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For Many, the Pandemic Was a Wakeup Call About Exploitative Work

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By the time Covid-19 hit, Lily, 28, had been with her employer for four years and in her part-time role for the past two. Not once in those four years had her hourly wage moved above the state-required minimum in her upstate New York town‚ÄĒ currently, $12.50. Lily was living with her parents to save money, and, because her job was in ticketing sales for professional sports, it was competitive. She hadn‚Äôt given much thought as to why she was paid so little; she was just grateful to work in the industry she loved.

But when Lily was furloughed during the pandemic, she had a¬†creeping suspicion her labor had been undervalued. With professional sporting events shut down, she took on remote work, first as a¬†customer service agent, then as a¬†New York contact tracer ‚ÄĒ jobs that paid nearly double what she had been making.¬†‚ÄúI was like,¬†‚ÄėOh, I‚Äôm worth more than minimum wage,‚Äô‚ÄĚ Lily says. (Lily is a¬†pseudonym requested in fear of retribution from future employers.)¬†‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt even realize how bummed I¬†was. A¬†plane ticket was¬†25% of my net worth. I¬†was worrying about putting gas in my car to get to¬†work.‚Ä̬†

These remote jobs were temporary, however, and when Lily started interviewing for new positions, she was disappointed to find many companies still only offering just about minimum wage. One job offered an extra $2.50¬†after negotiation, but Lily turned it down‚ÄĒthe venue was also an extra hour away, and she still needed to cover¬†gas.¬†

Lily has mostly been relying on savings to get by after spending over a¬†month hunting for full-time work, hoping to find a¬†job that allows employees to work remotely on a¬†permanent basis. Her goal is a $20¬†wage, but she worries whether that goal is realistic. She had a¬†‚Äúbig, revelatory moment‚ÄĚ when she was earning more money, she says:¬†‚ÄúI started eating healthier. I¬†bought myself workout clothes for the first time in years. You can have all the therapy sessions in the world, but an influx of cash will really change the way you feel about¬†yourself.‚Ä̬†

A pernicious corporate narrative suggests that workers like Lily‚ÄĒwho ask for a¬†decent wage and marginal flexibility from an employer‚ÄĒare simply lazy. Many understaffed employers have chalked up their problems to workers coasting on unemployment benefits or stimulus checks. They complain about the federal unemployment supplement and the states that have loosened the strings on unemployment payments (such as requirements to continually search for a¬†job or to accept any¬†offer).

But the¬†26¬†mostly red states that recently terminated the $300¬†weekly unemployment supplement from the American Rescue Plan, purportedly to incentivize workers, did not all see an immediate increase in job searches. Many workers have valid reasons not to return to work regardless of any¬†‚Äúincentives‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒone of the top reasons being the exorbitant cost of¬†child care. As the pandemic closed daycares and schools and left parents in the lurch, many two-parent households realized it would be cheaper for one parent to stay home rather than work. Others are wary of exposure to¬†Covid-19.

To be fair, there‚Äôs evidence that for some people, pandemic relief measures (or pandemic savings) have enabled joblessness by choice. A¬†June¬†survey¬†by the jobs website Indeed.com found a¬†fifth of job seekers were not urgently searching for work because of their¬†‚Äúfinancial cushion.‚Ä̬†A¬†Morning Consult poll¬†that same month found¬†13% of people receiving unemployment checks had turned down job offers because of that short-term¬†stability.

To deem this unemployed behavior¬†‚Äúlazy,‚ÄĚ however, one must be predisposed to thinking work is some sort of moral imperative. Rarely have workers had the freedom to be selective about where, when and how much they work‚ÄĒto decide their own fates. In light of this profound shift, perhaps it‚Äôs understandable that workers are unwilling to¬†settle.

There are more existential questions, too. Workers are re-evaluating what role work should have in their lives, whether it‚Äôs important to their sense of self, what they would do with their time otherwise. Some may decide the jobs they left are what the late anthropologist David Graeber termed¬†‚Äúbullshit jobs,‚ÄĚ work¬†‚Äúthat is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.‚ÄĚ After such a¬†revelation, how could employers expect workers to return to business as¬†usual?

In her seminal 2011 book The Problem With Work, Kathi Weeks argues that wage labor (one of the least-questioned arrangements in U.S. culture) is actually a social convention, not an economic necessity. As workers have become more productive and automation has picked up more slack, not much serious consideration has been given in the United States to the idea of reducing work hours. Instead, people work more and more. According to Weeks, having a job confers moral goodness and other virtues upon those who perform it, which is why people rarely question whether work is, in itself, good. If they did, they might see how work limits their pleasure, creativity and self-determination.

The post-work future Weeks imagines, citing the scholarship of Paul Lafargue, would allow us to expand¬†‚Äúour needs and desires beyond their usual objects‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒto understand how we want to spend our finite time in the world, then go do it. The refusal to work is an important step toward getting there, according to Weeks. When workers reduce the hours they spend working (or stop working altogether), they are rejecting the idea of work as our¬†‚Äúhighest calling and moral duty ‚Ķ as the necessary center of social life.‚ÄĚ It also allows workers to organize toward their revolutionary visions while improving their present¬†circumstances.

The current historical moment isn‚Äôt without its precedents. A¬†kind of mass work refusal took place in the¬†1970s, when¬†one in six¬†union members went on strike, demanding more control over their workplaces and more dignity. But the anti-work flashpoint was quickly¬†‚Äúco-opted by managerial initiatives as an excuse for work intensification,‚ÄĚ Weeks tells¬†In These Times. Employers attempted to make work¬†‚Äúmore participatory, more multi-skilled, more team-based so that you could work even longer and¬†harder.‚ÄĚ

The pandemic-era shift seems more promising, Weeks says: Today‚Äôs workers are fed up with intensification. They are not merely thinking about what other kind of job they might have, but about whether they want to work at all (and how little work they can get away with).

‚ÄúSo many of the criticisms we are hearing about are focused on both the quality of work, the low pay and brutally intensive pace of so many jobs, and the question of quantity‚ÄĒfor example, the long hours needed to make enough in tips in restaurant and service work and the added time of commuting to most jobs,‚ÄĚ Weeks says.¬†‚ÄúThe overwhelming response to the prospect of returning to work as usual is that people want more control over the working day and more time off work to do with as they¬†will.‚ÄĚ

Without work taking up¬†40¬†or more hours each week, those who lost their jobs to the pandemic have discovered other ways to fill their time. Baking bread became such a¬†popular quarantine hobby that it verged on clich√©, but many who tried it found it¬†comforting and deeply satisfying. One might say the bakers were not alienated from their labor for once‚ÄĒthey got to eat the bread at the end. Others found themselves with more energy to dedicate to activities like yoga, gardening and roller¬†skating.

‚ÄúI ‚Ķ got really into cooking at home, because I¬†really do love to cook,‚ÄĚ Caleb Orth, a¬†35-year-old in Chicago, told the¬†New York Times‚Äô podcast¬†The Daily¬†in August.¬†‚ÄúIt was a¬†hobby of mine before I¬†lost my job,‚ÄĚ he said. But at the restaurant where he‚Äôd worked¬†80¬†hours a¬†week, he‚Äôd tired of making¬†‚Äúsomebody else‚Äôs food, the same thing over and over and over. So during Covid, I‚Äôd be making meals at home, and I¬†got really into¬†it.‚ÄĚ

Many like Orth expressed amazement at how good it felt to be doing things that were good for their well-being. Work suddenly seemed like it might just be one element of life, not the center of it.

When the bar where Jessica McClanahan worked shut down in March¬†2020, she set about creating a¬†small art studio in her home in Kansas City, Mo. She filled a¬†corner of her living room with drawing and book-binding supplies, acquired an antique desk from a¬†friend and assembled a¬†small altar for cherished objects. McClanahan‚Äôs boyfriend, who had worked with her at the bar, got laid off around the same time; he fixed himself an art studio upstairs. While the two collected unemployment‚ÄĒabout $325¬†weekly, each, plus a $600¬†weekly federal supplement‚ÄĒthey fell into a¬†routine. They would wake up each morning, have breakfast, then make art in their respective¬†spaces.

‚ÄúSometimes I¬†would just mess around and not really do anything,‚ÄĚ says McClanahan,¬†37.¬†‚ÄúBut I¬†got to be like,¬†‚ÄėOh, do I¬†want to draw a¬†picture? Yes. I‚Äôm gonna do that. Do I¬†want to paint? Make a¬†book? Take photographs? I¬†also taught myself how to embroider. It was just a¬†free-for-all for creativity, which I¬†haven‚Äôt had in a¬†long time.‚ÄĚ She made a¬†leather-bound sketchbook for her boyfriend for Christmas, a¬†guestbook for his parents‚Äô¬†50th¬†wedding anniversary and dozens of postcards to send to friends across the¬†country.

McClanahan, who has a master‚Äôs in library science and went to art school, had long intended to spend more time on creative pursuits. When she started her bartending career in 2005, she saw the service industry as a reliable way to make rent and pay off student loans. While her friends were making minimum wage at art galleries, she made hundreds in tips in a single night. But it got harder to make time for art, especially when she became a bar manager. McClanahan says she felt glued to her phone even when she wasn‚Äôt on the clock, troubleshooting crises at work, fielding texts from people who called in sick and answering emails from vendors.

After trying out a¬†few other jobs during the pandemic, McClanahan decided to go back to bartending when restaurants reopened‚ÄĒbut quickly realized she couldn‚Äôt return to the lifestyle she had as a¬†manager.¬†‚ÄúI was really stressed all the time, and I¬†kept saying to myself over and over,¬†‚ÄėI don‚Äôt know why I¬†am spending so much time worrying about something that isn‚Äôt even mine,‚Äô‚ÄĚ McClanahan says. The downtime while she was unemployed gave her¬†‚Äúfreedom and peace of¬†mind.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúThat really got the ball rolling for me in terms of thinking about what I‚Äôm willing to tolerate at my job going forward,‚ÄĚ McClanahan adds.

Some employers are starting to see obvious solutions to their so-called labor shortage: better conditions, signing bonuses, higher wages, stronger benefits. The federal minimum wage is still not $15, but a¬†growing number of companies have begun offering it (including giant corporations like Target, Best Buy, CVS Health and Under Armour). In a¬†press release, Under Armour executive Stephanie Pugliese called the move a¬†‚Äústrategic decision ‚Ķ to be a¬†competitive employer.‚ÄĚ

With the federal unemployment extension set to expire September 6, as this issue went to press, the 13% of workers who have refused jobs because of that stable income may no longer be able to simply opt out. Regardless, the new skepticism of work as a de facto good will likely stay. Our time, after all, is our lives.

Neither Lily nor McClanahan is presently receiving unemployment, and they both now work in the service industry. Lily believes this job is a temporary arrangement, while McClanahan plans to continue as a bartender.

‚ÄúAfter having five different jobs during the pandemic, I‚Äôve come back around to the idea that this is the kind of work I¬†want to be doing if I¬†have to work at all,‚ÄĚ McClanahan says.¬†‚ÄúBut my attitude toward devoting all of my lifeblood to work has definitely¬†changed.‚ÄĚ

About the Author: Marie Solis has written for the New York Times, The New Republic and The Nation.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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Meet the Warehouse Worker Who Took On Amazon Over Inhumane Conditions and Harassment

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Hibaq Mohamed has worked for Ama¬≠zon near¬≠ly as long as she‚Äôs been in the Unit¬≠ed States. In 2016, the twen¬≠ty-some¬≠thing Soma¬≠li immi¬≠grant land¬≠ed in Min¬≠neso¬≠ta by way of a refugee camp, join¬≠ing one of the largest East African com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ties in the coun¬≠try. She soon joined the legion of work¬≠ers who fuel the state‚Äôs main Ama¬≠zon facil¬≠i¬≠ty, the MSP1 ful¬≠fill¬≠ment cen¬≠ter in Shakopee, near the Twin Cities.

‚ÄúThis was my first job,‚ÄĚ Mohamed says.¬†‚ÄúThey were hir¬≠ing work¬≠ers ‚Ķ East African and peo¬≠ple like me. [These work¬≠ers] didn‚Äôt have a¬†lot of expe¬≠ri¬≠ence, they don‚Äôt know a¬†lot.‚Ä̬†

The Shakopee facil¬≠i¬≠ty employs rough¬≠ly 1,000 work¬≠ers to exe¬≠cute Amazon‚Äôs high¬≠ly mech¬≠a¬≠nized work reg¬≠i¬≠men every day, pack¬≠ing orders at a fren¬≠zied rate of around 250 units per hour. While items zip down a con¬≠vey¬≠or belt, the work¬≠ers are mon¬≠i¬≠tored, through an auto¬≠mat¬≠ed sys¬≠tem, to track their speed and any errors that might dam¬≠age their per¬≠for¬≠mance ratings.

On top of the pres¬≠sure to meet quo¬≠tas, Mohamed says man¬≠age¬≠ment decid¬≠ed to¬†‚Äúfire a¬†crazy num¬≠ber of work¬≠ers‚ÄĚ short¬≠ly after she start¬≠ed work¬≠ing there.¬†‚ÄúAnd they are not telling us what they fired them for,‚ÄĚ she recalls. She says the work¬≠ers were immi¬≠grants who did not speak Eng¬≠lish¬†fluently.

Though Ama¬≠zon says these were sea¬≠son¬≠al hires‚ÄĒand were there¬≠fore dis¬≠missed once their tem¬≠po¬≠rary stints end¬≠ed, the seem¬≠ing lack of trans¬≠paren¬≠cy trou¬≠bled Mohamed.¬†‚ÄúI feel like this was unfair,‚ÄĚ she¬†says.

Around¬†2017, Mohamed and oth¬≠er East African immi¬≠grant work¬≠ers start¬≠ed meet¬≠ing with the¬†Awood Cen¬≠ter, a¬†Min¬≠neapo¬≠lis work¬≠er cen¬≠ter. As fledg¬≠ling com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty orga¬≠niz¬≠ers, Mohamed says,¬†‚ÄúWe have to be smart, we have to have the train¬≠ing to do this.‚ÄĚ Over the past two years, East African work¬≠ers have¬†spear¬≠head¬≠ed a¬†num¬≠ber of walk¬≠outs and protests¬†at Ama¬≠zon against what they per¬≠ceive as incom¬≠pe¬≠tence, inhu¬≠mane pro¬≠duc¬≠tiv¬≠i¬≠ty stan¬≠dards and a¬†lack of diver¬≠si¬≠ty among the man¬≠age¬≠ment. Images of hijabis walk¬≠ing the pick¬≠et line and ban¬≠ners pro¬≠claim¬≠ing that work¬≠ers are¬†‚Äúnot robots‚ÄĚ gar¬≠nered nation¬≠al¬†headlines.¬†

Fol¬≠low¬≠ing ini¬≠tial protests in¬†2018, Ama¬≠zon man¬≠age¬≠ment sat down with MSP1‚Äôs East African work¬≠ers to dis¬≠cuss work¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions‚ÄĒhigh¬≠ly unusu¬≠al for Ama¬≠zon, which had pre¬≠vi¬≠ous¬≠ly avoid¬≠ed such direct talks with¬†workers.

Ama¬≠zon even¬≠tu¬≠al¬≠ly agreed to make some accom¬≠mo¬≠da¬≠tions at the facil¬≠i¬≠ty, such as com¬≠mit¬≠ting man¬≠agers to meet quar¬≠ter¬≠ly with work¬≠ers and respond to com¬≠plaints with¬≠in five days, accord¬≠ing to the New York Times. But work¬≠ers have con¬≠tin¬≠ued to com¬≠plain about the intense pro¬≠duc¬≠tiv¬≠i¬≠ty pres¬≠sure, which often leaves them with¬≠out time for dai¬≠ly prayers and bath¬≠room breaks, despite Ama¬≠zon claim¬≠ing that work¬≠ers can pray at any time. MSP1 also has one of the high¬≠est injury rates among Amazon‚Äôs ful¬≠fill¬≠ment centers.

Awood has become a¬†hub for the East African work¬≠er com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty, teach¬≠ing orga¬≠niz¬≠ing tac¬≠tics and build¬≠ing mutu¬≠al sup¬≠port. Awood oper¬≠ates as a¬†grass¬≠roots group and not a¬†for¬≠mal union, but oth¬≠er unions‚ÄĒinclud¬≠ing the¬†Ser¬≠vice Employ¬≠ees Inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠al Union¬†and¬†the Team¬≠sters‚ÄĒhave been sup¬≠port¬≠ing Ama¬≠zon work¬≠ers at MSP1¬†and oth¬≠er¬†facilities.

Just over a month after Min¬≠neso¬≠ta issued stay-at-home orders, Ama¬≠zon elim¬≠i¬≠nat¬≠ed unlim¬≠it¬≠ed unpaid time off for those who opt¬≠ed to stay home for health con¬≠cerns, which trig¬≠gered a walk¬≠out by more than 50 MSP1 work¬≠ers. The work¬≠ers also protest¬≠ed what they said was the retal¬≠ia¬≠to¬≠ry fir¬≠ing of two work¬≠er activists, Faiza Osman (who Awood claims was ter¬≠mi¬≠nat¬≠ed after stay¬≠ing home with her chil¬≠dren to avoid infec¬≠tion, but was lat¬≠er rein¬≠stat¬≠ed) and Bashir Mohamed (who appar¬≠ent¬≠ly was dis¬≠ci¬≠plined for vio¬≠lat¬≠ing social dis¬≠tanc¬≠ing guide¬≠lines, which work¬≠ers say are selec¬≠tive¬≠ly enforced).

Work¬≠ers‚Äô fears about the virus were con¬≠firmed in June, when about 90 ware¬≠house employ¬≠ees test¬≠ed pos¬≠i¬≠tive for Covid-19. Bloomberg report¬≠ed that Ama¬≠zon had care¬≠ful¬≠ly tracked the Covid-19 infec¬≠tion rate at MSP1, but did not dis¬≠close details on the num¬≠ber of cas¬≠es to workers.

Man¬≠age¬≠ment¬†‚Äúwant[ed] to hide it,‚ÄĚ Mohamed says. But while the high¬≠er-ups were not exposed like the front¬≠line work¬≠ers on the ware¬≠house floor,¬†‚ÄúWe are the ones who are going togeth¬≠er to the bath¬≠room, to the break room. We are the ones get¬≠ting the¬†virus.‚ÄĚ

Ama¬≠zon¬†has boast¬≠ed¬†about its Covid-19¬†response, claim¬≠ing it has tak¬≠en exten¬≠sive mea¬≠sures to keep work¬≠ers safe while eas¬≠ing up on quo¬≠tas. But Mohamed says Amazon‚Äôs lead¬≠ers¬†‚Äúfocus more for the mon¬≠ey than the work¬≠ers and¬†people.‚ÄĚ

Last week, work¬≠ers‚Äô fears about their risk of infec¬≠tion were real¬≠ized when the com¬≠pa¬≠ny report¬≠ed that more than 19,000 of its 1,372,000 employ¬≠ees at Ama¬≠zon and Whole Foods had test¬≠ed pos¬≠i¬≠tive for COVID-19. Though it claims that the infec¬≠tion rate at its facil¬≠i¬≠ties was about 40 per¬≠cent low¬≠er on aver¬≠age than in sur¬≠round¬≠ing com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ties, labor advo¬≠cates denounced the com¬≠pa¬≠ny for need¬≠less¬≠ly putting work¬≠ers‚Äô health at risk.

The man¬≠age¬≠ment seems focused on Mohamed, how¬≠ev¬≠er. Amid ris¬≠ing fears of Covid-19¬†risks at work, Mohamed¬†was writ¬≠ten up in July¬†for tak¬≠ing too much¬†‚Äútime off task,‚ÄĚ Amazon‚Äôs term for inter¬≠mit¬≠tent breaks. But she con¬≠tends she had rarely received any dis¬≠ci¬≠pli¬≠nary write-ups until the man¬≠age¬≠ment¬†‚Äúclear¬≠ly made me a¬†tar¬≠get‚ÄĚ after she had protest¬≠ed work¬≠ing¬†conditions.¬†

She wrote to Min¬≠neso¬≠ta Attor¬≠ney Gen¬≠er¬≠al Kei¬≠th Elli¬≠son seek¬≠ing pro¬≠tec¬≠tion under an exec¬≠u¬≠tive order shield¬≠ing whistle¬≠blow¬≠ers from retaliation. 

‚ÄúAma¬≠zon man¬≠agers have tar¬≠get¬≠ed me and open¬≠ly harassed me before,‚ÄĚ Mohamed wrote,¬†‚Äúbut increas¬≠ing¬≠ly dur¬≠ing the¬†pandemic.‚ÄĚ

Ama¬≠zon denies Mohamed and her cowork¬≠ers‚Äô claims of retal¬≠i¬≠a¬≠tion. Ama¬≠zon spokesper¬≠son Jen Crow¬≠croft states via email,¬†‚ÄúWe do not tol¬≠er¬≠ate any kind of dis¬≠crim¬≠i¬≠na¬≠tion in the work¬≠place and we sup¬≠port every employee‚Äôs right to crit¬≠i¬≠cize their employ¬≠er, but that doesn‚Äôt come with blan¬≠ket immu¬≠ni¬≠ty to ignore inter¬≠nal poli¬≠cies.‚ÄĚ Sim¬≠i¬≠lar¬≠ly, Ama¬≠zon attrib¬≠ut¬≠es Bashir‚Äôs dis¬≠missal to vio¬≠la¬≠tions of work¬≠place rules. It also states Osman still works at Ama¬≠zon and was not¬†fired.

Mohamed‚Äôs alle¬≠ga¬≠tions reflect a¬†broad¬≠er pat¬≠tern of fir¬≠ings and pun¬≠ish¬≠ment of work¬≠er-orga¬≠niz¬≠ers dur¬≠ing the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, which has prompt¬≠ed law¬≠mak¬≠ers to inves¬≠ti¬≠gate Amazon‚Äôs labor prac¬≠tices.. Last week,¬†35¬†work¬≠ers at MSP1¬†staged yet anoth¬≠er walk¬≠out¬†to protest the alleged fir¬≠ing of one of Mohamed‚Äôs cowork¬≠ers, Farhiyo Warsame, for¬†‚Äútime off task‚ÄĚ vio¬≠la¬≠tions, after she had voiced con¬≠cerns about safe¬≠ty pro¬≠tec¬≠tions at¬†work.

For now, how¬≠ev¬≠er, Mohamed‚Äôs out¬≠spo¬≠ken¬≠ness might pro¬≠tect her, as the work¬≠ers‚Äô upris¬≠ings have put Amazon‚Äôs labor prac¬≠tices in the pub¬≠lic spotlight. 

Ama¬≠zon esti¬≠mates about¬†30% of its Shakopee work¬≠ers are East African, many of whom live in the Twin Cities Soma¬≠li refugee com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty, which has his¬≠tor¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly strug¬≠gled with racial dis¬≠crim¬≠i¬≠na¬≠tion and socioe¬≠co¬≠nom¬≠ic hard¬≠ship. Now, these bonds have trans¬≠formed into orga¬≠niz¬≠ing pow¬≠er against a¬†cor¬≠po¬≠rate empire. Hav¬≠ing built a¬†diverse com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty of mil¬≠i¬≠tant work¬≠ers at MSP1‚ÄĒSoma¬≠li, Span¬≠ish and Eng¬≠lish speak¬≠ers alike‚ÄĒMohamed knows there is safe¬≠ty in¬†numbers.

‚ÄúWe have one goal, and we can under¬≠stand each oth¬≠er,‚ÄĚ Mohamed says.¬†‚ÄúWe have the pow¬≠er to change pol¬≠i¬≠cy. ‚Ķ We have the right to exer¬≠cise that in the Unit¬≠ed States.‚ÄĚ Although the com¬≠pa¬≠ny¬†‚Äúgive[s] us a¬†lot of fear,‚ÄĚ she adds. ‚Äú[we] still have the courage to fight back and work for the change we¬†want.‚ÄĚ

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a¬†con¬≠tribut¬≠ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a¬†con¬≠tribut¬≠ing edi¬≠tor at Dis¬≠sent and a¬†co-pro¬≠duc¬≠er of the¬†‚ÄúBela¬≠bored‚ÄĚ pod¬≠cast. She stud¬≠ies his¬≠to¬≠ry at the CUNY Grad¬≠u¬≠ate Cen¬≠ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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The Actual Brazil World Cup Scandal Isn’t About Thongs

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Michelle ChenThe 2014 Brazil World Cup made big headlines again this week after¬†a controversial Adidas promotional campaign¬†that the country‚Äôs tourist board says suggests that Brazil is a lascivious pit of sexual debauchery. As part of the elite club of mega-sporting event host nations, the ‚Äúemerging‚ÄĚ economic powerhouse of Brazil is understandably concerned about its public image and was quick to condemn the thong-shaped t-shirt logos. But officials of this rising star of Latin America seem noticeably less concerned about a touchier scandal buried beneath the pageantry: systematic human rights abuses and labor exploitation.

In recent months, several workers have died on construction sites for stadiums and other huge infrastructure projects designed to accommodate this summer’s football extravaganza, and in the lead-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

In early February, Portuguese technician Ant√īnio Jos√© Pita Martins¬†died in a crane accident¬†while working on the construction of the Arena da Amaz√īnia football stadium in the steamy city of Manaus, the largest metropolis in the Amazon basin. The death came after two other construction worker fatalities in the same area in December: Marcleudo de Melo Ferreira, 22, plunged 115 feet to his death from the stadium rooftop. Around the same time, another worker at a nearby convention center site¬†died of a heart attack, reportedly linked to overwork, since workers were being pressed to keep up with the scheduled construction timetable. In November, two others were killed when a crane fell at the Corinthians arena in S√£o Paulo, which will host the World Cup‚Äôs opening match.

The fatalities, as well as other labor disputes, have led to work stoppages and threats of strikes, which have further disrupted the already-behind-schedule construction timetable and exacerbated the deadline pressure from the World Cup governing authority FIFA. The possibility of another strike was raised earlier this month after the death of Martins.

Builders union leader Cicero Custodio¬†told Brazilian media, ‚ÄúWe have to guarantee the workers‚Äô rights and their safety,‚ÄĚ and said the site would be closed the following Monday.

Global mega-sporting events are often marketed as an opportunity to foster growth and cultural exchange, and for years FIFA has¬†issued broad standards‚ÄĒwhich are not legislation and are therefore nonbinding, but are backed by FIFA’s enormous commercial and political clout‚ÄĒfor protecting human rights and promoting good labor practices in host countries. But activists see Brazil’s mammoth investments in stadiums and commercial infrastructure as an impediment to the emerging superpower’s long-term social progress, or even an instrument of oppression, providing a¬†pretext for massive displacement and demolition of shantytowns, as well as the¬†suppression of¬†labor and civil rights.

Of course, the human rights and economic justice issues that have surfaced in Brazil are more the rule than the exception in the arena of international sport. Similar issues with overspending and displacement emerged in the preparations for the Athens and Sochi Olympic Games, as well as the South African World Cup.

In an¬†extensive analysis published in 2012, the Brazilian advocacy network¬†National Coalition of Local Committees for a Peoples‚Äô World Cup and Olympics¬†contends: ‚ÄúIf it is true that mega events offer an opportunity for social inclusion of workers through job creation and the expansion of labor rights, this has not been the Brazilian reality.‚ÄĚ Whether they are laborers at infrastructure projects, or informal workers who have been ‚Äúsuppressed‚ÄĚ by regulations that ban them from working in World Cup commercial zones, the report states, ‚Äúthere is an observable pattern towards increased precariousness of labor‚ÄĚ perpetuated by large companies and consortia as well as government agencies that coddle the corporations and fail to hold them accountable.

Workers not only have to worry about injuries on the job, but being sucked into Brazil‚Äôs vast underground labor market. Last September, the AP reported that after the construction company OAS forced the workers to pay $250 each for the privilege of getting hired for a construction project at the international airport in S√£o Paolo, according to labor officials, “many had to sleep on thin mattresses spread out on the floor and lacked for water, refrigerators and stoves. ‚Ķ While the workers apparently were not held against their will, they were forced to live in conditions so miserable that the Labor Ministry defines them as ‘slave-like.'” For their trouble, they were reportedly offered $3,000 in compensation by the company before being sent home.

Much like overseas migrant laborers (as we’ve reported before, Qatar’s preparation for the 2022 World Cup has generated massive scandals around the abuse of migrant workers), Brazil’s internal labor trafficking networks use recruiters to lure poor rural workers to faraway worksites, where they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation or coercion.

Many Brazilians have been directly uprooted by the projects through forced evictions. In 2011¬†United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Raquel Rolnik sharply criticized¬†‚Äúwhat seems to be a pattern of lack of transparency, consultation, dialogue, fair negotiation, and participation of the affected communities in processes concerning evictions undertaken or planned in connection with the World Cup and Olympics.‚ÄĚ

But Brazilians, who are just emerging from years of post-dictatorship civil unrest and economic turmoil, have special reason to feel outraged. Brazil has developed a strong set of laws protecting labor rights and relatively broad social welfare programs, thanks to president Dilma Rousseff and her administration‚Äôs social democracy-inspired populist policies. But the hyper-commercialism of the games has inspired more resentment than national pride, and protests have exploded over the past year, led by youth, workers and the rising middle-class‚ÄĒall frustrated with the government‚Äôs failure to resolve massive inequality and the underfunding of social services like public transit.

In an essay in the Progressive last June, María Carrión quoted activist Rafael Lima, who represented his favela Bairro da Paz in Salvador at a community meeting about pending development plans for the World Cup:

We are not interested in waving Brazilian flags or volunteering for the World Cup‚Ķ We need jobs. We need education. We need land titles. We need health care. And we need to know where this road they are planning to build is going, and who will be affected.‚ÄĚ

Julia Neiva, a researcher with the¬†Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, an organization that monitors the human rights records of companies, tells Working In These Times the controversy over working conditions in Brazil‚Äôs World Cup preparations, combined with the public backlash against the games in general, reflect a deeper sentiment in civil society that while the country has managed to lift many people out of poverty over the last decade, ‚Äúnow we need equality.‚ÄĚ The struggle here is ensuring that government investments are supporting workers and communities in their fight for secure jobs and social dignity‚ÄĒrather than pouring public money into nationalist marketing campaigns and colossal sporting events.

‚ÄúCountries like Brazil that are claiming to be global leaders need to meet the human rights requirements and human rights standards,‚ÄĚ she adds. And unlike the half-finished stadiums dotting the country, there’s no need to build Brazil’s social protections from scratch: ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs already in our laws, not something that we need to create.‚ÄĚ

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on February 28, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen¬†is¬†a contributing editor at¬†In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at¬†CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of¬†Asia Pacific Forum¬†on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine,¬†cain.

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Exploitation Remains the Name of the Game at Dell’s Chinese Factories

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Michelle ChenThere is nothing newsworthy in the¬†latest investigative report¬†on working conditions in Chinese electronics factories‚ÄĒjust the same old story, really: Once again, there’s evidence of systematic exploitation of workers, suppression of labor organizing, poor living conditions and chronic economic insecurity for young workers. What has changed is the intensity of the industry’s resistance to cleaning up the worst labor practices of China‚Äôs global manufacturing model. Even as a rising generation of young workers are increasingly disillusioned with harsh working conditions and dismal job prospects, high tech manufacturers are still taking the low road on their rights.

The report, authored by the Denmark-based DanWatch, with support from U.S.-based China Labor Watch and in collaboration with other European consumer advocacy organizations, describes disturbing workplace troubles at factories that supply the computer giant Dell.

It turns out that the chips and motherboards that bring modern efficiency to western offices are made under pretty backward conditions. Through site visits and personal interviews with workers at four factories that supply Dell (all managed by Taiwan-based companies) in Jiangsu and Guangdong, researchers uncovered evidence of numerous violations. At all four of the facilities, employees reported working long hours that sometimes totaled more than 60 a week or exceeded the legal overtime cap of 36 hours per month. In some cases, workers reported working seven days straight, without a day off. This non-stop schedule violates the voluntary standards Dell agreed to under the framework of the Electronic Industry Citizen Coalition (EICC), an industry consortium that promotes ethical sourcing.

The report quotes one worker, Zhao Lili of Guangxi Province, describing physical exhaustion and seemingly toxic conditions on the shop floor:

‚ÄúBecause of the welding, the temperature is uncomfortably high and the smell is toxic. We don‚Äôt get mouth protection and I get skin irritation if I touch my face at work,‚ÄĚ she says.

Zhao explains the work is exhausting because of the repetitive movements and long hours. ‚ÄúWe have to stand up the entire 12 hour shift; to sit down, you have to ask for permission.‚ÄĚ

Many, according to investigator interviews and observations, were living in cramped dormitories, with poor quality food and a single toilet for as many as 50 people. Often, employers hired ‚Äústudent interns‚ÄĚ to do essentially the same work as regular full-time employees, but with less pay and job security. China Labor Watch¬†Program Coordinator Kevin Slaten tells¬†Working In These Times¬†that this is¬†common practice¬†in an industry bent on squeezing every last drop of profit from its workforce:

The tremendous use of student workers and dispatch or temporary workers is in part a symptom of brand companies, like Dell, driving down prices for production. The factories run on relatively slim profit margins, and the factories attempt to use every trick in the book to cut labor costs, including the use of illegally large proportions of temporary workers.

DanWatch’s investigation¬†aims to implicate the whole electronics-manufacturing sector, but¬†targets Dell specifically because it is a major supplier of electronics to European procurement markets, including corporations and government institutions. Dell has¬†responded to the findings¬†by vowing to strengthen its internal monitoring and claiming that ‚Äúcorrective actions plans are in place‚ÄĚ for noncompliance issues it has detected (a recent corporate social responsibility report revealed that most internal workplace audits had also found excessive working hours).

Labor advocates are pessimistic about the industry’s glass-half-full promises.

Following a series of worker suicides at the Taiwan-owned electronics manufacturer Foxconn that provoked public shock, numerous tech companies‚ÄĒmost notably Foxconn client Apple‚ÄĒvowed to address¬†supply-chain labor problems¬†and exploitation. But watchdog groups have repeatedly questioned the effectiveness of these¬†voluntary efforts, as they allow multinational corporations to effectively¬†control the oversight of their own supply chains, often through quasi-independent, management-friendly auditing agencies.

But Dell is hardly the only offender in China’s bustling global manufacturing sector, nor is it the first to issue dubious assurances to consumers that their favorite gadgets are ethically made.

Late last month, a group of student investigators who¬†went undercover as workers¬†at several factories in the southern city of Shenzhen revealed that ‚Äútrade unions in these factories played no effective role in representing the workers or in upholding their rights,‚ÄĚ while abuses such as inadequate safety protections, excessive working schedules and minimum-wage violations were rife. The experience is typical for the countless young migrant workers who fuel the tech manufacturing sector. China‚Äôs urban economy relies heavily on a vast army of constantly churning migrant labor, and the workforce is becoming increasingly unstable as frustration with the low wages and drudgery of factory work has led to scores of¬†uprisings and wildcat strikes¬†in recent months.

The banner of ‚Äúcorporate responsibility‚ÄĚ isn‚Äôt enough to quiet these workers‚Äô troubles. What they need instead is a real voice at work, in the form of an independent labor movement. China generally lacks real independent unions, separate from government-affiliated unions that typically work in tandem with management. At several of the¬†audited Dell supplier factories, workers reported “no knowledge of whether they have a trade union or workers‚Äô representative at their factory.” While worker unrest has roiled, activists have accused¬†Wal-Mart,¬†Foxconn¬†and other companies of suppressing or resisting worker organizing in the Chinese workplaces that drive their supply chains.

With the indigenous labor movement only in¬†its fledgling stages, consumer-led campaigns and groups like China Labor Watch might help encourage worker activism. But in terms of achieving systemic, sustainable change in the industry, Slaten says, ‚ÄúEven if consumers could act in unison, the answer would not be to boycott electronic products manufactured in a given Chinese factory. From the perspective of worker interest, this will only serve to get a great number of workers laid off.‚ÄĚ

For workers’ interests to supersede corporate interests, change will need to start where the products do: on the assembly line, where workers can¬†act in unison and stand up for their rights. Outside China, the rest of us‚ÄĒcommunity groups, unions, and ourselves as individual consumers‚ÄĒhave a responsibility to keep¬†global public pressure¬†on multinationals, showing solidarity with workers both by getting their back and by making sure the bosses get out of their way.

Correction: The names of the locations of factories now properly cite Jiangsu and Guangdong, along with Shenzhen in particular, as the sites studied.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on November 7, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI.

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