If my Facebook feed is any indication, reality TV show Married at First Sight is much mourned for its recent conclusion. Even so, its whole premise remains a concept that eludes me.
I do not begrudge people their taste for horror movies or the Kardashians, so I’m hardly going to lay into anyone enjoying what looks for all the world to be both. I’ve gently avoided all six seasons of the program and indulge myself with more realistic entertainment. Like Star Trek.
But I fell to earth last week when reportage revealed the interests of MAFS’ stars aligned closely with my own. Namely, their most enduring relationship may be as avatars of Australia’s ongoing low-wage crisis.
Last week, Telv Williams, from MAFS 2018, was quoted in News Corp’s Confidential, claiming the notoriety gained by show participants was bought cheap. He claims a mere $150 a day – without expenses – was paid to featured contestants in his season, despite employment conditions that amounted to unstable short-term contracts, and working round-the-clock, on call. That’s almost $300 a week less than what the median full-time wage was in Sydney at the time.
“It’s shit, it’s rubbish,” Williams said. “Everything is off you own fucking back … You gotta do your own hair and makeup. You gotta do your own dress, buy your own clothes.”
Spare a thought for participants of earlier seasons. The whole MAFS gig is to have the most intimate details of one’s personal life spread out on the television slab – but season two contestant, Jono Williams, told KIIS FM in 2017 that he was paid only $150 a week for his exposure, albeit without having to relocate from his home.
This phenomenon needs a name. Given the damage trash TV is known to wreak on the lives of its participants, “drecksploitation” springs to mind.
MAFS clocked audiences as large as 2.4 million for some episodes – a thunderous ratings winner for Channel Nine, translating into dazzling levels of profitable ad revenue.
So the reality component of MAFS turns out not to be about love, but money, and the disparities of income proportional to profit across the country that it mirrors.
Australian wages on the whole rose only 0.5% in the last December quarter, according to the ABS. In the construction industry alone, profit growth last year was 24.2% in nominal terms – but wage growth amongst its workers was a tiny 1.5%.
Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe was repeating his warnings about the economic danger of low wages in front of the government as recently as February. And 120 labour market researchers signed an open letter calling for interventions to boost wages, listing the risks: “weaker consumer spending, greater household indebtedness and financial stress, slower growth in government revenues and widening inequality.”
Last week – and a political eon ago – debate raged about the affordability of electric cars in the future. Not mentioned enough was that low wage growth means consumers can’t afford cars, right now – electric or not. Industry website Car Advice wrote of a 7.9% drop in new vehicle sales this year.
It’s the lowest first quarter tally since 2014 – leading the ABC to conclude “it is very plausible that new car sales are an early warning sign of impending (economic) doom”.
It’s not the only one. Even though house prices have fallen, there’s been a 16 percent drop in first-home-buyer loans this year. Low wages are blamed for a retail slump. The chief economist of the ABS that “soft household spending” lay underneath Australia entering “a per capita recession”.
The conservative insistence that if you don’t like what you’re getting paid, get another job – MAFS contestant or not – doesn’t really hold water when already there are 3.63 jobseekers for every known vacancy in the labour market – a figure that blows out to 9.7 if part-time workers trying to find full-time jobs are counted in.
And those who’ve been reassured that a rich post-MAFS future awaits in, um, event coverage and Instagram influencing should take note: in chilling news for gig economy workers, the income those holding down more than one job to pay the bills declines in proportion to the number of jobs they hold. Recent ABS data told it plain: the median income from a full-time job is $48,344 a year. For those working two jobs, it drops to $44,531. Add a third or fourth, it drops again.
No one is held at gunpoint and forced to go on MAFS – as much as that would make a truly exciting new reality TV premise.
But what everyone should be watching is how these people are working for truly less than a shadow of the profit earned from their labour.
That alone should say everything working Australians need to know going into this election.
Because even people whose lives are retailed as a commercial entertainment product to an audience of millions have, like the rest of us, found themselves married to the most aggressive employment culture in Australian living memory. It’s a culture prepared – at first sight – to pay its workers as precisely little as it knows it can get away with.