Jack Tame: Hard to catch a break in 'No Vacation Nation'


Anyone fortunate enough to have spent more than a week or two holidaying in New York will tell you Times Square is the worst place in the world.

Sleazy. Cheap. Tacky as tiki salad servers but without the kitschy redemption, the billboards and lights provide only momentary distraction from what is a grimy, charmless, crowded and overhyped intersection.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to be running errands at 42nd and Broadway on a Saturday night, weaving through the babbling masses as they poured from nearby theatres and restaurants to gaze up and amble about in search of new ways to blow their cash.

Many paused by the ubiquitous costumed oddballs, dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants or Michael Jackson, posing for tips. Three separate people were garbed as the Statue of Liberty in separate parts of the square. They each wore the same costume, all trawling for the same change.

I was moving as quickly as one can in Times Square, trying to appear as disinterested and curmudgeonly as possible.

"You look like a fun guy!"

I'm not.

"How about tickets to a stand-up comedy show?"


Nearby, men in red polyester jackets offered discount seats on an open-top bus tour. The ever-present and never-witty "need money for weed" mob held up cardboard signs reading just that. On Saturday night at the crossroads of the world, I wallowed in unreasonable, ungrateful self-pity as the world's tourists swarmed and delighted. They were Australian. European. Asian. I even heard the rising Antipodean inflection of a tourist from closer to home, and turned to see a few-seasons-old All Blacks jacket wandering off into the nether. But in the tourist heart of New York, the only American voices I heard were from those still on the clock.

You could spot the Slavs, eye the Italians, find the Frenchies and pick the Poles, but domestic visitors were scant.

In a country of some 300 million, there's a simple reason: the United States is the only advanced economy on Earth not to guarantee its workers a paid break. There is no Federal requirement to offer paid leave - it's simply up to an employer's discretion. As a result, a quarter of private sector employees receive no paid holidays whatsoever, and even those in more fortunate positions average just 15 days' paid leave a year.

My comparisons with New Zealand's employment law have been greeted with bewilderment and envy. It's best not to mention the legal leave requirements in the UK or Scandinavia. Even Tunisia guarantees twice the US average. As a study by the US Centre for Economic and Policy Research notes, America has become the world's ultimate "No Vacation Nation".

In the past I've been quick to criticise what I perceived as international ignorance in parts of US society.

Naively, I could never fathom why so many Americans had never owned passports or travelled overseas. But if millions don't have the time to play tourist in their own country, there's little hope of seeing the rest of the world. And as with everything, it's the poor who miss out.

In low-paid jobs without contractual holiday pay, many people risk losing their jobs by taking leave without pay. Many couldn't afford to, anyway.

A grinning German family gathered around SpongeBob. A British girl in an unnecessarily short skirt cooed at an NYPD cop. In Times Square on Saturday night, I hoped someone else might soon see the light.

- Herald on Sunday

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