Discovering Precarious Work and “Hotel Mama”

fast-food-strike-AP46472623_620x350Charlotte         Is it just me or is the mainstream starting to discover precarious employment?   Maybe it’s the “fight for $15” push that’s opening eyes?  Maybe it’s a residue of the Occupy 1% theme?  Maybe it’s the yawning gap between the rich and the rest of us?  I’m not sure, but I know two things.  One, that, like spring, tales of the precarious are starting to sprout up everywhere, and, secondly, that it has to be a good thing, no matter how odd some of the pieces come out.  None of this is George Orwell down and out in London and Paris, but most of it is more a long look through a telescope at Mars full of observations with very limited, well gloved participation at most.

The New York Times of course has the occasional story of a fast food worker trying to live and raise a family on barely minimum wage, but that’s hardly new.   Recently though, The New Yorker ran a story by William Finnegan, their esteemed reporter on all things south of the US border, where he followed an informal mineworker – one of an estimated 400,000 — in the gold fields of Peru at 17,000 feet who tried to make a hardscrabble living as his fuse burned to an early death.  Elsewhere in the magazine for the life of me it almost seemed that the reader was being encouraged towards at least a glimmer of empathy for Somalian pirates because of the dire economics and precarious prospects for making a living in that failed state.  Interestingly, the business end of piracy seems to be small time, marginal workers hardly a half-step above precarious making “investments” in the success of the ransom demands.  Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not recommending this for marginally employed workers, but the New Yorker’s door opening for their readers into the other worlds of work outside Manhattan is truly fascinating!

The Economist recently expressed concern for the increasingly precarious situation for Japan’s working poor where even with almost full employment, defined at 4% or less, a record-level 16% of the population is now living on less than half the national median income.  Bestsellers are being written in this orderly society on how to live on less than $16700 per year.  American low-wage workers would love to read some books with valuable advice there!   The bottom line is irregular employment.  The Economist noted that “the number of irregular workers – often earning less than half the pay of their full-time counterparts with permanent employment contracts – has jumped to over 1.5 million.  Casual and part-time employees number nearly 20 million, almost 40% of the Japanese workforce.”

Many reports are now wondering, “How are people living like this?”

In Japan, many, especially younger workers, are living at home with parents as their primary housing and welfare agency.  That’s not unusual it seems.   Precarious employment is forcing huge numbers of younger workers around the world into what is being called “Hotel Mama” in Eastern Europe.  In the US 15% of adults 25 to 34 live with their parents.  In Slovakia 74% between 18 and 34 and 57% between 25 and 34, in Bulgaria 51%, Romania 46%, Serbia 54%, and Croatia 59%.

As more and more observers discover the ubiquitous nature of informal employment as if this is a new exploration into a previously unknown world, it’s a good thing, though I have to wonder how they avoided it so long.  Unfortunately, the observations decoupled from participation, still seem woefully short on solutions or even recommendations, even as the recognition of the growing crisis increases.

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Art, Poverty, and George Orwell

 

orwell1Little Rock       In the New York Times, A.O. Smith, one of their critics who writes frequently about movies, wondered at length in the paper where our artists were when we needed them now to weigh in on the issues of class, race, and galloping inequality in the United States.  Where was a new John Steinbeck writing Of Mice and Men?  Or an Arthur Miller and The Death of a Salesman?   Or Mike Nichols and Silkwood or the more recent Debra Granik film, Winter’s Bone, on the silver screen?  In a surprising rarity, he admitted being obsessed with the economic crises of our time and desperate for voices that spoke to the issue in convincing and moving ways.

            All of which recalled the vivid images of the precariousness of work revealed so starkly in George Orwell’s often neglected classic, Down and Out in Paris and London, which I found myself re-reading recently.  Orwell known best to many readers for his dystrophic 1984 or Animal Farm, wrote of his own experience working as a casual laborer in the back of the house in hotels in London and bistros in Paris.   It is shocking to read because so much of it seems unchanged from what might be reported in numerous cities now, even though Orwell published his book in 1933 in the heart of the worldwide Great Depression.

            Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed:  On (Not) Getting by in America updated some pages from Orwell, but her experience still wasn’t the deep dive, emersion and desperation of Orwell, where reading of his time, I felt he might starve to death any minute when he had no clothes left to pawn.

            Orwell describes hunger in a very personal way, “You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.”  In another passage, he writes that “Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything….”  And again, “Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger….” Yet, on the full side of the Thanksgiving feasting tables, we read more Republican rants about bootstraps and the poor making their way without sufficient food or support?

            Orwell writes with relief in Paris of finding a job as a dishwasher.  The hours are punishing and wage theft is standard, all of which continue to be true for much of precarious employment in the same cities and throughout the world.

“…I set to work rather hurriedly.  Except for about an hour, I was at work from seven in the morning till a quarter past nine at night; first at washing crockery, then at scrubbing the tables and floors of the employees’ dining-room, then at polishing glasses and knives, then at fetching meals, then at washing crockery again, then at fetching more meals and washing more crockery…The work did not seem difficult, and I felt that this job would suit me.  It was not certain, however, that it would continue, for I had been engaged as an ‘extra’ for the day only at twenty-five francs.  The sour-faced doorkeeper counted out the money, less fifty centimes, which he said was for insurance (a lie, I discovered afterwards).”

Besides the fact that Orwell was a gifted observer of his own condition and circumstance, as well as the economic and social conditions around him, it is unsettling to think that 80 years later we have still done so little to deal with inequality and precariousness.

Orwell shares a caveat in this regard though that is worth remembering, because it is less art that holds the answer that A. O. Smith is searching for than social movements.  Orwell warns that,

“A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or hundred others to back him, he will show it.”

Hear!  Hear!

 

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