Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘economic insecurity’

The Reality Behind the ‘Surging’ U.S. Economy

Friday, May 17th, 2019

And yet most of the gains from our growing economy are still going to those who least need a boost. Stock market rallies, for example, further concentrate wealth among the very richest Americans. The top 1% of Americans own more than half of stocks and mutual funds. The bottom 90% own just 7%.

For ordinary Americans, the slight uptick in wages is not enough to make up for many years of stagnation. Average hourly pay rose just 6 cents in April 2019 and 4 cents the month before that.

Workers need a much bigger raise if they are to receive their fair share of economic gains, especially with prices for many essentials rising much faster than wages. For example, compared to the 3.2% increase in average earnings over the past year, spending on prescription drugs is up 7.1%while the average house price rose 5.7%. Average childcare costs jumped 7.5% between 2016 and 2017.

Such small pay increases won’t do much to chip away at the country’s $1.6 trillion in student debt — a burden leading 1 in 15 borrowers to consider suicide, according to a recent survey.

Wages have also lagged far behind the increase in corporate profits (7.8% in 2018). Despite promises that workers would reap huge benefits from the Republican tax cuts, big corporations have used most of their tax windfalls to enrich wealthy shareholders and CEOs, blowing a record-setting $1 trillion on stock buybacks that inflate the value of their shares.

Another reason for the disconnect between the rosy headlines and people’s lived experiences: GDP is a deeply flawed measure of economic well-being. At a recent conference in Washington, D.C. hosted by People’s Action, many grassroots activists told stories that underscored this point.

Sonny Garcia from Illinois People’s Action talked about how his mother’s insulin prescription had just jumped from $100 to $700 per month. Increased profits for pharmaceutical firms contribute to GDP growth, but they can mean extreme hardship for people like Sonny’s mother.

Crystal Murillo, a city council member from Aurora, Colorado talked about how almost all the building going on in her city is for luxury condos. High-end real estate development is also good for the GDP, but not for people who get gentrified out of the housing market.

Laurel Clinton, from Iowa CCI, talked about her fears that her son could get racially profiled and swept into the exploding prison population in her state. New prison construction shows up as a plus for the GDP, but it’s not exactly good news for communities, especially communities of color.

The rosy topline indicators also mask our country’s deep racial divides. The black unemployment rate remains more than twice as high as the rate for whites (6.7% versus 3.1% for whites) and it has increased from 6.5% in April 2018.

People of color are also more likely than whites to be among the more than 27 million Americans who lack health insurance. The uninsured rate is 19% for Latinos and 11% for blacks, compared to 7% for whites. And according to a recent report co-published by the Institute for Policy Studies, 37 percent of black families and 33 percent of Latino families have zero wealth or are in debt, compared to just 15.5 percent of white families.

Despite the overall tightening of the labor market, a large share of U.S. jobs are still “precarious,” with little security in terms of retirement benefits, affordable health insurance, or predictable scheduling.

While presiding over an economic recovery that started under his predecessor, Trump has done nothing on his own to lift up working people.

The president has signed several executive orders to curtail labor union rights and his Labor Department recently announced plans to scale back an Obama policy to expand overtime rights to millions of workers. He has also lent his support to “right to work” laws that undercut unions by prohibiting them from requiring workers who benefit from collective bargaining agreements to pay dues.

Unless workers have more power to negotiate for their fair share of economic awards, even a real economic boom will have limited benefit for those who need it most.

This article was originally published at Our Future on May 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project and co-edits Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies. For more of her analysis of the state of the U.S. economy, check out her recent interview on NPR’s 1A

 

Ending Gender-Based Violence and Harassment in the World of Work

Monday, May 28th, 2018

No one should have to risk their safety or dignity to put food on the table. Yet every day, workers around the world are subjected to sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. On Monday, May 28, workers, employers and governments will come together at the International Labor Organization to discuss a new global standard on violence and harassment in the world of work. This is the culmination of more than a decade of advocacy by the global labor movement. It’s an exciting opportunity to create a binding international agreement to end gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace.

The AFL-CIO, together with partners from around the world, will be on the ground pushing for a binding convention that empowers workers to take collective action to build safe, respectful workplaces. You can follow the action on our Facebook and Twitter accounts, and check out our partners at the Solidarity Center (@SolidarityCntr) and the International Trade Union Confederation (@ITUC).

Why use the term gender-based violence and harassment?

In the United States, the law protects against sex-based discrimination, including sexual harassment, and public conversations generally use these terms as well. Often, sex and gender are used interchangeably. However, there is an important distinction between the two: a person’s sex is tied to their inherent biological characteristics. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct built around norms, expectations and stereotypes about what it means to be a man or a woman.

In the U.S., and indeed throughout much of the world, there is an entrenched, gendered power hierarchy that values men and a rigid definition of masculinity. The term gender-based violence and harassment reflects this inherent power imbalance. It recognizes the link between the gendered violence that occurs in society at large and the devaluation of women in the workplace. Both are tied to the way people are socialized, and particularly how men are socialized to feel entitled to women’s bodies and to expect deference and compliance. Every social actor has a role to play in breaking down these harmful stereotypes and creating equitable, respectful communities—and when it comes to addressing how this issue plays out in the workplace, unions have an unique and powerful role to play.

How do unions help stop gender-based violence and harassment?

Unions have a critical role to play in ending gender-based violence and harassment. At base, gender-based violence in the world of work—including unwanted touching, sexual comments, requests for sexual favors and even sexual assault—is not about sex, but about power. Unions are dedicated to shifting power relationships and creating more equitable and fair workplaces. Workers, particularly those who have been subjected to mistreatment, must be empowered to take collective action to enact solutions and demand justice.

Economic insecurity, particularly precarious and low-wage employment, makes workers more vulnerable to harassment. Women comprise the majority of part-time and temporary workers in the United States and most of the world, as well as the majority of low-paid workers and those making minimum wage. Many of these workers live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford even a brief break in employment, making them less likely to report abuse. Precarious work arrangements, like subcontracting or other contingent arrangements, decrease oversight and accountability. Confronting violence and harassment at work requires addressing the underlying conditions that drive abuse—including worker organizing to win living wages, job security and protection from retaliation.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Cassandra Waters is the global worker rights specialist at the AFL-CIO.

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

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Michelle ChenThere is nothing newsworthy in the latest investigative report on working conditions in Chinese electronics factories—just 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’s 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:

“Because of the welding, the temperature is uncomfortably high and the smell is toxic. We don’t get mouth protection and I get skin irritation if I touch my face at work,” she says.

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

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 “student interns” 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 “corrective actions plans are in place” 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—most notably Foxconn client Apple—vowed 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 “trade unions in these factories played no effective role in representing the workers or in upholding their rights,” 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’s 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 “corporate responsibility” isn’t enough to quiet these workers’ 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’ representative at their factory.” While worker unrest has roiled, activists have accused Wal-MartFoxconn 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, “Even 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.”

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—community groups, unions, and ourselves as individual consumers—have 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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