His hands are more wrinkled than a sultana now; he looks like a man a whole decade or two older than he is. His eyes are sunken and his cheeks are stretched across the bone with little fat left between. It’s the thighs that get to me most, the pants the hospital gave him only betray a suggestion of their true emaciation but I can tell that they’re frighteningly thin. Across from him sits a visitor for the other patient in the room. We find out that he’s also 80 but if I had to guess I would have said a whole decade younger at least. He looks jolly, with round fatty cheeks that catch the light coming in from the window, not stretched over the bone but round and full between his few wrinkles. He looks something like what I suppose my grandpa would have looked like if he hadn’t spent so many years working at the wharf.

The wharf sounds like an utter hellhole to me now – the wharfies were constantly losing fingers left right and centre or narrowly avoiding death due to lax safety standards and drunkenly operated machinery. I’ve been told stories of how overbalanced cranes led to grandpa’s head nearly being taken off by a shipping crate, which missed him by only a centimetre and ripped off part of his ear. It was the constant injuries that prompted him to become the safety officer on-site for the union (the ever-militant Maritime Workers Union). But the union couldn’t do anything about dangers posed by the drinking; extremely drunk men operated every crane on the wharf. The workers would start drinking at 6am – the pub would open up early just for them. Round 2 would start a few hours later, followed by lunch, followed by mid afternoon drinks, followed by several rounds from closing time until the pub shut its doors at 6pm. The drinking was a necessary coping mechanism to deal with a life that entirely revolved around work, but it was also what led to diabetes, liver problems and rarely seen families.

It took a while to realise that it wasn’t the drinking that did it. It was working a shitty job for most of his life and many other things that lower class families have to deal with. It makes me wonder if I’ll also end up ageing so prematurely, not because I work in a pre-workplace-safety hellhole like my grandfather but because I can already see shitty jobs taking their toll on the bodies of my friends. I can already see a close friend from high school whose back has been ruined partly because of heavy lifting in shady hospitality jobs working for a cokehead. I can see that it isn’t physical conditions that are taking the biggest toll; the people I care about are having their mental health ruined.  

The most depressing part of it is that many of the people I know who can’t work are the ones who don’t have a body they can put in danger in the same way. People who are unable to work due to constant mental or physical pain, or the very real but often delegitimised limitations of a disability. We’re not told what happens when someone wants to work but can’t find anything that doesn’t require physical labour.

Centrelink can help a few, but working as a carer for the past few years has led me to realise that Centrelink doesn’t provide enough for a disabled person to live in anything approaching comfort. In reality the small wage isn’t enough to pay rent for anything more than a sharehouse, an entirely unrealistic situation for someone with a serious illness or disability. Many people live with carers whose pension is actually high enough to pay rent, but this forces people into situations where they are economically as well as physically dependent on their carer. This isn’t a liveable situation if there are other factors at play such as if the carer is abusive or is suffering from drug addiction, yet the economic realities mean people are stuck in this situation. There is no illusion of class mobility when people are forced onto an extremely low fixed income, often for the rest of their lives.

Again we’re not told what should happen when a person doesn’t qualify for a pension or worse, is kicked off one when a new “welfare crackdown” comes around. Such situations leave people in limbo where society’s expectations are contradictory because the justifications for exploitation fall apart. We aren’t told how to function if our labour isn’t worth anything economically, especially when welfare breaks down in the face of politics.

This has made me realise two facts: our bodies often determine our class, and our class determines what happens to our bodies. I can’t offer a solution to this (bloody hell I’d get a Nobel Prize if I could) but I do know it’s important to understand how our expectations of those unable to work are contradictory or set impossible goals, and how our incomes, our working lives, will all affect our bodies one day. Perhaps that is the first step to something better.

Words By Hayden Dalziel