Economists never say much about work. They talk about the supply of and the demand for labor, but they have very little to say about the nature of the work we do. Like most commentators, they seem to believe that modern economies will require ever more skilled work, which will be done in clean and quiet workplaces, by educated workers, who will share in decision-making with managerial facilitators. We should disabuse ourselves of such notions. In the world today, the overwhelming majority of workers do hard and dangerous labor, risking the health of their bodies and minds every minute they toil.
The International Labor Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, issued its Global Employment Trends this past January. The report examines unemployment, poverty employment, and vulnerable employment. The unemployed are those not working but actively searching for employment. The working poor are those with jobs that do not provide above a threshold amount of money. Two thresholds are used: $1.25 per day (in 2005 prices), which is “extreme poverty,” and $2.00 per day, which is just “poverty.” People in vulnerable employment are the self-employed (called in the report “own-account” workers) and unpaid but working family members in the household of the self-employed. In most of the world, vulnerable employment is what is known as casual work; the workers who do this do not have formal arrangements with an employer, such as a labor contract with stipulated wages. A man selling lottery tickets on a street corner, a woman hawking tamales in a parking lot, or a teenager offering rickshaw rides are examples of vulnerable employment. A child helping her mother sell the tamales is an example of an unpaid family member doing vulnerable work. In all countries, and especially in rich ones, not all self-employment is vulnerable. However, in all countries, but mostly in poor ones, the vast majority of the self-employed are poor and vulnerable.
The ILO estimates the number of people in each of the three categories (unemployed, working poor, vulnerably employed) in 2009 under three scenarios. The deep economic downturn now afflicting most of the world has befuddled most economists, who neither saw it coming nor have been able to say how much worse it will get. To compensate for the uncertainty enveloping the global economy, the ILO economists have made three estimates of the three labor market categories. The details of the three “scenarios” are not important for our purposes. But, given the severity of the “great recession” we are now experiencing, the deepest since the 1930s, the third or pessimistic scenario seems the most realistic. Relief is nowhere in sight, especially for the world’s workers.
Here are the numbers for 2009, under the pessimistic scenario, for world unemployment, working poor, and vulnerable employment:
Unemployment: 230 million (7.1 percent of a world labor force of about 3.24 billion)
Working Poor (using $2 per day as poverty threshold): 1.377 billion (about 46 percent of total world employment of about three billion)
Vulnerable employment: 1.606 billion
Two points must be made about these numbers. First, the number of unemployed might seem low to some readers, given the depth of the economic collapse. However, in most of the world, open unemployment is not an option; there is no safety net of unemployment compensation and other social welfare programs. Unemployment means death, so people must find work, no matter how onerous the conditions. Second, the categories of working poor and vulnerable employment are partly overlapping. A self-employed person can be both vulnerable and poor, and he or she is counted in the labor force. However, an unpaid family member is only, in the statistical definition, vulnerable; he or she is not counted in the labor force. These are statistical quibbles. No matter how you look at the numbers, they are staggering indicators of what the world of work is really like.
To these gloomy numbers should be added another: there are, by ILO estimates, at least 200 million child laborers in the world today. The ILO classification of child workers is complex, but suffice it to say that 75 percent of these youthful toilers are engaged in the worst forms of such labor: trafficking, armed conflict, slavery, sex work, and dangerous and debilitating occupations like construction, brick making, and carpet making.
It is not uncommon for working children to live in the countryside or to have been forced from their rural homes, sometimes “leased” by their parents, and made to work in the cities. The parents are peasants, two billion strong, and their future is increasingly precarious. Their connection to the land becomes more tenuous every year, and every year they become citizens of what Mike Davis calls the “planet of slums.” No amount of economic growth will absorb them into the traditional proletariat, much less better classes of work.
For nearly everyone in the world, work is hell. The sad truth is that the many have to be demeaned, worn out, injured, mentally and physically deformed, and all too often killed, on the job so that a few can be rich. I am aware that the statistics have been made worse by economic crisis. But when GDPs begin to rise again and unemployment rates fall, will the world of work be transformed? Will we begin to “slouch toward utopia,” to use the pathetically inapt phrase of Berkeley economist, J. Bradford DeLong, who really believes that we are on the way toward a middle class world of high-income and satisfied workers? I can promise you that we will not.
The devil, they say, is in the details. So, to give greater force to the data, I have added some concrete examples. I am sure that readers can add many of their own.
* Consider the automobile worker, Ben Hamper, who, in his book, Rivethead, describes a visit to the plant to see what his father does. He says,
We stood there for forty minutes or so, a miniature lifetime, and the pattern never changed. Car, windshield. Car, windshield. Drudgery piled atop drudgery. Cigarette to cigarette. Decades rolling through the rafters, bones turning to dust, stubborn clocks gagging down flesh, another windshield, another cigarette, wars blinking on and off, thunderstorms muttering the alphabet, crows on power lines asleep or dead, that mechanical octopus squirming against nothing, nothing, nothingness.
Hamper calls the modern automobile plants, pioneered by Toyota, gulags.
* Consider Mira, a child prostitute in Bombay, at age thirteen sent by her parents from her village in Nepal to work, they thought, as a domestic servant. There are at least 20,000 child prostitutes in Bombay, “displayed in row after row of zoo-like animal cages.” We are told,
When Mira, a sweet-faced virgin with golden brown skin, refused to have sex, she was dragged into a torture chamber in a dark alley used for “breaking in” new girls. She was locked in a narrow, windowless room without food or water. On the fourth day, when she had still refused to work, one of the madam’s thugs, called a goonda, wrestled her to the floor and banged her head against the concrete until she passed out. When she awoke, she was naked; a rattan cane smeared with pureed red chili peppers had been shoved up her vagina. Later, she was raped by the goonda. “They torture you until you say yes,” Mira recently recounted during an interview here. “Nobody hears your cries.”
* Consider Irfana, a Pakistani girl sold to the owner of a brick kiln at age six. Here is how she described her life:
My master bought, sold, and traded us like livestock, and sometimes he shipped us great distances. The boys were beaten frequently to make them work long hours. The girls were often violated. My best friend got ill after she was raped, and when she couldn’t work, the master sold her to a friend of his in a village a thousand kilometers away. Her family was never told where she was sent, and they never saw her again.
* Consider the lace maker, Mary Anne Walkley, immortalized by Karl Marx in his book, Capital. Mary Anne died 146 years ago, but her story could be told today and not just of child workers like Mira and Irfana, but by hundreds of thousands of garment workers laboring in sweatshops every bit as bad as that of Ms.Walkley, and not only in Pakistan and India but right here in the United States. If you look up from the streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown, you see the steam from hundreds of sweatshops where today’s Mary Anne Walkleys work away their lives. Marx tells us that
In the last week of June, 1863, all the London daily papers published a paragraph with the “sensational” heading, “Death from simple over-work.” It dealt with the death of the milliner, Mary Anne Walkley, 20 years of age, employed in a highly respectable dressmaking establishment, exploited by a lady with the pleasant name of Elise. The old, oft-told story, was once more recounted. The girl worked, on an average, 16½ hours, during the season often 30 hours, without a break, whilst her failing labor power was revived by occasional supplies of sherry, port, or coffee. It was just now the height of the season. It is necessary to conjure up in the twinkling of an eye the gorgeous dresses for the noble ladies bidden to the ball in honor of the newly-imported Princess of Wales. Mary Anne Walkley had worked without intermission for 26½ hours, with 60 other girls, 30 in one room, that only afforded 1/3 of the cubic feet of air required for them. At night, they slept in pairs in one of the stifling holes into which the bedroom was divided by a partition of board. And this was one of the best millinery establishments in London. Mary Anne Walkley fell ill on the Friday, died on Sunday, without, to the astonishment of Madame Elise, having previously completed the work in hand….
* Consider cruise ship workers. Cruise ships usually register in countries such as Liberia and are therefore immune to U.S. labor law. The employees who do the most onerous work are invariably people of color, typically from poor countries. Their pay is low, and their hours are long. If they get severely injured on the job and need hospital care, they are often forced to fly back to their home countries for care, even if better care is available in the United States. One worker from a Caribbean nation slipped on a kitchen floor while carrying a large pot of oil. The oil severely burned his leg and foot. He was taken out of a hospital in Anchorage, Alaska and forced to take several flights home. He called his mother in desperation and managed at a stopover in Miami to contact a lawyer his mother knew of through a friend. The attorney managed to get him care in Miami, and then sued the shipping company. The company retaliated by contacting the immigration authorities who promptly deported the man.
* Consider the restaurant worker, Mr. Zheng. In Manhattan, restaurant workers often toil for upwards of 100 hours per week for as little as $2.00 per hour. Here is how a reporter describes Mr. Zheng’s life:
Three years after arriving in this country from the coastal province of Fujian [in China], Mr. Zheng, 35, is still working off a $30,000 debt to the smugglers who secured him passage on a series of ships. He can devote very little of his meager busboy’s salary to rent, so he has 11 roommates. They share a studio bracketed by triple-tiered bunk beds, with a narrow passage like a gangplank between them. One bachelor household among two dozen others in a complex of three low-rise buildings on Allen Street, they split a rent of $650 a month, paying about $54 each.
Like the others, Mr. Zheng keeps his scant belongings in a plastic bag above his mattress, nailed beside the herbal-medicine pouches and girlie pictures that decorate his rectangle of a wall.
* Consider the New York City cab driver, Koffee, an African living in the city for thirty years. Here is an interview with him, conducted by the newsletter, Punching the Clock (PTC):
PTC: So what kind of hours do you drive?
Koffee: Twelve hours, five to five.
PTC: Do you mind working a twelve hour shift?
Koffee: That’s how the industry, you know, they do it. In less than twelve hours you don’t make nothing….Sometimes you can work twelve hours and go home with about $20 in your pocket.
PTC: What do you do with your free time?
Koffee: Free time? I relax. With this job, after twelve hours you can’t do nothing. It’s a killing job. Sitting here driving for twelve hours. You get home, you are exhausted. You don’t want to do anything anymore. I get home, I go to sleep. When I get up I just have time to get something to eat.
* Consider the voice of a worker unemployed during this nation’s first great depression, in the 1870s. What he says could be said, with appropriate variations, by nearly anyone who has experienced the brutality of long-term unemployment, from the dust bowl farmers of the 1930s to the victims of the massive plant closings of the past two decades to the miserable jobless millions of the poorest countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.. Just ask the next homeless person begging you for money.
Twelve months ago, left penniless by misfortune, I started from New York in search of employment. I am a mechanic, and am regarded as competent in my business. During this year I have traversed seventeen States and obtained in that time six weeks’ work. I have faced starvation; been months at a time without a bed, when the thermometer was 30 degrees below zero. Last winter I slept in the woods, and while honestly seeking employment I have been two and three days without food. When, in God’s name, I asked to keep body and soul together, I have been repulsed as a “tramp and vagabond.”
* Consider the farm laborers, everywhere among the lowest paid and most overworked. Bending over the crops, in terrible heat and cold, working alongside of their children, without enough to eat, like the coffee plantation workers who cannot afford to buy the crop they pick. In Mexico, just south of Arizona and California, here is what “free trade” has wrought:
In the fields, a single portable bathroom might serve a whole crew of several hundred, with a metal drum on wheels providing the drinking water….Toddlers wander among the seated workers, some of them nursing on baby bottles and others, their faces smeared with dirt, chewing on the onions. A few sleep in the rows, or in little makeshift beds of blankets in the vegetable bins….As the morning sun illuminates the faces of the workers, it reveals dozens of young girls and boys. By rough count, perhaps a quarter of the workers here are anywhere from 6 or 7 years old to 15 or 16….Honorina Ruiz is 6. She sits in front of a pile of green onions…. She lines up eight or nine onions, straightening out their roots and tails. Then she knocks the dirt off, puts a rubber band around them and adds the bunch to those already in the box beside her. She’s too shy to say more than her name, but she seems proud to be able to do what her brother Rigoberto, at 13, is very good at….These are Mexico’s forgotten children…
* Consider the workers in our packing houses, preparing meat for our tables. Before the advent of modern production technology, the very names of these workers conjure up a vision of hell: Stockhandlers, knockers, shacklers, stickers, beheaders, hide removers, skinners, leg-breakers, foot-skinners, backers, rumpers, hide-droppers, butchers, gut-snatchers, gutters, splitters, and luggers. Then the work was done by European immigrants and African Americans. Today it is done by new arrivals from Latin America and Asia, but while the job titles have changed, the work is still dirty and dangerous:
Beef, pork and poultry packers have been aggressively recruiting the most vulnerable of foreign workers to relocate to the U.S. plains in exchange for $6-an-hour jobs in the country’s most dangerous industry. Since permanence is hardly a requirement for these jobs, the concepts of promotion and significant salary increases have as much as disappeared. That as many as half of these new immigrants lack legal residence seems no obstacle to an industry now thriving on a docile, disempowered work force with an astronomical turnover.
Staggering illness and injury rates–36 per 100 workers in meat–and stress caused by difficult, repetitive work often means employment for just a few months before a worker quits or the company forces him/her off the job. (Government safety inspections have dropped 43 percent overall since 1994, because of budget cuts and an increasingly pro-business slant at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.)
* Consider Michael, who took a job as a hotel desk clerk after thirty-two years of college teaching. He says:
I thought that at the hotel I would have the luxury of not worrying about what I was going to do tomorrow. But while it was true that I didn’t have to prepare for the next day’s work, it was today’s work that took its toll. The job was tiring; I was on my feet all day. At the end of the day I was free, but too exhausted to do anything. I often fell asleep soon after opening a book, as early as seven in the evening. And on some days, especially Sunday, which was the worst day in terms of work intensity and customer complaints, I couldn’t sleep at all. The computer keys I had punched all day kept going through my head in an endless loop, and conversations I had with irate guests kept bothering me. Monday morning would arrive and I had to be at work at seven, and I didn’t catch up on sleep until about Wednesday evening. Teaching might have generated a lot of anxiety, but this was both physically and mentally debilitating. Thirty-two years of this would be unimaginable.
* Consider the temporary clerical workers, Kimberly and Helen, two of millions of such workers worldwide. Here is how they describe their work:
Minimal work. Boredom. And no challenging work. I’d much rather be fighting with a spreadsheet, trying to figure out how to set up a spreadsheet, rather than just entering in the numbers. A boss who treats you like a temp and is very much, like, always checking up on you or else totally ignoring you. Doesn’t really remember your name. Says, “Oh, I’ll just put this here. We’ll wait till so-and-so gets back to work with it.”
The isolation. The lack of benefits. The monotony. The underemployment. Your resources, your skills, your intelligence are not integrated. I mean, there’s no change. So I guess just the hopelessness, just the stagnation. The fact that there’s never any increase in cerebral activity. Even when they find out more about you, they still don’t trust you to take on more. But the loneliness. It’s really lonely. Eating lunch by yourself every single day. And no one ever asking you a personal question. Like the secretaries never, ever, ask, “Where are you from?” or “What have you been up to?”
* Consider the college teacher, Beverly Peterson, who after spending a good part of her life in school and earning a PhD, has become a “gypsy prof,” teaching here, there, and everywhere, under terrible conditions for little money. About 40 percent of all college teachers are now part-timers, and they earn about $2,000 per course with no benefits. By contrast I now earn about $8,000 per course with full benefits.
Ever since she passed her comprehensive exams at the College of William and Mary in 1992, Beverly Peterson has searched for a full-time teaching post in American Studies. Three years, 121 letters of inquiry and two interviews later, she is still looking for a permanent position. “I’m so used to getting rejection letters saying, ‘You were one of 800 applicants for two positions,’” says the 44-year-old scholar, who once worked as a high school English teacher. So, while she waits to hear whether she will win a tenure-track job at Penn State, Peterson is taking the path followed by so many other newly minted PhD’s: combining two teaching jobs to make ends meet.
Peterson regularly commutes by car from her home in Smithfield, Va., to jobs at Thomas Nelson Community college in Hampton, 40 minutes away, and then to the College of William and Mary, an additional 40-minute ride. Peterson’s travels take her across the James River drawbridge en route to the Thomas Nelson campus, and she takes a ferry back home from William and Mary. On the boat, she often works on lecture notes or reads class materials-most recently, a re-examination of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her Chevrolet has some 97,000 miles on the odometer even though it is only four years old. Says Peterson, “I like my job, but I wish I could do it under easier circumstances.”
* Consider the exceptional history teacher, Ira Solomon, teaching in East Saint Louis, Illinois, a town extraordinary in its poverty. This is what he tells Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities:
“This is not by any means the worst school in the city,” he reports, as we are sitting in his classroom on the first floor of the school. “But our problems are severe. I don’t even know where to begin. I have no materials with the exception of a single textbook given to each child. If I bring in anything else–books or tapes or magazines–I pay for it myself. The high school has no VCRs. They are such a crucial tool. So many good things run on public television. I can’t make use of anything I see unless I can unhook my VCR and bring it into the school. The AV equipment in the building is so old that we are pressured not to use it….”
“Of 33 children who begin the history classes in the standard track,” he says, “more than a quarter have dropped out by spring semester…I have four girls right now in my senior home room who are pregnant or have just had babies. When I ask them why this happens, I am told, ‘Well, there’s no reason not to have a baby. There’s not much for me in public school.’ The truth is,… [a] diploma from a ghetto high school doesn’t count for much in the United States today….Ah, there’s so much bitterness–unfairness–there, you know….”
“Very little education in the school would be considered academic in the suburbs. Maybe 10 to 15 percent of students are in truly academic programs. Of the 55 percent of the students who graduate, 20 percent may go to four-year colleges: something like 10 percent of any entering class. Another 10 to 20 percent may get some other kind of higher education. An equal number join the military….”
“Sometimes I worry that I’m starting to burn out. Still, I hate to miss a day. The department frequently can’t find a substitute to come here, and my kids don’t like me to be absent.”
* Consider two welfare mother, Ursula and Joy, working hard to keep their families together but excluded from the official count of workers and reviled by more respectable society.
Ursula: I used to feel downcast for being on welfare. It was something I felt low-rated about. It felt degrading. They want to know who is giving you this or who is helping to send your child to school. If I had to stop paying the water bill this month to keep them in school the next month, I would do that. But that’s my business. I don’t like them prying into what somebody may give me or who is paying something for me.
Joy: When you are on public assistance, it’s like you’re going to pick up someone else’s money that you didn’t work for. You didn’t make it yourself. When I got my first welfare check it felt odd, because I could compare it to receiving my work check. I knew what it was like to have both. I used to hear people say, “Well, you are taking money from people that work and you are not working,” It felt kind of funny to be a person on the other side this time. This is my first experience with welfare. Nobody in my household had ever been on public assistance but me. My mother worked for the government and so did my grandmother. I was the first person that ever needed welfare.
I don’t like the people who work in the welfare offices. They are nasty to me. They have a bad attitude. They act real snooty and they really don’t want to do the work. They act like the money is coming right out of their pockets. I figure, if I go in there with a nice attitude, because I know some people are nasty with them, too, then they will be different. But it doesn’t help. They still are nasty.
* Consider the following memorandum sent by a supervisor to a group of workers in a daycare center. Remember that these workers, all with considerable experience and many child raising skills, are paid less than parking lot attendants:
Now, more than ever, we as a business are under scrutiny by our clients. They will be watching us, and questioning us to reassure themselves that their children are safe and secure in our care. Your role is to do the best you can when it comes to customer service. They have made a choice as to where they want their child to be. And we need to reassure them that they have made the proper choice. We need to give them what they pay for every minute of the day. Parents and children must be greeted by name when they arrive in the morning and when they leave at the end of the day. You need to be working with the children, using your AM and PM lesson plans at the beginning and the end of the day. You are not permitted to sit on tables, chat with other staff people, or be cleaning or doing anything but interacting with the children….Remember, the customer always comes first and we always need to do what’s best for children….A pre-school classroom is a special place. It takes a special person to make great things happen for children. Always remember that we are tank fillers for the children. And that we owe it to the little people!
* Consider prisoner, Dino Navarrete, one of tens of thousands of prison workers now laboring in the “prison-industrial” complex, helping private businesses to make super profits. Could there be a more debased form of labor outside outright slavery? But as a matter of fact, this is a growth industry. The United States leads the world in number of prisoners, now approaching 1.5 million, and these convicts are overwhelmingly people of color.
Convicted kidnapper Dino Navarrete doesn’t smile much as he surveys the sewing machines at Soledad prison’s sprawling workshop. The short, stocky man with tattoos rippling his muscled forearms earns 45 cents an hour making blue work shirts in a medium-security prison near Monterey, California. After deductions, he earns about $60 for an entire month of nine-hour days.
“They put you on a machine and expect you to put out for them,” says Navarrete. “Nobody wants to do that. These jobs are jokes to most inmates here.” California long ago stopped claiming that prison labor rehabilitates inmates. Wardens just want to keep them occupied. If prisoners refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary housing and lose canteen privileges. Most importantly, they lose “good time” credit that reduces their sentences.
Navarrete was surprised to learn that California has been exporting prison-made clothing to Asia. He and the other prisoners had no idea that California, along with Oregon, was doing exactly what the U.S. has been lambasting China for–exporting prison-made goods. “You might just as well call this slave labor, then,” says Navarrete. “If they’re selling it overseas, you know they’re making money. Where’s the money going to? It ain’t going to us.”
* Consider Larry McAfee, who became a quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident. Like tens of millions of other disabled persons, he wanted to work and could have if society had seen fit to provide him with the means to do so. Instead it sent him straight into the nightmarish and ugly world of health “care,” whose main assumption was that making Larry able to work was too costly. Larry got to the point at which he petitioned the courts to let him die, something which the courts, the doctors, and the insurance companies, following in the footsteps of the adherents of social Darwinism, seem to be encouraging.
McAfee told Joseph Shapiro of U.S. News & World Report that he hated losing control of his body but that losing control of his life was worse. McAfee had hoped to remain a valued participant in society, but found his way blocked at every turn by catch-22’s. The lack of PAS [personal assistance services] meant that McAfee had to be institutionalized; institutionalization meant that McAfee could not respond to want ads or take computer courses; no job retraining meant no chance for employment; and employment itself could mean that work disincentives built into disability policy would risk the very support he needed to survive. Wouldn’t any motivated person become despondent over such overwhelming obstacles?
* Consider Mike Lefevre, a “common” laborer. Here is what he said to Studs Terkel, author of the exceptional book, Working:
I’m a dying breed. A laborer. Strictly muscle work…pick it up, put it down. We handle between forty and fifty thousand pounds of steel a day. I know this is hard to believe–from four hundred pounds to three- and four-pound pieces. It’s dying….
It’s hard to take pride in a bridge you’re never gonna cross. In a door you’re never gonna open. You’re mass-producing things and you never see the end result. I worked for a trucker one time. And I got this tiny satisfaction when I loaded a truck. In a steel mill, forget it. You don’t see where nothing goes.
I got chewed out by my foreman once. He said, “Mike, you’re a good worker but you have a bad attitude.” My attitude is that I don’t get excited about my job. I do my work but I don’t say whoopee-doo. The day I get excited about my job is the day I go to a head shrinker. How are you gonna get excited about pullin’ steel? How are you gonna get excited when you’re tired and want to sit down?
It’s not just the work. Somebody built the pyramids. Somebody’s going to build something. Pyramids, Empire State Building–these things just don’t happen. There’s hard work behind it. I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say, “See, that’s me over there on the forty-fifth floor. I put the steel beam in.” Picasso can point to a painting. What can I point to? A writer can point to a book. Everybody should have something to point to.
* Consider finally this chorus of pained voices, again from Working :
For the many, there is a hardly concealed discontent. The blue-collar blues is no more bitterly sung than the white-collar moan. “I’m a machine,” says the spot welder. “I’m caged,” says the bank teller, and echoes the hotel clerk. “I’m a mule,” says the steelworker. “A monkey can do what I do,” says the receptionist. “I’m less than a farm implement,” says the migrant worker. “I’m an object,” says the high-fashion model. Blue collar and white collar call upon the identical phrase: “I’m a robot.” “There is nothing to talk about,” the young accountant despairingly enunciates. It was some time ago that John Henry sang, “A man ain’t nothing but a man.” The hard, unromantic fact is: he died with his hammer in his hand, while the machine pumped on. Nonetheless, he found immortality. He is remembered.