Let’s Put the Nature of Work on Labor’s Agenda: Part Four


[Author’s note: Let me repeat my invitation at the end of Part Three of this series. Readers are invited to submit short essays, about 1,000 words, about their work. What do you do? In what ways is your work satisfying? In what ways is it not? How could it be made better? Send your essays to me at <mikedjyates@msn.com>.]

I said in the last installment that in this one we would begin to explore the reasons why work in modern society “entraps us in meaningless and inhuman labor.” However, I have decided to wait a bit to do this and to give some more examples of the horror of modern work. What follows is in the form of a lamentation. It will be continued in Part Five.

Working to Live : A Lamentation

Consider the automobile worker, Ben Hamper, who describes a visit to the plant to see what his father does. He says,

We stood there for forty minutes or so, a miniature lifetime, and the pattern never changed. Car, windshield. Car, windshield. Drudgery piled atop drudgery. Cigarette to cigarette. Decades rolling through the rafters, bones turning to dust, stubborn clocks gagging down flesh, another windshield, another cigarette, wars blinking on and off, thunderstorms muttering the alphabet, crows on power lines asleep or dead, that mechanical octopus squirming against nothing, nothing, nothingness.

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider Mira, a child prostitute in Bombay, at age 13 sent by her parents from her village in Nepal to work, they thought, as a domestic servant. There are at least 20,000 child prostitutes in Bombay, “displayed in row after row of zoo-like animal cages.” We are told,

When Mira, a sweet-faced virgin with golden brown skin, refused to have sex, she was dragged into a torture chamber in a dark alley used for “breaking in” new girls. She was locked in a narrow, windowless room without food or water. On the fourth day, when she had still refused to work, one of the madam’s thugs, called a goonda, wrestled her to the floor and banged her head against the concrete until she passed out. When she awoke, she was naked; a rattan cane smeared with pureed red chili peppers had been shoved up her vagina. Later, she was raped by the goonda. “They torture you until you say yes,” Mira recently recounted during an interview here. “Nobody hears your cries.”

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider Irfana, a Pakistani girl sold to the owner of a brick kiln at age six. Here is how she described her life:

My master bought, sold, and traded us like livestock, and sometimes he shipped us great distances. The boys were beaten frequently to make them work long hours. The girls were often violated. My best friend got ill after she was raped, and when she couldn’t work, the master sold her to a friend of his in a village a thousand kilometers away. Her family was never told where she was sent, and they never saw her again.

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the lace maker, Mary Anne Walkley, immortalized by Karl Marx in his book, Capital. Mary Anne died 135 years ago, but her story could be told today and not just of child workers like Mira and Irfana, but by hundreds of thousands of garment workers laboring in sweatshops every bit as bad as that of Ms. Walkley, and not only in Pakistan and India but right here in the United States. If you look up from the streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown, you see the steam from hundreds of sweatshops where today’s Mary Anne Walkleys work away their lives. Marx tells us that

In the last week of June, 1863, all the London daily papers published a paragraph with the “sensational” heading, “Death from simple over-work.” It dealt with the death of the milliner, Mary Anne Walkley, 20 years of age, employed in a highly respectable dressmaking establishment, exploited by a lady with the pleasant name of Elise. The old, oft-told story, was once more recounted. The girl worked, on an average, 16½ hours, during the season often 30 hours, without a break, whilst her failing labor power was revived by occasional supplies of sherry, port, or coffee. It was just now the height of the season. It is necessary to conjure up in the twinkling of an eye the gorgeous dresses for the noble ladies bidden to the ball in honor of the newly-imported Princess of Wales. Mary Anne Walkley had worked without intermission for 26½ hours, with 60 other girls, 30 in one room, that only afforded 1/3 of the cubic feet of air required for them. At night, they slept in pairs in one of the stifling holes into which the bedroom was divided by a partition of board. And this was one of the best millinery establishments in London. Mary Anne Walkley fell ill on the Friday, died on Sunday, without, to the astonishment of Madame Elise, having previously completed the work in hand. . . .

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the restaurant worker, Mr. Zheng. In Manhattan, restaurant workers often toil for upwards of 100 hours per week for as little as $2.00 per hour. Here is how a reporter describes Mr. Zheng’s life:

Three years after arriving in this country from the coastal province of Fujian [in China], Mr. Zheng, 35, is still working off a $30,000 debt to the smugglers who secured him passage on a series of ships. He can devote very little of his meager busboy’s salary to rent, so he has 11 roommates. They share a studio bracketed by triple-tiered bunk beds, with a narrow passage like a gangplank between them. One bachelor household among two dozen others in a complex of three low-rise buildings on Allen Street, they split a rent of $650 a month, paying about $54 each.

Like the others, Mr. Zheng keeps his scant belongings in a plastic bag above his mattress, nailed beside the herbal-medicine pouches and girlie pictures that decorate his rectangle of a wall.

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the New York City cab driver, Koffee, an African living here for 20 years. Here is an interview with him, conducted by the newsletter, Punching the Clock (PTC):

PTC: So what kind of hours do you drive?
Koffee: Twelve hours, five to five.
PTC: Do you mind working a twelve hour shift?
Koffee: That’s how the industry, you know, they do it. In less than twelve hours you don’t make nothing. . . . Sometimes you can work twelve hours and go home with about $20 in your pocket.
PTC: What do you do with your free time?
Koffee: Free time? I relax. With this job, after twelve hours you can?t do nothing. It’s a killing job. Sitting here driving for twelve hours. You get home, you are exhausted. You don’t want to do anything anymore. I get home, I go to sleep. When I get up I just have time to get something to eat.

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the farm laborers, everywhere among the lowest paid and most overworked. Bending over the crops, in terrible heat and cold, working alongside of their children, without enough to eat, like the coffee plantation workers who cannot afford to buy the crop they pick. In Mexico, just south of Arizona and California, here is what “free trade” has wrought:

In the fields, a single portable bathroom might serve a whole crew of several hundred, with a metal drum on wheels providing the drinking water. . . . Toddlers wander among the seated workers, some of them nursing on baby bottles and others, their faces smeared with dirt, chewing on the onions. A few sleep in the rows, or in little makeshift beds of blankets in the vegetable bins. . . . As the morning sun illuminates the faces of the workers, it reveals dozens of young girls and boys. By rough count, perhaps a quarter of the workers here are anywhere from 6 or 7 years old to 15 or 16. . . . Honorina Ruiz is 6. She sits in front of a pile of green onions. . . . She lines up eight or nine onions, straightening out their roots and tails. Then she knocks the dirt off, puts a rubber band around them and adds the bunch to those already in the box beside her. She’s too shy to say more than her name, but she seems proud to be able to do what her brother Rigoberto, at 13, is very good at. . . . These are Mexico’s forgotten children. . . .

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the temporary clerical workers, Kimberly and Helen, two of millions of such workers worldwide. Here is how they describe their work:

Minimal work. Boredom. And no challenging work. I?d much rather be fighting with a spreadsheet, trying to figure out how to set up a spreadsheet, rather than just entering in the numbers. A boss who treats you like a temp and is very much, like, always checking up on you or else totally ignoring you. Doesn’t really remember your name. Says, “Oh, I?ll just put this here. We’ll wait till so-and-so gets back to work with it.”

The isolation. The lack of benefits. The monotony. The underemployment. Your resources, your skills, your intelligence are not integrated. I mean, there’s no change. So I guess just the hopelessness, just the stagnation. The fact that there’s never any increase in cerebral activity. Even when they find out more about you, they still don’t trust you to take on more. But the loneliness. It’s really lonely. Eating lunch by yourself every single day. And no one ever asking you a personal question. Like the secretaries never, ever, ask, “Where are you from?” or “What have you been up to?”

How can we live in a world like this?

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. He was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), all published by Monthly Review Press.