Companies including Wal-Mart, Gap and Target opted out; retailers cited fear of lawsuits over pact’s terms.
The death toll from the recent collapse of a factory mill in Bangladesh is now over 1,000. It’s been reported that many workers were aware of the risks but went in because they would otherwise be fired.
Regulations and unions are discouraged by international companies, which makes Bangladeshi labor cheap, turning the country into the world’s largest producer of garments. Thus, many of the same companies that demand to be unregulated have just demonstrated the sort of standards they will follow if left to their own devices.
Contrary to popular belief, this race to the bottom for cheap labor isn’t part of some thoughtful attempt to reduce prices for consumers; if anyone analyzes the pay structure and profit distribution of most public companies, they’ll find that there’s plenty of money available to pay workers well, keep prices low, and still enrich shareholders. Corporations keep raising the bar of what they consider profitable, and are concentrating more and more of profits to the top, at the obvious expense of an expendable army of low-wage workers.
Under mounting pressure, several companies agreed to a landmark plan to help pay for safety improvements in Bangladesh’s garment factories.
Do you agree with the following? Discuss.
Attending to personal matters—for instance, a phone call about a sick child—is typically discouraged during “work” time, and a majority of people don’t have any control over when they can take a break during the workday. Thus, the workplace regime is fundamentally hostile to all forms of reproductive work and domestic labor. It is a system where work and home are seen not simply as opposites, but as antagonistic.
Let’s look at a few examples of this antagonism:
— According to a study cited by author Jody Heymann in the book The Widening Gap, nearly 60 percent of working class people, men and women, have no control over their start or end time at work, and 53 percent can’t take time off to care for sick children.
— And yet people are forced to spend even longer hours at such workplaces, away from their homes and families. This is because wages are so low for the majority that a 40-hour workweek is not enough to keep poverty at bay. According to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, in 2006, American families worked an average of 11 hours more per week than they did in 1979.
— Working parents get little or no financial support, either from the government or from private companies, to help pay for child care costs. And yet, unless you’re Marissa Mayer, you can’t take your child to work. According to a recent report by Child Care Aware of America, the cost of child care for two children is more than annual average rent payments in many states, while in 35 states, the average annual cost for infant care exceeds a year’s in-state tuition and fees at a four-year public college.
— The problem of child care is reduced but does not end with the start of public schooling for children, because school ends long before parents typically get out of work. According to Joan C. Williams in the book Reshaping the Work Family Debate, the gap between “work schedules and school schedules has been estimated to average 20 to 25 hours a week” and “an estimated 39 million children between the ages of five and 14 participate in no organized system of supervised activities after school”
How can such a work regime even attempt to respond to the messy, diverse, beautiful and unique needs of human beings and their actually existing families?
But work is not an “option” for most people. Jobs cannot be avoided and their demands are as persistent as those of a hungry infant or the need to cook. Indeed, it is their mutual exclusivity and equal importance that determines that some form of accommodation must be made between the two spheres. The most common forms of this accommodation are:
(a) one person stays home to take care of the home and children, while the other goes to work;
(b) one person is forced into part-time or seasonal work, always with less pay and usually with no benefits, while the other person has a full-time job;
(c) single parent-headed families or families where both parents work full time end up constructing what one sociologist calls “crazy quilts” and “tag teams” of caregiving where the entire burden of crafting a care system for their children or an elderly family member falls on the individual families.
It goes without saying that in the scenarios above, women are disproportionately the stay-at-home parent, and this structurally forced domesticity brings with it the attendant isolation, economic vulnerability, depression and lack of self-worth.
Since 50 percent of American marriages end in divorce, the economic crisis is further compounded when the “breadwinner” leaves. As a result, two out of three of the elderly poor in America are now women.
In a country where a quarter of the arable land—the best land—is already monopolized by less than 1% of the farmers, the Honduran ‘agro-oligarchs’ want to acquire the 10% of Honduran land still owned by its peasantry (who make up 70% of the country’s farmers).
It is easy to understand their voracity. The global demand for palm oil has tripled from two million to over eight million tons over the last decade. Thanks to renewable fuel targets in the U.S. and Europe (that neither can fill with their own stock) lucrative markets are opening for agrofuels. Financial investors view agricultural land as an $8.4 trillion market. The planet’s land rush is heating up and Honduran elites are not going to be left behind in their own backyard. The Aguán Valley—where the two peasant activists were murdered—is the theater for relentless grabs of peasant land
Women have long been expected to put on a smile and flirt at work, from nurses to domestic workers to waitresses to sex workers. In fact, the obligation to be happy and comforting was a big part of the few career paths offered to women in the 1960s as the transition from the homemaker model began to slowly give way to working outside the home.
One of the few jobs women could get was flight attendant. As Gail Collins wrote in her book, When Everything Changed, most flights were full of male passengers and some even barred women from flying. But women, while kept from flying the planes, were sought after to be stewardesses. “[T]he airlines were looking for attractive, unmarried young women,” Collins writes, and even fired women who had husbands. There were limits on weight that were strictly policed to ensure that the women remained attractive. “The airline industry [argued] with a straight face that businessmen would be discouraged from flying if the women handing them their coffee and checking their seat belts were not young and attractive,” she wrote. The industry took things pretty far:
In 1971 National Airlines began its “Fly Me” campaign, in which lovely young women in flight attendants’ uniforms purred, “Hi, I’m Cheryl/Donna/Diane. Fly me.” Continental announced, “We really move our tails for you,” and Southwest introduced itself as the “love” airline, where passengers would be served “love bites” and “love potions,” otherwise known as snacks and drinks. Meanwhile the women who were dispensing the love bites, moving their tails, and (later) promising to “fly you like you’ve never been flown before” were being dressed in miniskirts, vinyl, hot pants, and—in the case of TWA—paper clothes, such as togas, cocktail dresses, and “penthouse pajamas,” that were supposed to match the entrées.
One can only imagine the attitude and smiling requirements that went with such jobs. A flight attendant couldn’t just show up and serve drinks to passengers; she had to act out the part of a happy, flirty hostess.
Now these practices, once reserved for young, attractive women, have spread throughout the economy and apply to both genders. Yet we still undervalue these emotionally demanding jobs. As Andrew O’Connell writes, men get a nearly 9 percent wage boost when they move to jobs that require increased cognitive labor, yet they take a nearly 6 percent cut in pay if they move to jobs that demand higher emotional labor. Women don’t get a penalty for moving into emotional labor, but they certainly don’t see a wage boost, as their pay stays flat. Perhaps this is because we still think of this as women’s domain, even though men are increasingly expected to do it too.
Meanwhile, women were the guinea pigs in another disturbing trend: the rise of the temp worker. As Erin Hatton wrote in The New York Times recently, the temp industry has added more jobs in the United States than any other over the last three years. The recovery period has undoubtedly seen the replacement of full-time jobs with part-time and temporary ones. Part-time employment grew from just under 10 percent in 2007 to over that in 2010, even though the percentage of workers in those jobs who would rather full-time work doubled. Temp jobs look even worse: they accounted for over a quarter of all new private sector jobs created in 2010, even though they were only about 7 percent of the jobs created in the wake of the 2001 recession. Hatton notes that employers could have chosen to invest in workers and their products. Instead, they took the low road.
The workers of Vio.Me., a building materials factory in Thessaloniki, Greece, which was abandoned by its bankrupt owners, have been unpaid since May of 2011. This week, after a series of general assemblies the workers convened, they’ve started occupying the factory and operating it under direct democratic workers’ control. The culmination of a year-long struggle that has attracted attention and solidarity in Greece and worldwide, the occupiers are trying to kick-start production and prove themselves a viable new model.
An isolated incident, a bold experiment, or a sign of things to come?
Companies claim that the reason they can’t hire people (or pay those they do hire better) is that demand for their goods and services is low. Economists have similarly noted that a lack of demand is a major reason our economy is so sluggish. Here’s the problem: it’s precisely because people are jobless and underpaid that demand is low - without disposable income, people obviously aren’t going to buy things.
Indeed, that’s part of what started this crisis in the first place: 30 years of stagnant wages and incomes meant that people had to take on debt in order to pay for even basic things. Corporations are making record profits and sitting on almost $2 trillion of capital and assets. If they invested in paying their workers better or hiring more people, they’d create the market they’d need for their goods and services. Workers are also consumers, something Henry Ford observed almost a century ago when he paid his employees 3 times the average wage, leading to greater sales and more profits for his company.
And it’s not that many companies are making profit in spite of the economic downturn, but because of it, generally speaking of course. Joblessness makes people desperate enough to accept worse pay and fewer benefits. Productivity continues to rise even though wages haven’t kept pace. The basic bargain between workers and bosses has eroded.
The fact that companies seem either ignorant or apathetic to this problem gives lie to the notion that “business experience” has anything to do with being able to fix the economy. Running a company and helping to manage an economy are two different things. The former is about making profit for one entity and its shareholders, the latter is about improving conditions for society as a whole.
Of course, the same companies that claim they can’t afford to pay workers better often have plenty of money - millions in fact - to enrich executives and shareholders with. Not only is this an ethic quandary but it makes little practice sense. It’s economically more useful to pay thousands of people better than to concentrate that wealth in the hands of a relative few. The former will stimulate the economy far better than the latter.
Of course, all this something of a collective action problem, as companies can’t always be coordinated to act in the interests of the economy. Again, business corporations aren’t formed for the public good. That is precisely why it’s traditionally been left to the government to be the “lender/spender” of last resort, through public works programs, unemployment insurance, stimulus spending, and the like. The problem is that our government either didn’t do these things as robustly as they should have, or did so incompetently - unlike, relatively-speaking the governments of Canada, Australia, or Germany, whose economies are performing far better than both are own and the developed-world average.
All of this raises another important point: the reason demand is so important in our economy is because our society, and by extension our economic system, is too consumerist. We shouldn’t need to keep buying things in order to thrive, especially since the environment cannot sustain such habits indefinitely. It’s easier said than done, but we need to reconsider the social and ethical values that place so much importance on endless consumption as a driver of prosperity. It’s a viscous cycle that the planet can’t support.
An Oregon woman opened a package of Halloween decorations to find this desperate letter allegedly written by Chinese laborer. The letter, which, so far, has been neither verified nor debunked, describes the horrific labor conditions of the worker’s factor. Read more about it here.
Many people think that the defining struggle of the 20th century was the one against totalitarianism, and that the 21st century will be defined by the struggle against corporations. In fact, there is continuity between the two centuries. The fact that a totalitarian political economy was overthrown does not necessarily mean that democracy has been restored.
Democracy functions insofar as the people meaningfully participate in the public arena, directing their own collective and individual affairs without the illegitimate interference of concentrations of power. Democracy also presupposes relative equality in the access of material, informational, and other resources. In theory, governments exist to serve their domestic constituencies, which approximate the population. Democracy functions insofar as theory approximates reality.
The central finding of this report is that the majority of America’s lowest-paid workers are employed by large corporations, not small businesses, and that most of the largest low-wage employers have recovered from the recession and are in a strong financial position.
- The majority (66 per cent) of low-wage workers are not employed by small businesses, but rather by large corporations with over 100 employees;
- The 50 largest employers of low-wage workers have largely recovered from the recession and most are in strong financial positions: 92 per cent were profitable last year; 78 percent have been profitable for the last three years; 75 per cent have higher revenues now than before the recession; 73 per cent have higher cash holdings; and 63 per cent have higher operating margins (a measure of profitability).
- Top executive compensation averaged $9.4m last year at these firms, and they have returned $174.8bn to shareholders in dividends or share buybacks over the past five years.
Three years after the official end of the Great Recession, the US continues to face a dual-crisis of stagnant wages and sluggish job growth. Critics argue that a higher minimum wage will discourage companies from hiring, and that most low-wage employers are small businesses that are still struggling in a weak economy. In fact, this report demonstrates that the majority of low-wage workers are employed by large corporations, most of which are enjoying strong profits.
While the outcomes are muddled, for the most part it seems that this legislation benefits business owners at the expense of workers by weakening an already declining organized labor movement. It looks like yet another way of furthering inequality.
For many years (especially since the recession) there’s existed this canard that a major weakness in our economy is a lack of skilled workers to fill in the hundreds of thousands of job vacancies available. Aside from the fact that companies are no longer willing to invest in training their workers, there’s another problem with this notion: it’s wrong.
The secret behind this skills gap is that it’s not a skills gap at all. I spoke to several other factory managers who also confessed that they had a hard time recruiting in-demand workers for $10-an-hour jobs. “It’s hard not to break out laughing,” says Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, referring to manufacturers complaining about the shortage of skilled workers. “If there’s a skill shortage, there has to be rises in wages,” he says. “It’s basic economics.” After all, according to supply and demand, a shortage of workers with valuable skills should push wages up. Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of skilled jobs has fallen and so have their wages
In a recent study, the Boston Consulting Group noted that, outside a few small cities that rely on the oil industry, there weren’t many places where manufacturing wages were going up and employers still couldn’t find enough workers. “Trying to hire high-skilled workers at rock-bottom rates,” the Boston Group study asserted, “is not a skills gap.” The study’s conclusion, however, was scarier. Many skilled workers have simply chosen to apply their skills elsewhere rather than work for less, and few young people choose to invest in training for jobs that pay fast-food wages. As a result, the United States may soon have a hard time competing in the global economy. The average age of a highly skilled factory worker in the U.S. is now 56. “That’s average,” says Hal Sirkin, the lead author of the study. “That means there’s a lot who are in their 60s. They’re going to retire soon.” And there are not enough trainees in the pipeline, he said, to replace them.
In other words, people don’t want to get paid less for jobs that should technically be paying more. Go figure. Sadly, it looks as it it’ll become a self-fulling prophecy:
One result, Sirkin suggests, is that the fake skills gap is threatening to create a real skills gap. Goldenberg, who has taught for more than 20 years, is already seeing it up close. Few of his top students want to work in factories for current wages.
Isbister is seeing the other side of this decision making. He was deeply frustrated when his company participated in a recent high-school career fair. Any time a student expressed interest in manufacturing, he said, “the parents came over and asked: ‘Are you going to outsource? Move the jobs to China?’ ” While Isbister says he thinks that his industry suffers from a reputation problem, he also admitted that his answer to a nervous parent’s question is not reassuring. The industry is inevitably going to move some of these jobs to China, or it’s going to replace them with machines. If it doesn’t, it can’t compete on a global level.
It’s easy to understand every perspective in this drama. Manufacturers, who face increasing competition from low-wage countries, feel they can’t afford to pay higher wages. Potential workers choose more promising career paths. “It’s individually rational,” says Howard Wial, an economist at the Brookings Institution who specializes in manufacturing employment. “But it’s not socially optimal.” In earlier decades, Wial says, manufacturing workers could expect decent-paying jobs that would last a long time, and it was easy to match worker supply and demand. Since then, with the confluence of computers, increased trade and weakened unions, the social contract has collapsed, and worker-employer matches have become harder to make. Now workers and manufacturers “need to recreate a system” — a new social contract — in which their incentives are aligned.