, the number of women in particular I know who have had similar experiences, and the situation just seems to be deteriorating for the working classes. (Paretsky’s Fire Sale addresses this well, through fiction, with the decrease in hopes.) My parents were definitely some of the downwardly mobile casualties in the ’80s’ erosion of the middle class. Yep, this is the type of person who is supposedly leeching off the rest of our tax revenue to support a lavish lifestyle of leisure. Mom has repeatedly cautioned me not to do the same thing to myself, finding a way not to get locked into the worsening system if at all possible. She should know.

As I touched upon before, I am also frequently aware of having a decent bit of privilege here because I speak English as a first language, and am assumed White. (Lots of us from the East are “white”, as 16th- and 17th-century French observers were so fond of pointing out in our favor, but that sure doesn’t make us White.) A lot of people, including actual Irish ones, seem to assume I’m Irish American once I open my mouth and SW Virginia comes out instead of something more Irish. So I frequently wind up in the category of “obviously not as good as us, but not one of those icky ‘real’ immigrant types”. So does DH, who is Swedish, and who’s listened to too many rants about immigrants. Probably much as those of my ancestors who adopted Irish or Highland surnames did, I do find it useful most of the time, but it is also unsettling. It frequently gives me a foot in the door, but frankly it’s about as useful for getting a good view of some very obvious xenophobic attitudes from a different angle than I would if I had more melanin. My mother, who does look more stereotypically “Indian”, was pretty amused at the observed difference in reactions when she was here for several months, and was frequently treated as more “foreign”.

One bit of previously unsuspected privilege both amuses and dismays me, still. The U.K. still has a far more class-conscious society, with more obvious outward differentiation, and we are nigh impossible to pigeonhole. Americans in general do not fit into the system here, much less those of us from determinedly egalitarian backgrounds. One can look at another person after one has started speaking, and just see the gears whirring as they try to fit the American English output into their class-based mental schema–it just doesn’t work. Our bearing, body language, and other visual cues are also nothing like what most people here have been trained to rely on reading. The result: a few suffer apparent processing meltdown, and have no idea how to deal with me; more seem to think it’s socially safer to assume that I am of at least equal social standing–possibly a good bit higher–and are more polite than they might have been otherwise. I have noticed the latter at work, repeatedly, and my mother got some dark amusement out of the same. If one is willing to be arrogant in dealing with the confused, one can get away with rather a lot. All this may work in my favor at times, but I feel bad about manipulating other people through their unfortunate social conditioning. Lois McMaster Bujold’s observation about egalitarians getting by OK in a more stratified society, as long as they get to be the aristocrats, strikes me as unfortunately true. This presents me with ethical quandaries pretty much every time I go out of the house these days–“when in Rome” just doesn’t cover it, for me.

This has turned quite a bit longer than expected or intended, and I avoided going off on a number of tangents! When you stop and look at it that way, it’s hard not to see a web of political implications in about any situation, though.

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