A Tale of Two Revolutions

by Rebecca Barnett

When I was in year 6, one of the other classes in my year did a history unit on feudalism. My class didn’t study feudalism but I informally learned a lot about the subject from that other class. Let me explain …

My primary school bestie was in the feudalism class and the very first thing students did before any formal learning began was to draw lots from a hat to determine where they sat in the feudal hierarchy. In other words, class members were randomly assigned their role in society.

I knew about the hat draw within an hour, when recess ticked around. My bestie rushed over to see me in the playground and I expected that we would hang out in our customary fashion, wishing we had remembered to pack some Iced Vovos in our school bags. Instead, I received a hurried explanation of why we wouldn’t be hanging out at all for the next fortnight. You see, my friend had drawn lowly “serf” in the feudal lottery and she had a very narrowly defined set of things that she was allowed to do. She hurriedly explained the rules of the role play that would apply to her school interactions and activities, all the while nervously sidelong glancing to see if her lord was within eyeshot, witnessing this early act of rebellion. There were real penalties and consequences for going out of line, like detentions and extra duties. And she wasn’t allowed to mix with friends from another class (pun intended). Suddenly the lack of Iced Vovos didn’t seem like a big deal.

For the benefit of our international audience, I give you the Iced Vovo. Not as heralded as the Tim Tam but an Arnott’s classic nonetheless.

And then my friend raced off to buy a caramel space food stick at the canteen for her impatient, hungry feudal lord. (We were still in love with space travel back in that era, even during a feudal role play exercise.)

I learned a lot of stuff in primary school that I have completely forgotten. Due to a strict, old-fashioned teacher in year 5, I was a better grammarian, a more fluid arithmetician, a far more legible penman at 10 years old than I am now. I could even play treble recorder without making the family cat hopeful that there was some saucy feline yowling their midnight heat in the ‘hood. I have long since forgotten the words to the second verse of “Advance Australia Fair” but I have never forgotten the lessons I learned from a class I wasn’t even in. The feelings of outrage and confusion at the random unfairness of not being able to play with my best friend for a whole, endless two weeks have stuck with me over a lifetime. It was a lesson in acceptance of fate that I doubt I will ever forget.

There’s a lot more I could say about the truly fascinating dynamic and scandals that erupted over the ensuing week of this feudal experiment for my entire year 6 cohort (the teacher ended the experiment early because the lesson had well and truly been embodied). The power struggles and abuses of power; the cruelties of a life circumscribed by rules outside your control and influence; the random unfairness of life … all of these are worth exploring and worthy of their own blog post but I am already 542 words into this one and at risk of missing the point of the anecdote.

In the end, medieval feudalism was brought down by a pandemic – the Black Death. Labour become scarce, the peasants revolted against their no longer sustainable serfdom and thus the Peasants Revolt brought down a system that for centuries had bestowed privilege, wealth and land on the basis of random assignment at birth. (Except we keep repeating ourselves but that’s also a story for another blog post.)

The New Black (death)

COVID-19 appears to have gifted us in much the same way as the feudal experiment I took part in as a credulous primary schooler. Phew, it only took 646 words to get there! Feelings of outrage and confusion at the random unfairness of not being able to ‘play’ in the same way with friends and loved ones for 5 months – and no promised timetable for an end – can’t be mollified with a few sneaky Iced Vovos either. We have a somewhat narrowly defined set of things we’re allowed to do. Our lives are circumscribed by an invisible malevolent force over which we have very limited control and it has stretched our capacity for acceptance to the limit.

There are revolutions and revolts, big and small, fomenting across the globe. In our own small backyard, COVID-19 has had a tumultuous effect on the massage therapy industry in Australia. As the first wave of the pandemic started peaking, the industry ruptured around two broad camps: those who focused on the far-reaching public health implications of COVID-19 and assessed the community risk from receiving massage as unacceptably high, and those who felt that massage therapy should be an intrinsic part of the front line healthcare response to the pandemic. There’s still a long road ahead to heal this rupture and establish a stable professional identity that can withstand the challenge that a public health emergency represents.

And then there’s the individual practitioners, who are still figuring out how to earn a living wage when at least a third of their working lives is now dedicated to screening, cleaning, disinfection, ventilating and getting accustomed to routine use of PPE.

COVID-19 has forced therapists to rethink and re-imagine practice, adding a host of new tasks to the job description of a massage therapist: amateur virus transmission detective, forensic cleaner, WHS expert, public health educator, environmental engineer, and risk assessor. The labour is undeniably more complex, challenging and mentally fatiguing than it used to be. It’s also worth a lot more than most therapists feel comfortable charging. I do hope there is some revolting on this front. Good revolting, that is. You know what I mean  – breaking the shackles of our self-imposed serfdom.

COVID-19 also brutally exposed one of the biggest structural weaknesses of the industry – the crisis of insecure contract work that leaves massage therapists vulnerable to long-term financial risk and exploitation. This has now been amplified by the serious workplace health and safety risks associated with working in a close contact occupation (often in settings that do not have adequate risk minimisation strategies in place). You only need to look at the healthcare worker infection rates in Victoria for evidence of what can go – and indeed has gone – wrong.

Since the end of April, AMT staff have provided countless hours of advice, support and counselling to distressed therapists (many not even AMT members) who were being harassed into returning to work in practices and settings where they didn’t feel safe due to an absence of COVID-19 protocols. Many therapists walked away from contractor roles because the lack of workplace health and safety protections were the straw that broke the camel’s back and there was nothing in their pre-COVID compact to bind them. In the end, all care and no responsibility cuts both ways.

You can stretch a metaphor too far but there are some early signs of a contractor revolt emerging from the chaos left in COVID-19’s wake. The pressing and real need to have autonomy and influence over risk management and infection control is making massage therapists seriously interrogate the sustainability of an industry engagement model that leaves them in a no-mans-land between not quite employee and not quite independent contractor in charge of their own destiny.

Insecure employment is the biggest workforce development issue for our industry. As sucky as COVID-19 is, let’s hope it provides the impetus for us to be revolting in the best possible sense and lay the foundations for a more secure, sustainable and prosperous model that appropriately recognises the value of the labour that massage therapists provide.

The caramel space food sticks are on me …

About the Author

During the peak of the pandemic in Australia, Rebecca Barnett was accused of acting more like a Union Secretary than a CEO. Now that she is a fully fledged communist, she actually thinks Iced Vovos are disgusting. She prefers a more serious biscuit. Spekulatius anyone?

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  1. Bernadette Kirkham
    28/08/2020 - 9:53 am

    Superbly written Rebecca Barnett !

    As children we notice unfairness. As adults we must not only notice the unfairness and not accept it BUT to all use our voice to push for change.
    Solidarity is required .

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