Chapter 26

Labour Pains

In his sorties to Breaker One, Sullivan O’Keefe House, and Breaker Two the emperor had picked up plenty of pointers as to what needed fixing, and even some ideas as to how. Finding ways to achieve reform would take innovation and—dare I say it—a certain amount of cunning.

The first thing he did was keep the promise he made to the people in the cafeteria at Breaker Two that Sunday afternoon. He appointed two senior secretariat staff to the working group and gave them direct communication with his office as well as wide-ranging freedom to make decisions. Rix offered a room at Breaker Two, and the first meeting was arranged for the following Wednesday.

We had filmed the forum at Breaker One and the meeting with Rix’s Ferals, so Marcus handed the videos to a small working group within the secretariat and charged them with listing and annotating everything that was discussed and all of the ideas put forward. He also gave that group April’s manifesto and told them to go through it with a fine tooth comb and summarise its contents. Marcus and Julia had made their own notes after the lunch for the FTS kids and their parents, and he made those available to the working group as well. The intention was to collate a list of problems and possible solutions, and he gave the working group three days to produce it.

Marcus passed to the secretariat’s legal team the copy contract the man at the Sunday lunch had provided, and instructed them to analyse it for breaches of federal law and violations of human rights. He also requested a comparison of the rights and obligations of the employer and the employee as set out in the contract. The team was directed to obtain court records of every case mounted by Angela’s organisation and compile a list of judgements made in those cases. They were also to provide a copy of those records for HI.

The secretariat head was given the job of coordinating and overseeing all of this activity, with the emperor personally taking part in discussions as time allowed.

First priority was the indentured workers. The emperor’s initial inclination had been to outlaw indentures. The particular form of servitude that they produced was little more than slavery. Someone at the secretariat came up with a better idea. It was rather sneaky, but it would send a powerful message to employers. The legal team would take on workers’ cases and prosecute them in court.

The secretariat set up an office in the vicinity of Breaker Two, staffed with a lawyer, receptionist and paralegal. They named it the Legal Advocacy Office (LAO). That was actually a front, because they didn’t want to advertise their real identity to the employers. All anyone knew was that there was a new law firm taking on workers’ cases. In fact, of course, they had all the resources of the palace secretariat behind them. With cooperation from Angela and her organisation, and using information gleaned from the court records, the team took on two cases. They won, spectacularly. Those victories encouraged them to continue.

HI began funding Angela’s organisation and they were able to take on many more cases. In addition, HI’s legal team took on cases involving FTS families.

The emperor personally intervened to ensure that LCAP, the independent body that was supposed to police the contracts, was properly funded and had sufficient staff to do its job as originally intended. Its director, found to have deliberately nobbled his organisation’s work, was sacked and prosecuted. LCAP resumed vetting contracts and, instead of rubber-stamping them, began rejecting the vast majority on the grounds that they were inequitable and stacked against the employee.

With three law firms now working on behalf of the workers, and LCAP no longer favouring them, the employers suddenly found themselves on the back foot, and losing case after case. The resulting publicity, helped along by an investigative documentary produced by Amy King and a team from News Network, brought a lot of pressure to bear on the employers and they began to cave. Those that saw the writing on the wall quickly began paying their workers reasonable wages, and began improving working conditions.

The employers’ organisation that had been promoting the bad contracts found itself isolated, and its directors were prosecuted—as were many of the employers, who were held personally responsible for the oppression.

Angela’s advocacy organisation continued to go into bat for employees, funded mostly by HI. The LAO office closed when there was no longer enough work for it, and the HI legal team needed to take on far fewer cases.

Having made the point, the secretariat stepped back.

After much deliberation, LCAP made a determination that indentures would be abolished, and a new scheme of vocational training was introduced. In the meantime, contracts were rewritten so that they gave the workers protection from exploitation. At last the indentured workers began to feel that they could live, rather than merely survive. They also had clear career paths.

All in all, it was a satisfying outcome.

Trust and Trustee

At long last I had the time to try and do something to help the kids at the orphanage.

I’d informed the director, Mrs Carter, fairly early on that I owned it. I’d told her that I didn’t know whether that meant the property or the business, or both. I kind of assumed it was both, since the entry in the list of properties from the chip simply said ‘institution’.

Mrs Carter had told me that the orphanage was owned by a trust, and managed by a small board, of which she was part.

I’d left it at that until one day I was talking to Darm. “I’d love to help the kids at the orphanage,” I said, “but I don’t know anything about this Reinem Trust, so I don’t know what I can do.”

He pricked up his ears. “What’s the name, again?”

“The Reinem Trust.”

He started laughing.

“What’s so funny?” I asked, indignantly. Darm could be exasperating at times.

“Write it down,” he replied. “Do you know how it’s spelt?”

“Yes,” I replied, my hackles still raised. “It’s R-E-I-N-E-M.” I wrote each letter as I said it. “See?” I said, shoving it under his nose.

Darm gave me a look that seemed to combine amusement and pity. “Echo, look at it closely,” he said, quietly. “Try writing it backwards.”

“M-E-N— Oh, good grief!” I looked at him, the significance of the name registering in my slow brain. “Come with me!”

I dragged Darm down to the secretariat and asked the guys to see what they could find out about the Reinem Trust.

What they discovered was a bit startling, but, having seen the way my parents had dealt with other matters, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

As Mrs Carter had told me, the nonprofit trust owned and operated the orphanage. It had been set up by my parents in the months before they were lost, and, as Lucien Döhm, I was the sole trustee. The members of the board were to act as administrators until I reached the age of sixteen years. Operating funds, adjusted for inflation, were deposited into the board’s bank account each quarter.

That explained why Mrs Carter had described the trust as ‘very hands off’—she and the board had enjoyed complete freedom in running the orphanage, restricted only by the trust’s terms and conditions, and the funding it provided. And government regulations.

I called Mrs Carter and asked if I we could meet. “I’d like to talk about the orphanage,” I told her.

Darm had no engagements that day, so he accompanied me when I went to see the director. I always felt comfortable with Darm around. He provided moral support, but, more than that, with his sharp mind he was good at helping me out of the scrapes I got myself into.

Mrs Carter greeted us warmly. “It’s always a pleasure to see you, Echo and Darm!”

She had met Darm on one of his first visits there with me, so she knew not to stand on ceremony. “How are you both?”

“Oh, you know,” said Darm, “a grand opening here, a show and tell appearance there…”

I was mortified, but Mrs Carter roared laughing. “Oh, I know all about you, Crown Prince Darmian,” she said. “Elk has told us all manner of stories.”

I broke up into giggles at the expression on Darm’s face. “Advantage Mrs Carter!” I said. Darm blushed.

“We’re well, thanks,” I said, turning to Mrs Carter. “Just ignore my cheeky distinguished friend here.”

We all laughed.

After explaining that I owned the Reinem Trust, and would take control of it on my sixteenth birthday, I asked Mrs Carter what changes she would make if she had unlimited funds. “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but I think there is scope for improvement, and I am prepared to increase funding.”

I added that my aim was to make life better for the kids, but I also wanted to help the management and the staff. I reckoned that if I supplemented the orphanage’s finances we would be able to provide better living and working conditions, and free the director and her staff from having to prioritise expenditure.

Between us, we identified several areas where there was potential for change.

The quality of meals was a priority for me. Mrs Carter chuckled. “The meals are balanced and nutritious but you’re right, reconstituted food is rather bland, and it gets boring.” She agreed that, with increased funding she would be able to include more fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as real meat, in the menu.

At present the orphanage kids had limited opportunities for extracurricular activities. I said I hoped I would be able to provide funding in that area as well. “Oh, Echo,” the director said, “I would be delighted if we could set up special-interest programs, as well take the children on more outings. Kids need variety, but we’ve simply never had the funds to cover more than basic needs.”

The number of places for children was limited, too, and Mrs Carter confirmed that there were many kids who needed help but the current level of funding meant they could not be taken in.

I told Mrs Carter about my low expectations for life after high school, and how the idea of leaving the orphanage and everything I’d known was scary. The way the system worked meant that the older kids had to make their own way in life once they finished high school. “I’d like to see them open up their thinking, so they don’t need to aim low. I want to provide scholarships so they can attend university if they wish. And I would like to make some sort of accommodation available so they don’t have to fend for themselves when they are too old for the orphanage, whether they start work or continue study.”

Mrs Carter told us that, although the orphanage’s teachers were first class, she would employ specialists in several fields if she had the money. “Some of the students just can’t develop to their potential in our school. For instance, we have a girl in Year 9 who is a brilliant musician, but we can’t afford to hire a tutor for her. And a boy in Year 6 has his heart set on a career in physics, but he needs specialist teaching that we can’t provide. We can only give him the standard education in the sciences.” Her face took on a sad expression. “Echo, there are students here who have a lot of potential but most of them will end up in dead-end jobs, simply because we can’t give them the education they need. If you can change that, society as a whole will reap the benefits.”

Mrs Carter was enthusiastic about the improvements more funding could procure, but she was cautious about expanding the existing setup. She felt that the orphanage was an ideal size. “I suggest that, rather than extend the present facilities, we look at opening new ones,” she said, “and that could include specialised accommodation for the young adults who age out of the orphanage.”

She urged me to meet with the board to ‘check the lay of the land’, although she was sure the members would embrace my ideas with enthusiasm.

The board consisted of two women and two men in addition to Mrs Carter, who was a member by virtue of her position as director. I had expected some opposition to a teenager coming in and taking over, but apparently my reputation had preceded me, and, as Mrs Carter had predicted, they were excited to have the opportunity to do more for the children. They were keen to go ahead immediately, choosing to brush aside the fact that I was not yet old enough to assume control of the trust.

“We see what you’ve achieved through Help Incorporated,” the chairman said. “If you can do something similar here, I doubt that any of us will object.” He made the point that they would have to relinquish their positions, anyway, when I took over the trust. I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking that it would be helpful to keep the board. They had done a good job and I didn’t want to lose their expertise.

Some changes were easy to apply.

We took on a specialist music teacher, which caused the girl musician to do cartwheels across the dining room, where she happened to be when she was told. She didn’t lose her huge smile for days. With a tutor to inspire them, and a variety of instruments to choose from, more kids took up music, and the orphanage school soon had the makings of a small orchestra.

Mrs Carter organised an academic and aptitude assessment of Abel, the boy who aspired to a career in science, and his teachers were amazed at the results. Sadly, it seemed we wouldn’t be able to help him fulfil his dream. Even hiring science teachers who specialised in physics would only advance him a little. A chance conversation I had with a Döhm laboratories manager in the cafeteria one day ended with an invitation for Abel to visit the labs. I took him there myself. The questions that twelve-year-old asked! I had no idea what he was talking about, but the managers and staff thought he was the best thing since Isaac Newton. Abel himself was in his element, and he was so excited he didn’t stop talking all the way back to the orphanage.

The manager who had issued the invitation contacted me the following day. “Echo, that kid you brought here blew us all away. None of us at his age had the grasp of scientific principles and theories that Abel has. We all think he needs to be in an accelerated learning program, and we’d like to sponsor him. Would you meet with us so that we can set up a plan for him?”

That led to Abel’s spending two days every week at the labs. He absorbed everything the scientists could throw at him. Another two days a week he attended a specialist school that provided advanced classes in the areas that interested him. The lab staff provided transport, and he stayed overnight with the family of one of the scientists. The fifth day Abel attended his normal classes at the orphanage. The new regime was hard work but he thrived because he was now challenged and motivated.

Abel’s success resulted in other students undertaking similar programs in various disciplines.

Some of the changes we wanted to make took planning and preparation, as well as additional resources.

I had thought that improving the menu would be easy, but the orphanage kitchen was geared to pushing out reconstituted meals. They were ordered and stored in bulk, and the kitchen had equipment that warmed the meals en masse. The staff had to reorganise their ordering and storage practices, and change their workflow so they could prepare fresh meals. We also needed to install new equipment and employ additional staff. That all took time to organise, but the wait was worth it. The first new meal was greeted with cheers from the kids, which brought smiles to the faces of everyone in the kitchen.

A couple of the boys, known (and loved) for their pranks, set up a little memorial in one corner of the dining room. It was a replica of a reconstituted meal set on a low plinth, with “R.I.P.” and the date inscribed on the front.

We carried out research to find out how other facilities providing accommodation for young adults operated, and then mostly disregarded it, deciding to forge our own path.

The board, Mrs Carter, and I crammed into a classroom with the orphanage’s Year 11 and 12 students, and asked about their hopes, ambitions, and needs. Overwhelmingly, they felt apprehensive about leaving the safety of the orphanage at the end of high school. They had ambitions, but those were tempered by reality. Like I had, they aimed pretty low because they felt that aspiring to anything higher was doomed to failure.

“We’re stuck in a catch-22 situation,” one of the boys said. “We need money to get an education beyond high school, but without a higher education we won’t have the income to pay for it.” He threw up his hands in despair.

“And we’ll have living expenses,” a girl added. “Somehow we have to pay for that, too. I just can’t see how we can study and provide for ourselves at the same time.”

“There are online courses,” another said, “but they cost money, too.”

“There are apprenticeships, but they don’t pay enough to live on,” said a boy at the back of the room. I recognised him as one Mrs Carter had described as bright and capable, but not academically inclined.

“What if you had the money?” I asked. “What if you could go to uni, or study online, or take up an apprenticeship, and had a place to live? Would that change anything?”

Another girl was frustrated. “Sure it would change things. But it’s never gonna happen. Get real!”

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s break it down a bit. Imagine you have somewhere to live, at no cost to you, as long as you need it.”

There were murmurs all around the room.

I continued. “Now, assume that you have a full scholarship to study whatever you want. Or support to find employment if you don’t want a tertiary qualification.”

I had to raise my voice to be heard as the murmurs turned into a hubbub. “What do you think now? ”

“Are you serious?” the boy at the back asked. He shook his head. “You’re kidding, surely?”

“No, I’m not kidding. As you’re aware, I lived here for more than ten years of my life. I had the same low expectations you have. Then I found out I was actually someone else.”

There were chuckles. They all knew my story.

“When I found out that I owned the orphanage, I immediately wanted to make changes. Especially to the menu.”

That brought laughter.

“It’s taken time, but you’ve seen some of the things we’ve been able to change. Now we want to help you guys. The board and I have been throwing ideas around.” I paused to look around the room. There was a new sense of anticipation.

“First, accommodation for you guys. Mrs Carter and the board are willing to provide that here at the orphanage. We just need to know what form it should take, so we’re hoping to have your input on that.”

The kids’ eyes were beginning to light up.

“Second, education or work. There will be money available to ensure that everyone who wants to go to university will be able to. As long as you keep passing your exams the finance will continue until you graduate. For those who don’t want a uni degree, we will support you so you can follow your chosen path. In both cases there will be counsellors to help you decide what to do and how to do it, and support to make sure that it happens.”

When the students realised that they would have the opportunity to aim for their wildest dreams, they were able to raise their expectations. It was inspiring to see the resignation on their faces change to hope and then delight as they came to realise that they might actually have a chance of making it in the world.

We asked them what they felt would be the ideal accommodation for them. For most of the kids life in the orphanage was all they had known. It felt like home, and the people there were like family, so they were reluctant to venture too far away from what they were used to. Most of them indicated that as they grew older they appreciated more what Mrs Carter and her staff had provided at the orphanage with the limited resources available. Rather than taking it for granted, or rebelling, they valued everything that had been done for them.

One of the girls made a typical comment. “I’ve spent nearly my whole life here. I barely remember my parents, and Mrs Carter and the staff have substituted for them in a way that I can’t describe. Sometimes I wonder what life would have been like if my parents had not died, but mostly I look back with gratitude for the home I’ve had here. The thought of leaving when I finish Year 12 is pretty scary.”

By the time the meeting broke up the board had plenty of ideas to work with. In the end we decided to build a new facility on the same site. The students would be largely independent, but would have all the familiar amenities of the orphanage close by when they needed them, including Mrs Carter’s motherly love. The current Year 11’s and 12’s would move in as soon as the building was ready. In the future students would move into the new accommodation once they advanced to Year 11.

For those who were interested, we arranged for the Year 12 students to visit several universities. They were able to sit in on lectures and meet with staff to obtain information about the courses that interested them. These visits allowed the kids to get a feel for the campuses and see how they worked. It was all a bit intimidating for them after the rather cloistered environment of the orphanage, but they had plenty of support and we tried to ensure that the experience didn’t overwhelm them.

Another initiative was a work experience program. After talking with the Döhm executives I set up a scheme that allowed Year 10 students to spend a week of each school holiday period working for DöhmCorp in various capacities. They were paid junior rates. The hope was that the program would provide experience of life outside the orphanage, give them an idea of career paths available, and help them to learn financial management. It also led to Döhm staff mentoring the kids. Although not all students benefited to the same extent, the program worked well enough that we extended it to include students from the Help Incorporated school.

I was in the Döhm cafeteria one day when one of the work experience kids caught up to me. He looked different out of his school uniform, but I still recognised him.

“Hey, Nico, how’s it going?”

“Echo, this work experience stuff sucks. I have to get up early, dress up, work hard all day, and I barely get home in time for tea, and I’m missing out on the school holidays.”

I was rather shocked. Then I noticed the glint in his eye. “Well, welcome to the real world, mate. Them’s the breaks. Which would you rather have… the hard yakka, or no money or experience when you get kicked out at the end of Year 12?” It was all I could do to keep a straight face, especially since we both knew that kids would no longer age out of the orphanage.

Nico looked worried, until he twigged that I’d returned like for like. Sometimes I’m not so slow.

His look changed to one of surprise, then he punched me on the shoulder. “Aw, man, you’re kidding me!”

I punched him back. “Yep. What did you expect?”

We both laughed, then joined the serving line to get our meals. Over lunch we were joined by a few more of the kids. They were working in different parts of the company, but each one said the same thing: they were grateful to DöhmCorp for giving them the opportunity to experience a working environment before they had to do it for real. They found it hard to believe that they were getting paid. A couple of them even thought they might have found their vocation.

HI established a new youth membership at the sports centre and encouraged the orphanage kids to join. Many of them did, and reaped the benefits of having fun and keeping fit in a welcoming atmosphere. Döhm staff widened their mentoring efforts to include the new members.

More money also meant that we were able to take the kids on outings. Some were purely for fun, like a day cruise on the harbour, and a visit to an amusement park. Others were educational, including a visit to the air and space traffic control centre, which widened their horizons in more than one way.

Acutely aware that I’d never been taken on a holiday while I lived at the orphanage, I decided we should allow the kids to enjoy time away. To start off, I took three girls and two boys on a grand expedition to museums and art galleries, similar to the tour Yoso had enjoyed with Errol and Daisy. We were away for two weeks and the kids had a blast. So did Darm and Yoso, who went with us as helpers. We had adult chaperones, and, naturally, we had to have Darm’s and my security detail. The kids soon got used to the guard members and treated them as older brothers and sisters. That was different for Darm and me, because our guard details were normally all male.

The tour was something of an experiment, but it was so successful that we set up a schedule that would give each child two weeks away every year. The kids were able to choose a tour or activity that suited their interests, and we allowed them to make suggestions so that they felt more involved.

By the time all of these changes were in place, my sixteenth birthday was approaching. The board members had proved invaluable, and I’d enjoyed working with them, so I was reluctant to simply allow them to relinquish their positions. There was nothing in the articles of association to prevent the board from continuing as administrators after I took over the trust, so I asked them to stay on. Each one accepted. One of them told me, “Echo, it’s been a pleasure working with you, and gratifying to see the changes that we’ve been able to achieve. I’d love to continue to be part of what you’re doing here.”

Eventually, the trust went on to establish two more orphanages as well as the young people’s accommodation. A number of the Year 12 students obtained university places, and others took up online study. Of the remainder most began apprenticeships with various employers, including Help Incorporated, while some began work as interns in DöhmCorp.

Sadly, two young people decided to opt out of our care. Despite their own, and our, best efforts, they succumbed to the ways of the world and descended into drug addiction. Both died within six months of leaving us. Everyone at the orphanage was saddened and frustrated that two promising lives had been cut short. The good thing to come out of the situation was that we were determined to try harder to make sure it didn’t happen again.

The finance for all the changes came from my personal funds. I had more money than I would be able to spend in my lifetime, and reckoned I might as well put it to good use. The payoff came when I saw young people happy that they’d been given the opportunity to make something of their lives.