“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own.”
(Moby Dick, chapter 49)
Since July last year I’ve been working part-time at a Vietnamese restaurant, as a waitress and cashier. Today was my last day at work. I’ve quit.
I’ve quit before finding another job.
Why? Though I have a temper, and can sometimes act before thinking and fuck everything up, it wasn’t an impulsive act in a heated moment. In most things in life, there’s a line, and once you cross it, there’s no way back—long story short, my boss said something that at that point my options were either leaving or staying with the implication that there was no line and that from then on she could say whatever she liked to me, as though I had no self-respect and depended on her and needed her more than she needed me. I couldn’t allow that.
To be frank, I should have left a long time ago, which my friends urged me to do. It was a bad job, my labour was literally exploited, I felt like a slave. I stayed for the money, and for experience—in both senses of the word, working experience that I can include in my CV and bring to another workplace, and more importantly, personal experience of working in a restaurant, working for Vietnamese immigrants, and being close to the working class*. Without the experience, how could I know what I know? So how bad was the job, you’d like to ask. To paint a full picture would require a whole book, I can only give a few facts:
- Low pay. Without disclosing the precise amount, I will only say that my pay per hour is lower than the price of a single takeaway dish.
- No extra pay on weekends or on holidays. Except for 24 and 25/12, the restaurant is always opened, which means that the employees work on New Year’s Eve, on New Year’s Day, on Lunar New Year’s Day, during Easter, on 1/5, on 17/5 (Norway’s national day)… for the same wage.
- No extra pay when exceeding limit of working hours (overtidtillegg), because the numbers are changed in the notebook.
- No pay during sick leave for those who are paid by the hour (timelønn).
- No tips—all money, including tips in cash, goes to the boss.
- No insurance, at least no mention of it in the contract.
- No julebord, no New Year presents.
- The pay is often late. Usually people have to ask for salary. Sometimes, someone’s salary is forgotten altogether.
- 4 cameras for surveillance of employees (not customers), viewable on the boss’s iPad and phone.
Now you get the idea. And I’ve just thrown out a few facts.
Here’s another fact: my boss owns 2 restaurants, and the other one gets a lot more customers than this one. However, in order to pay less tax, she deliberately doesn’t own a house.
Isn’t that unfair? The ironic part is that this woman came to Norway as 1 of the boat people, fleeing from an authoritarian regime, and the name of the restaurant is to me a rather political name—now look at how she treats her own people. Not only does she exploit people’s labour, but she also abuses them verbally, by complaining, scolding, shouting, insulting and humiliating. But no matter—her business still flourishes and she travels several times a year. People come and go indeed, but there are always others that come, and even if they go after a while, which they usually do, there will be others. In this game she will never lose.
Is there any justice in life? I think of all the people I know of who are unkind and awful, or even cruel, ruthless and inhuman, yet never suffer; and wonder where is God’s punishment? where is karma? where is justice? I see none.
My only choice, my only way of resisting, was to be Bartleby. Work continuously for more than 8 hours? I would prefer not to. Work on New Year’s Day, 1/5 or 17/5 for the same wage? I would prefer not to. Sacrifice a trip? I would prefer not to. Cancel my concert plans? I would prefer not to.
Now, after a while, I dropped it all together. I quit.
But I didn’t want to be Bartleby. I poked around, did some research, read some laws, and contacted Arbeidstilsynet. Imagine my agony as I read their answers to my questions:
- Norway doesn’t have a general minimum wage (generell lovfeste minstelønn). Certain jobs such as construction workers or cleaners have a minimum wage, but there’s no such thing for waiters.
- There are no laws about extra pay on Sunday or bevegelige helligdager. However, according to law, workers are entitled to extra pay on 1/5 and 17/5, which are considered høgtidsdager.
- There are laws about overtid, but because the numbers are corrected in the notebook and the employees don’t object, there’s nothing I can do about it.
- Surveillance of employees is legal.
- There are no laws about who gets the tips. It depends on agreement between the employer and the employees.
Apparently, Norway doesn’t really protect workers as most people think. I felt like being slapped in the face—no, knocked in the head. Because the laws are non-existent, my boss hardly violates anything—her actions may be condemned as inhuman, but can’t be called illegal, and that means I can’t do anything about it.
Any wish for “revenge” is now thwarted.
Oh the hopelessness! The despair!
*: Considering my hostility towards Marxism, I’m not fond of seeing people in terms of class, and I definitely don’t look down on the people in this restaurant, but it would be naïve to suggest that there are no differences whatsoever between them and the intellectuals with whom I often associate.