New Orleans Reading an surprisingly good article in the New York Times about the union fight in Indonesia against the great mega-retailer Carrefour to win rights for contract workers that they thought they had gained in a strike earlier this year, I was struck by how blind we all are to similar worker exploitation right in front of our eyes every day. We are not blinded so much by ignorance as by ubiquitous corporate deceit and sleight of hand. The worker smiling across the counter, hauling our garbage can, delivering our prescription, telling us about the traffic on the way from the airport, and in many other situations is not really working for the company whose name is on their uniform, but often an exploited contract worker in disguise.
Recently talking to Ken Paff, the long time organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) about any new organizing being done by the Teamsters, he was incredulous when I told him that Waste Management and many other companies really only employed the drivers on those privatized municipal sanitation trucks, because the laborers on the back end of the trucks were almost always contracted, casual and temporary workers. I knew because Local 100 has represented them with all of the garbage companies in New Orleans, Dallas, and elsewhere for years. It’s part of the business model, pure and simple. Offload the workman’s compensation liability on someone else because running in traffic behind a multi-ton truck is very dangerous work and besides who knows (cares?) what they might be paid for the work and the risk. Just like the Indonesian worker was quoted by Sara Schonhardt in the Times, “New employees who are young and ready to enter the work force will take whatever pay they can get…” and this sets the stage for exploitation obviously.
Taking a cab into the city from the Metro Airport in Detroit I saw an envelope between the cabbie’s seats that was marked UAW. I asked him if he was represented by the autoworkers union. He was on the organizing committee of a difficult drive to organize the company with the UAW’s help, but they kept being rebuffed as “contract” workers. To same “in name only” beggars the question of the weaknesses of labor laws for this burgeoning sector of the domestic and global workforce.
Of course it goes without saying that this is part of why ACORN International’s India FDI Watch Campaign continues to insist that Carrefour, Walmart, Metro, Tesco, and other giant multi-brand retailers must agree to labor standards, job protections, and community benefits before entering India. The notion of using contract workers in retail to escape national labor laws providing protections and benefits is well established. For example in Mexico where Walmart is well established as Mexico’s largest private sector employer (just as they are in the USA and Canada), when you are watching the cashier ring up your bill and someone else bag your groceries, just like in Indonesia, you are talking to a contract worker with a smiley face on their shirt just like the rest of the Walmart “associates.”
Not all associates are created or treated equally it seems. This is a critical issue that could easily be solved either by worker action or by closing the loopholes in the labor laws. It would be wonderful if both workers and lawmakers could combine to fix this problem in many countries, though that seems like a Christmas kind of wish and too much to hope.