Singing the Songs of Hard Jobs at Low Pay

Nimagesew Orleans Just like the next guy, I am a huge fan of anyone who agrees with me and sings verses of my songs, especially if by some total, blooming miracle it turns out to be on the op-ed page of the New York Times, but that is by god where Charles Blow rolls out his fact-based, math heavy opinions, and I love him for it.  Recently in a piece entitled “They, Too, Sing America,” he reminded people of the obvious, whether we like it or not, that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics half of the top 30 occupations likely to experience the largest job growth in coming years are low-wage or “very low-wage,” as he calls it.  Furthermore 7 of the top 10 are in fastest growing job are in that lowly wage category.
This is really not news, expect that people keep trying to act like it is not the case every time we talk about raising the minimum wage for the gazillion low wage workers in America or hunkering down more and dealing with informal and low wage workers as a key ingredient of the jobs market and economy recovery.
For example once again home health care aides are expected to add almost a half-million workers over the ten year period 2008-2018.  Home health care aides are virtually informal workers, as I have often argued, and these numbers may not reflect the real numbers in my view once you had family members, sitters, and folks doing the work for cash-on-the-barrelhead, but it turns out through some kind of BLS novelty, those workers are simply called “personal and home care aides” and add another 375000+ jobs at very low wages for the same period.  Over the last several decades home health care aides have always been in the top ten.  Nothing new and different about this.

The other lower wage jobs that Blow helpfully charts from the BLS numbers, while ranking their wages are the following:

Home health aides                            460,900 jobs        very low wages
Customer service representatives        399,500 jobs        low wages
Combined food prep & serving workers        394,300 jobs    very low (includes fast food)
Personal and home care aides            375,800 jobs        very low
Retail salespersons                               374,700 jobs        very low
Office clerks, general                           358,700 jobs        low
Nursing aides, orderlies, attendants        276,000 jobs        low
Construction laborers                           255,900 jobs        low
Landscaping & groundskeeping          217,100 jobs        low
Receptionists & information clerks     172,900 jobs        low
Medical assistants                                  163, 900 jobs        low
Security guards                                        152,000 jobs        low
Waiters and waitresses                          151,600 jobs        very low
Childcare workers                                  142,100 jobs        very low
Teacher assistants                                   134,900 jobs        low

Get a grip.  Your children’s education, your children’s day care, the food you eat, your safety, your yard and public space, the advice and help you need when shopping, and virtually everything about your personal health care in the prime of your life and totally as you age, is in the hands of workers hardly busting minimum wage.

There ought to be a law, but unfortunately, most of the laws protecting these workers don’t get much attention or are totally ignored.

You know it’s not right.


Informal Worker Organizing in Kenya

Discussion with AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Nairobi

Nairobi Our annual check-in with the AFL-CIO’s Nairobi based Solidarity Center working in various eastern African countries like Uganda and Tanzania in addition to Kenya underscored my belief that the future of organizing has to be among the growing numbers of informal workers. Talking with director, Rick Hall, the real organizing excitement and accomplishment seems to be found in collective agreements won for floral agricultural workers and important new drives with informal fisherman around Lake Victoria among all of the water-sharing countries.

More worrisome was hearing the continued difficulty in implementing the important improvements in standards that had been established for urban and rural minimum wage rates and in other critical areas like the measures protecting domestic workers. The potential impacts of these measures are huge. As we all talked (the ACORN Kenyan organizers, Paladin Partners, and Solidarity Center staff) it was hard not to think about how door-to-door campaigns might work. When Rick mentioned that he wished they could canvass the middle and upper income neighborhoods distributing the standards and getting signed recognitions from householders to actually pay the minimums and provide the benefits, I found myself telling about the 1978 campaign when I moved back to New Orleans with the Household Workers Organizing Committee when we were forcing compliance with for domestic workers who were just gaining coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the USA in that year and trying to make examples out of employers (the Gambino bakery family in city was our big “shame” target) who were paying way below and not paying the required social security payments. Now more than 30 years later Kenya is ahead of much of the world, and certainly Africa, but still has to move a campaign to make the law come alive.

The other story that was disappointing was hearing the ineffective enforcement program by the Labor Department in Kenya of minimum wage violations. Rick and his team were delicate, but it sounded too often like the act of making complaints by workers and unions was seen too frequently as an opportunity by inspectors to cash in from the companies by looking the other way. Seemed like another situation where the “crowdsourcing” tools we were talking about this week in Nairobi might also be effective for our friends and allies in labor unions.

Nonetheless, the story in eastern Africa is still encouraging as a bright light for organizing and organizers fearlessly putting together new and effective strategies and breaking ground for informal worker union. A story from Uganda of a terrible problem in a fish processing center that was the springboard to the fisherman’s organizing where a lockout pushed 400 workers out on the street with 40 active committee members fired when the plant reopened and hundreds of police working for the state and the company against the workers, also reminded all of us why this work is both so hard, and so important.