Tag Archives: worker exploitation

The New Economy, Older and Part-time Workers, and Fulltime Exploitation

IMG_5745Missoula   With the truck brought to the curb with transmission problems, I found myself in this small, university-based town for the weekend.  Looking for a guy who knew mechanics, I walked through a Saturday farmers’ market near the river that was jumping with young families and children with strollers abounding and smartphones crushed to their ears.  Later in the evening, kids on the block engaged in a water balloon and flaying hose “fight” for hours as an excuse to keep cooler on a hot day, laughter peeling to the streets.  I felt like I was being transported back to a Norman Rockwell painting of the 1950’s.

            Sitting with friends who were longtime residents or natives of Montana in the yard of the house where we were squatting, as sausage cooked on the grill and the sun finally began to set, the subject that quickly jumped to the surface was, “who are these people and what are they doing here?”   The term “new economy” was bandied about.   People tethered to a high speed internet connection who could work anywhere on web startups, bio-mimicry, research, e-commerce, and the like, who wanted a laid back, small town lifestyle and had the money to make it happen.  The days when they remembered sagebrush where the malls are now, and cowboys tipping their hats on wobbly legs at dawn on Sunday mornings, was long gone now and somewhere – or nowhere — else.  They wondered whether folks in their fifties and sixties were too old to press the “reset” button on new careers, and theoretically agreed it was possible, and practically had no interest in doing so.  Earlier in the week, walking through Walmart, the number of older workers seemed legion.   My friends were clear: law, slaw.  There was discrimination against older workers, particularly when ripping off younger workers seemed such easy pickings.

            In the wake of the Great Recession, these conversations are in earshot everywhere around the country, not just small, lively Western towns, like Missoula.  There are now 2.7 million workers classified as temporaries.   The exploitation of young workers as unpaid interns slaving for contacts and network connections in the “new economy” has led to fifteen different legal actions according to ProPublica. 

Employers are having a field day and dealing with workers desperate for some income with a wink and a nod.   $1.2 trillion is estimated by economists in unreported income, which means no taxes paid perhaps, but also means more than that since this figure does not report the level of cash, under-the-table payments by cheap, often immigrant labor that is also providing the infrastructure under the “new” economy. 

Where were the values though?  My friends bemoaned the fact that younger, newer folks in Missoula seemed to just be scuffling with no interest in the environment or conservation.   I asked if there was recycling in Missoula because I didn’t see any cans or receptacles.  Oh, yes, we have recycling they all said, but it turned out that meant you could contract with a private company or take your stuff to Target who claimed they loaded it on their empty trucks and took it somewhere.  So, you really don’t have recycling as a public service then, I said.  Well, no, not like that. 

What new economy?  Neoliberalism in city politics with some visual amenities.  Worker exploitation, wage theft, and immigrant labor.  Great older workers turned out to pasture.  Sure sounds like the new boss is just like the old boss, and the new economy has a heavy foot on the everyone’s neck here just like the old one, even if the boots where bought at Patagonia.


Mickey Mouse Leading the Way to “Better Work” in Bangladesh and Other Countries

Little Rock   Walt Disney licenses $40 billion worth of products with only 1% of such goods manufactured in Bangladesh, but in the wake of the garment factory collapse killing over 400 workers they have announced that they will transition out of the country within the next year.  They also indicated they would pull out of Pakistan, Ecuador, and several other countries.   Other companies continue to spin their public relations departments with supposed meetings with each other and the government about how to improve conditions, mostly with fairly empty gestures like the Walmart announcement that it will offer fire safety training for managers.  Most companies have not responded with the financial commitments or reforms that would create real change or security for workers.  

            Walt Disney significantly said that it would only license in countries where the countries were willing to agree to a very important quid pro quo of coming under inspection through a program called “Better Work.”   Better Work is a joint program of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation.  Better Work is not run by any of the nonprofit monitoring and corporate social responsibility groups who are financed by the companies themselves and in one disaster after another have proven unable to deal with the scale of exploitation involved in this industry in so many locations.  Better Work involves all parties in some advisory way, but is funded largely by government aid programs in the United States, Australia and elsewhere, so they can be truly independent.

            Importantly they also put worker safety first and only work with companies and in countries where there is a commitment to the ILO principles as a condition of their inspections, including the right to organize unions and pay fair wages.  Pope Francis was pointed in characterizing the $40 monthly wage of for Bangladeshi workers as “slave labor,” which also gives hope that some of the cover-up might be coming to an end. Currently, Better Work is engaged in Indonesia, Vietnam, Haiti, Jordan, Lesotho, and Nicaragua, and Walt Disney is saying that if Bangladesh and its imitators are willing to agree to fuller inspections and the principles articulated by Better Work, then they would continue to license there.

            Reading the Better Work website is encouraging as well because there is a requirement for intensive direct training of monitors and the insistence on anti-corruption guarantees for its direct hires, like the fact that no inspector can visit the same factory twice.  Many may remember in the tragic fire last year certified by Social Accountability International the monitors were all subcontracted from other firms and there was suspicion that many may have also been bribed.

            All of this is half-stepping, but at least Walt Disney is half-stepping in the right direction by saying “either get right, or it’s over, we’re out.”

Better Work and Mickey Mouse on Audio Blog