Maxine Beneba Clarke
A starting wage

                         and we were all waiting

for that golden age,

                     of fourteen and nine months

and a starting wage


a paper route, stacking shelves at franklins,

or working checkout at the safeway

sweeping salon floors at the local mall

             (that was me, circa nineteen ninety-four)


couple months in, mum said

                     what’s the pay?

and i knew it was bad

        by the look on her face

begged her please don’t call the boss

                    but she was mum,

and she did it anyway


next weekend, the salon fell silent

as i slunk in, ashamed,

                     past offcuts curls, and

dirty bleach trays, into the staffroom

to put my backpack away


cold-shouldered for two hours,

       they’d forgotten they hated me

by midday


that weekend

                     my yellow pay envelope

contained six dollars twenty an hour,

          and time and a half for the sunday


it felt like a gift,

    what was rightfully mine


i was there for twelve months,

                     and never got the back pay


there is a mastertheft happening

                             somewhere in australia

every second of every day

                     a small-hearted “self-made” man

is made big, by the workers

        he chooses not to pay


        and it’s always an accident,

and an oversight, and an underpayment


the law lets walk

                     the seven-million-dollar men

who steal the wages of working australians


and even then, the liberals bray

for unwieldy sanctions

on the union folk

               who fight to save them

batting for the kids without mothers like mine,

and grown-ups just happy to have a job,

’cause we all know what happened

     to the last kitchenhand

                                who dared to whine


unpaid overtime is saving the industry

                     if you don’t fucken like it,

give the apron to me


there’s a new lot behind you

                                          we’re happy to pay


and they’re ready at the pass

of that golden age


         fourteen and nine months,

                                           and a starting wage

Maxine Beneba Clarke is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil. She is a winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry.

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