We Value Livestock More Than Workers

Reading about the working poor is like reading about torture. After every five pages you want to run out and cause serious bodily injury to perpetrators of evil. Others have pointed out that “working poor” ought to be, but is not, an oxymoron. Anyone who works a full time job should enjoy all the benefits that the wealthiest nation in history has to offer. They don’t. They are treated as an exploitable sub-class from whom more money can always be extracted.

Right on schedule, Newt Gingrich pops up to inform us that Harvard’s janitors should all be fired and replaced by children. This, of course, is so preposterous on so many levels that anyone who has any inkling of what ethical behavior and applied democracy are about might well be struck dumb. Since Newt has no idea what either of those things mean, he is free to yammer at will, the perfect example of what a stupid person thinks someone smart should sound like, as has been remarked.

Beth Shulman’s The Betrayal of Work is eight years old now, but nothing she says there is out of date except the dismal numbers. Things were awful for low-pay workers then, and now it is even worse.

There are a number of common false beliefs about low wage work, several of which are all but campaign planks for the Republican party. One of them is that most low wage work can be done by offshore workers. Not true. The bulk of low-wage work lies in service, such as health care, cleanup, food service, cashier, hotel services, and so on. These jobs can’t be done by someone in the Philippines.

People who work such jobs commonly do not move up to jobs with higher pay. People who work these sorts of jobs are often forced by circumstances to relocate, but they don’t move up. Nor should it be necessary for them to move up to have a decent life. They already perform valuable services.

Another myth is that low-wage jobs can be done by anyone, that they require no skills. Not so. Every job requires understanding of how to do the job efficiently and well, and many who think otherwise would not last long in such jobs. Many jobs, say, nursing home attendant, or teacher’s assistant, require considerable people skills, for which there is never any remuneration. These jobs are just as tiring as any work, sometimes much moreso.

The classic example of undervalued work is crop harvesting. Some people are saying the current unemployed should move to the South and harvest the crops in states where new and cruel laws have forced Latino laborers to leave. My bet is that none of these complainers would themselves last until noon of the first day on such a job. Nor would most of the rest of us. In addition, many such jobs don’t even pay minimum wage.

For persons in low-pay work, improving one’s skills rarely results in improved pay or working conditions. New skills may help someone in computer programing, but only if a job is waiting. Some 30% of all workers are in positions where new skills are the same as old skills. Dishwashing is still dishwashing.

Some of the most abusive jobs in the country are those in meat and poultry processing plants. Several such plants are well known to regulators and workers’ rights people, because they reliably violate all sorts of laws and regulations, and hire undocumented workers when they can, because they can readily abuse them. In the roaring din of the plant, newly killed animals move past workers at breakneck speed, and each worker must perform the same motion with a very sharp knife for many hours, with no break allowed. If someone is injured—and many are—tough luck. No medical care is provided, and if he is undocumented, he is simply fired and forgotten. These places also offer buildups of excrement and germs, resulting in frequent recalls of tons of meat. Think about that the next time you buy cheap meat.

Our attitudes and our practices with regard to poorly paid workers cannot be morally, ethically, or economically defended. Our undervaluing of work shows no signs of changing for the better. If anything, it’s worsening. The only answer I’ve been able to see comes with a national Living Wage law, something Australia has had for a century. Paying these workers what they are truly worth would raise all of them out of poverty, and solve a whole range of sociopolitical and economic problems. It would begin to redress our ongoing denial of the American dream to so many.

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