Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When a country flings wide its doors to foreign trade investments and foreign talent, it opens itself to rapid changes for good or bad. One of such outcome is the creation of a 'credentials society' where educational qualifications are prized over experience, competence and good thinking as the local workforce is forced to face competition from foreign talent with better qualifications who are willing to settle for less pay. 

WITHIN A SPAN OF 7 DAYS, I was drawn to two movies about the manipulation of the working class by those with power. Is this a co-incidence or simply a reflection of vibes on the streets that have gone to the big screen. Singaporeans, braced with a new level of social consciousness since the General Elections in May, will find hope in reflective self-upgrade [Larry Crowne] and the place for working together as a community [Made in Dagenham; pronounced 'dag-uh-n-uhm'] to build a society where meritocracy has wider interpretations than paper qualifications alone, and where no one is marginalised by age, education, race or because they do not fit a single social model of success.

Stories about workplace discrimination are familiar. One tells of a hardworking team leader of a big-box company [or megastore] who had garnered a string of 'Employee of the Year' awards yet faced discrimination for promotion because he 'was not matriculated into college'. The other is a real-life account of 187 machinists in the Ford factory in Dagenham, UK, who were downgraded from semi-skilled to non-skilled workers because they were women and expected to accept the decision.

So what do you do when faced with discrimination that seems like a personal attack against what you are not - a degree-holder or a man? What do you do when you are told it's the end of the road for you in spite of your proven capabilities and track records?

Larry Crowne took to lying in bed and crying for days. Suddenly, the meritocracy he believed in collapsed under the weight of a degree certificate. The mega store he had been running so efficiently had to let him go because the new management would only allow someone with a college degree for his post. His black neighbour, who presumably had a degree but ran a permanent garage sale out of his front yard, looked at Larry knowingly and said, "If they want you to go, they'd say anything." Ironically, a colleague who had once flaunted a college ring to Larry was later delivering pizzas to him - as a pizza delivery man.

Larry took a rational approach to his loss of job and regular income. He applied for a foreclosure on his house to cut mortage payments he no longer could afford, moved his furniture to his neighbour's garage sale yard, moved into a small apartment, and finally traded in his MPV for a scooter that ran on low-cost diesel. Then, he went back to school. The first two courses he took? Communications and Economics. For someone who was used to multi-tasking and motivating his team as a team leader at the big-box, the discipline he possessed was put to good use at college. He excelled.

In the 1960s, Ford Motors was the single largest foreign employer in the UK. Across the country, 55,000 men were employed at Ford factories producing automobiles while only 187 women machinists worked in sweathouse conditions to sew leather covers for seats and doors. It was so stuffy that the women undressed before they sat down to start work. At a time when women were expected to play subservient roles both at home and in society, no one took the machinists seriously when they had their first walkout in protest against the downgrade of their skills. The press didn't even show up. It was normal for men to be on strikes - since 1966, there were 26,000 strikes a year resulting in a loss of 5 million working days - and for women to support them, even when their work came to a halt as a result. But when the women took their campaign for equal pay to the national level, they were bullied by the men - in management, in unions, in politics, in the workforce and at home - to give up. More accurately, the men with power manipulated the working class men against their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. The tide turned when the key advocate for the women industrial action reminded the men that they were part of the working class that would benefit as a whole if working women had equal pay to bring home.

This may seem like ancient history when we look at modern society, but is it really? Aren't high-level women executives manipulated by materalism and the constant desire for the status symbols that keep them broke and needing to work long hours? As a result, more expensive holidays are needed to fix the repair of burnout. The modern woman - though better educated than their machinist predecessors whose class action brought about legislation for equal pay not only in the UK but also other countries - sadly, cannot afford to stop working or even to slow down. She has only known life with work: without work, there's no life.

Interestingly, in both films, the same scenes were being played out on the home front: being male had its 'privileges'. In Larry Crowne, Julia Roberts played a disillusioned professor who came to life only after a drink, and had to bear with a husband [PhD qualified no less] who justified his day-long pasttime visiting adult websites simply because he was just being a man. In Made In Dagenham, the main protagonist defiantly fought for women's rights to equal wage as the men, yet had to listen to her husband rant about how fortunate she was that he did not womanize, drink or lived irresponsibly.

Evidently, throughout history, the hardest battles for women are those fought at home.

Overall, totally enjoyable movies!