Slavery by any Other Name

It is the same spirit that says, 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. – Abraham Lincoln, 1858

The terms “new economic slavery” and “wage slavery” are commonly used today to describe the social relations between workers and capitalists.  I prefer “modern slavery.”  Some may argue that it’s not indentured servitude since you can always quit your job.  Or is it?  It is: the under-privileged, under-educated, under-classed in America are slaves to an economic caste system with little chance of escaping the category of drones, those unfortunate male bees charged to protect the hive.  If an employee has to work over 12 hours a day at low wages and no vacation time, he has no opportunity or resources to look for other work or get more education and is a modern slave.

Recently, the “sequester,” which automatically slashed the federal budget by $85 billion, went into effect.  The stock market, anticipating that would happen, closed at record highs.  The news of the cuts was good for investors; profits increase when workers are fired.  Reagan’s economics were described as a “trickle-down,” as the less prosperous would supposedly benefit when the affluent thrived.  The real net result was exactly the opposite. We now exist in a “trickle up” economy.

I’ve worked in the food industry.  I don’t recommend it; low pay, no benefits, and you are often required to work seven days a week.  It’s hot, dirty, and more dangerous than you think.  And most would never eat out again if they saw what goes on in the kitchen.  There’s a standing joke in the food business, the “Five Seconds” rule.  If something falls on the floor, a five second window exists to decide if it’s garbage or dinner.  It’s almost never garbage.  Without sick days and $7.50 an hour wages, do you think your cook is at home with the flu?  He’s not.  Then there’s waiter or waitress pay, or $2 an hour plus tips, which supposedly encourages friendlier service.  Restaurant patrons are expected to pay their servers 10 to 15 percent gratuity.  Yet there is no law mandating that they receive anything, so their pay depends on the mood of their patrons. Such is the reality of America’s new service economy.

Just like other low wage jobs, workers in the food industry are eligible for all kinds of government low-income programs like food stamps and Medicaid.  Yet our government doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage.  Does keeping the minimum wage at $7.50 really save taxpayer money?  WalMart, for example, pays its employees such a low wage that a significant number of them qualify for government assistance.  In other words, you and I are paying for their benefits through our taxes, not their employer.

Before the 2008 economic crisis, wages were much higher for unskilled workers. In order to attract better workers where I live, average pay for the unskilled was about $10 an hour.  But as the recession lingered, businesses began to economize by making their employees work longer hours. In factories, 8-hour shifts became 12-hour shifts because 12-hour shifts require fewer employees.  Temporary workers became preferable to permanent workers because the former received no benefits.  New-hire pay went down to $8 an hour often with no chance of advancement. Salaries and benefits were cut.  

And, of course, immigrants in the farming industry are much more vulnerable to unfair employment practices than anyone else.  That’s old hat.  But the picture is bleak for all drones in the modern global economy.  Take it or leave it, and either way your job may be shipped to China or Indonesia anyway.  It’s the new reality that impacts every single worker in our country.   

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