broadsideblog

Posts Tagged ‘Labor’

It’s Labor Day: What does work mean to you?

In aging, behavior, books, business, journalism, life, news, US, work on September 2, 2013 at 3:02 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The radio plays Aaron Copland’s breathtaking “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Cover of Supply Chain Management Review

Cover of Supply Chain Management Review (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The front page of The New York Times carries this incredibly depressing-but-important story about how clothing factories overseas — the ones that probably made the T-shirt I’m wearing as I write this post — are lying, cheating and faking their “safe” inspected factories:

As Western companies overwhelmingly turn to low-wage countries far away from corporate headquarters to produce cheap apparel, electronics and other goods, factory inspections have become a vital link in the supply chain of overseas production.

An extensive examination by The New York Times reveals how the inspection system intended to protect workers and ensure manufacturing quality is riddled with flaws. The inspections are often so superficial that they omit the most fundamental workplace safeguards like fire escapes. And even when inspectors are tough, factory managers find ways to trick them and hide serious violations, like child labor or locked exit doors. Dangerous conditions cited in the audits frequently take months to correct, often with little enforcement or follow-through to guarantee compliance.

Dara O’Rourke, a global supply chain expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said little had improved in 20 years of factory monitoring, especially with increased use of the cheaper “check the box” inspections at thousands of factories. “The auditors are put under greater pressure on speed, and they’re not able to keep up with what’s really going on in the apparel industry,” he said. “We see factories and brands passing audits but failing the factories’ workers.”

Still, major companies including Walmart, Apple, Gap and Nike turn to monitoring not just to check that production is on time and of adequate quality, but also to project a corporate image that aims to assure consumers that they do not use Dickensian sweatshops. Moreover, Western companies now depend on inspectors to uncover hazardous work conditions, like faulty electrical wiring or blocked stairways, that have exposed some corporations to charges of irresponsibility and exploitation after factory disasters that killed hundreds of workers.

I wrote about the horrible working conditions at Foxconn, the enormous Chinese company whose workers make Apple products (yup, writing on one right now) and who flung themselves out of windows in despair.

I talked about this in “Malled”, my book about retail labor. It was published last month in China, with a new cover and title.

I have several Chinese-speaking friends who have offered to compare the translation to my original — to see if that bit was censored.

It’s a crappy day here in New York — gray, cloudy, hot and humid. It’s an official holiday. Time to relax, recharge, reflect on our role as “human capital” the new euphemism for the old euphemism for human beings toiling for pay — “labor.”

But we are both working, albeit from home.

Jose, whose full-time job as a photo editor for the Times keeps him busy enough, spent all day yesterday on an income-producing side project.

I spent the day with a friend, deep in conversation. Turns out, even with a decade+ age difference between us, despite living on opposite coats, we both spend much of our time figuring out how to make our work-lives both more emotionally satisfying and financially useful to our needs.

Time Selector

Time Selector (Photo credit: Telstar Logistics)

Recent polls are shockingly sad — some 70 percent of Americans hate their jobs. A Gallup poll of 150,000 workers found many of us actively miserable in the place where we spend the bulk of our days and energy.

This is nuts!

I grew up in a freelance family. No one had a paycheck, pension or guaranteed income, working in print, film and television. No one taught on the side. It was balls-to-the-wall, full-on creative entrepreneurship, for years, decades.

I took my first staff job, the job (then and now) of my dreams, as a feature writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national daily, when I was 26. “This is the best job you’ll ever have,” a friend working there warned me. I laughed, assuming a lifetime of up-and-onward, in title, status and income.

She was right.

I hope to stop working full-time within the next decade.

Minute Maid Plant, 1950s

Minute Maid Plant, 1950s (Photo credit: StevenM_61)

I want to travel to the many places I still know very little of: Africa, Latin America, Asia. They require $1,500+, 12-16-hour flights. They are not places I want to cram into a week or ten days “vacation.”

I hope to keep writing books, teaching, keeping my hand in. But not tethered to the hamster wheel of non-stop production.

How do you feel about your job?

The price of cheap clothing — 377 die in Bangladesh factory collapse

In behavior, business, Crime, Fashion, news, politics, urban life, women, work on April 30, 2013 at 12:17 am

By Caitlin Kelly

As many of you know by now, more than 377 men and women making clothing for companies like Primark, JC Penney, Benetton and others, were killed two days ago in the collapse of a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

JC Penney is one of the three department store...

JC Penney is one of the three department stores at the mall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s part of the story from The New York Times:

Thousands of people surrounded the site on Sunday, watching the huge rescue operation, even as hopes faded that many more victims would be found alive. For nearly 12 hours, rescuers tried to save a trapped woman, lowering dry food and juice to her as they carefully cut through the wreckage trying to reach her. But then a fire broke out, apparently killing the woman, leaving many firefighters in tears.

With national outrage boiling over, Bangladeshi paramilitary officers tracked down and arrested Sohel Rana, the owner of the building, who was hiding near the Indian border, and returned him by helicopter to Dhaka. When loudspeakers at the rescue site announced his capture earlier in
the day, local news reports said, the crowd broke out in cheers.

The collapse of the building, the Rana Plaza, is considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry. It is known to have claimed at least 377 lives, and hundreds more workers are
thought to be missing still, buried in the rubble.

The Rana Plaza building contained five garment factories, employing more than 3,000 workers, who were making clothing for European and American consumers.

It is worth reading the story because the accompanying photo is so heartbreaking, and one is horribly familiar to  any New Yorker — it is a wall with posters and photos of missing workers, posted by their loved ones, seeking them. After the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, struck down by two jet airliners, there was an equally feverish, often insane, hope that the thousands of workers trapped in those buildings might have escaped alive.

Some did. Many did not.

But their posters were plastered all over the city. They were truly “Wanted” posters, but too often in vain. You could not look at them, even if you knew no one affected, and not want to weep.

Karwan Bazar, one of the most important busine...

Karwan Bazar, one of the most important business centres in Dhaka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is hard to know what, if anything, one can usefully say about this Dhaka disaster, the largest (so far) such industry accident in history:

— That the workers were very far away from the people who buy and wear the clothes they make

— That they earn, on average, $37 a month

— That they are completely without political and economic power since this industry is essential to the nation’s economy

— That many of the owners of these factories are also politicians, further weakening any oversight or regulation of the workers so endangered

— That we, as people who buy the cheap clothes they make, are all complicit

Three very powerful recent books are well worth reading, if this topic also disturbs and interests you:

Where Am I Wearing, by a young American freelance journalist who traveled to these countries and factories to meet and speak to the workers there.

Cheap, by Boston University professor Ellen Ruppel Shell,  a scathing condemnation of what it really costs to produce some items we enjoy at low prices but hidden high costs, from frozen Thai shrimp to cultured pearls.

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth Cline.

As I write this post, I’m wearing a cotton Gap dress and cashmere Ralph Lauren cardigan; the dress was made in Indonesia and the sweater in China.

So, I too, am complicit in the use of overseas, sub-contracted, poorly-supervised labor. I know it. I hate it. I am not at all clear what (else) to do.

My clothes, probably like many of yours as well, no matter where you live, are made cheaply by people we will never meet or know or feel, possibly, much responsibility to.

Bangladeshi woman

Bangladeshi woman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until they are killed making it.

What are our choices?

— Make all our own shoes and clothing, (not practical for most of us)

— Wear only clothing made by American workers, (if you are American)

— Look for the ILGWU label, if so

– Find out which manufacturers, (if possible), were sub-contracting work to Rana, and Tazreen, site of another major Bangladeshi garment factory fire that killed 112 workers and boycott all their products

— And spread the word through social media

Here’s a story about Aminul Islam, who tried to organize Bangladeshi garment factory workers.

He was killed.

Ideas?

Solutions?

Outrage?

Rising costs, falling income, and waving at the Rockefeller helicopter

In aging, behavior, business, cities, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, Money, urban life, US, work on April 25, 2013 at 11:02 am
Money Queen

Money Queen (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s an honest, powerful and deeply depressing blog post about what American life when your income is falling and costs going through the roof:

Hubby left and again, he had to stop off at the gas station to fill up his car.  He drives around 150 miles per day for his job.  And yes! he drives a fuel efficient car that gets between 35 and 40mpg.  But it’s not working out like we planned.  With the cost of gas at over $4.15 a gallon (and still rising) and the tightness of available money, it’s becoming a nightmare, with no end in sight.

While at the gas pump, the woman in the next booth came over to my husband and asked him if he had any money to give her.  “I need money to buy gas” she said “to get to work.  I don’t have any money to buy gas to get to work nor even come back from work and get home.  Do you have any money to give me, man?” DH then realized the reality of our own financial predicament. He told the woman that he had just been fighting with his own wife over the tightness of money and our own inability to buy food and gas and pay looming tax bills.

The only money I have that I can give you is this dollar bill,” he said and handed the woman the paper dollar bill I found in the parking lot yesterday.

I had breakfast the other morning, (total cost $11.00 for both, plus $1.00 for parking), with a friend who is single and freelancing and faces monthly living costs of $4,000; just her rent and health insurance is $2,000 every month. She has no savings anymore, having won and lost several jobs in our field over the past few years.

She has worked her whole life, like me, in journalism, and at 58 knows that the odds of finding a new full-time job that allows her to meet her living costs and save for retirement are slim-to-none.

Going back to college? For her, financially impossible. Taking some sort of quick, cheap credential? Maybe — but, really, given a choice of a 30, 40 or 58-year-old, who’s going to hire someone that age?

For millions of hard-working, educated, skilled and experienced Americans, a hand-to-mouth existence is the new normal. Especially those over the age of 50.

Here’s a powerful recent story from the Los Angeles Times about how work, even for the most highly educated, is changing for the worse:

Matt Ides has a doctorate in history and extensive teaching experience. Unable to find a full-time, tenure-track job, he took an adjunct teaching position at Eastern Michigan University, where he was paid $3,500 per class. He taught five classes one semester and four the next. One more class and the university would have had to consider him a full-time employee under university policy.

If not for his girlfriend’s salary, he said, “I would have had to live in a one-room apartment and eat soup every day.”

I moved to the U.S. in January 1988. As a brand-new driver, I was exquisitely attuned to the costs of owning, insuring and fueling a vehicle. Gas, then, cost 89 cents a gallon — today, it’s between $3.90 and $4.15 or more.

The price of groceries has shot through the roof. The cost of commuting to New York City, a daily necessity for my husband who works there, and for me to meet with clients and actually enjoy Manhattan occasionally, just rose, again, by 10 percent.

Jose and some others at his workplace are represented by a union, initially offered a 0 percent (yes) raise by his employer, The New York Times. They won a fat 2 percent a year — and the Times is considered, by some, a career pinnacle, a place you work long and hard to achieve.

I recently pulled out some old paperwork, and found an invoice from 1997 — 16 years ago — for $900. I just accepted an assignment last week from the Times for $900.

Nothing, anywhere — shoes, clothes, food, gas, insurance, dental bills, haircuts — costs what it did 16 years ago. Anyone attending university in the U.S. knows this firsthand, as tuition costs have skyrocketed, while incomes are stagnant and jobs hard to find.

Here’s the story of a graduate student at Duke, (named for the tobacco fortune family who founded it), who lived in a van in a parking lot so he could actually afford school. In a van.

Money - Black and White Money

Money – Black and White Money (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Few of us are less educated, more stupid, more lazy or unwilling to work hard than we were 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.

Stagnant and falling wages for most of us are simply killing our desire, and ability, to get ahead of our monthly basic costs– to save for short or long-term needs, whether retirement, car repair, education, medical bills or (imagine), a vacation.

I’ve thought about moving far upstate, where we could probably buy an old house for cash and pay very little in property taxes. Socially? Death. Professionally, nothing would be there for my husband, who makes almost three times what I do. Making an even longer commute — with less time for himself and for us? Not a great option either.

So, moving isn’t really a smart choice. Neither Jose or I, (both award-winning veterans in our field), have advanced degrees, so no teaching jobs are open to us, even as a poorly-paid adjunct.

I had lunch recently with an editor who did exactly that, moved to the Catskills with her husband and baby. She lasted two miserable, lonely, broke years and now lives back in Manhattan.

We could, I suppose, go to a much smaller, rural place somewhere very far away in the Midwest — distant from our friends, colleagues, neighbors and social networks. But I tried rural life, for 18 months when I was 30. Sorry, for those who thrive on it, I hated it, never so lonely, broke and miserable in my life. Unless in that other place you have dear friends, loving family and/or steady work that will really help you thrive, I don’t see much appeal in moving anywhere else at this point.

And every day, right over my head, I hear the sound of income inequality — as a helicopter thud-thud-thuds across the sky very close to my balcony. It’s a Rockefeller, flying to work in Manhattan, 25 miles south; their huge, gated estate lies about a 10-minute drive north of our town.

How’s things with you these days financially?

Are you as worried as I am?

Related articles

Help! I need somebody…

In behavior, books, business, domestic life, journalism, life, work on February 28, 2013 at 12:05 am
A group of security guards in Hong Kong lined ...

A group of security guards in Hong Kong lined up (fall-in) before on duty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you work for yourself, alone, you tend to think you can — and should — do it all. You get used to not having a boss, or colleagues or tech support or a janitor or security guards, any of the other people that normally surround us in an office or work setting.

You’re the CEO, CIO, CFO, R & D….and the janitor!

So hiring and paying others for their skills is something I have to force myself (Ms. Cheap) to do, while knowing it’s going to help me do my work better and faster. We all need a few smart brains to help us think through a problem that just stares us in the face sticking its tongue out…

And there’s a fun, honest piece on outsourcing grooming and fashion help from the current issue of American beauty magazine Allure, (which they offer no online link to):

I wish the tech nerds would get together with the fashion nerds and invent a company that would not only body-map the exact topography and physique of my physique, but also take it a step further and send me the following items in my exact size — hosiery, socks, T-shirts, jeans and bras.

Here’s a lovely post from mashedpotatoes about how much her husband does for her…

And another, from one of my favorite blogs, by singer Jessie Veeder, (which always has spectacular photos of her life on a ranch):

for all the Valentines Days I’ve been able to share with with a cute and thoughtful boy who turned out to be a man who makes the coffee nice and strong, searches for his clothes in the early hours of the morning with a headlamp so he doesn’t wake me, knows his way around a kitchen, unclogs the clogs, fixes broken things and promises he will be there tonight when I sing again, no matter the hours and miles he has to put in at work today.

A few of those helping me get it done these days:

The redoubtable C

It seems too unlikely to find and hire a terrific assistant through reading her blog, and vice versa, but that’s what happened. (A well-written blog lets readers know who you are and how you think and what your values are, so I felt no fear asking her to work with me as a researcher and general dogsbody.) She lives very far away from me and always will, although there’s a chance we’ll meet this summer. Her energy, enthusiasm, smarts and humor are a godsend. Here’s a link to her blog, Small Dog Syndrome.

Ricky

Ricky comes to our apartment every two weeks to clean it. I pay her $55 for about 90 minutes’ work, a fee some of my friends consider a lot of money. Not me. She’s quiet, efficient, meticulous and allows me to focus on high-value work. And she’s nice.

Alex

My hairdresser of more than a decade.

Ilda

A local hairdresser in my suburban town, she’s happy to meet me at 7:30 a.m. to do my hair, necessary when I’m asked to do a TV appearance. No, I can’t begin to approximate the quality of a professional blow-out! (And it’s a business expense.)

Yujin

He created my main website, caitlinkelly.com, which is due for a major re-do. We spent a good hour on the phone recently — as he now lives in Portland, Oregon — trying to figure it all out. I’m grateful for someone who’s known me so long and watched my career and skills morph since we put the site up in 1995, when very few writers even had one.

Jim

My financial planner in Toronto. OK, he’s not mine — he handles 100 accounts, mine among them. I’ve heard his gravel voice for years, but finally met him face to face recently and we chewed around some ideas for my portfolio. Given that mine may easily be the smallest he manages, I’m lucky he’s as gracious and helpful as he is.

Peter

My accountant for more than a decade. Even in my scariest, nail-biting, can-I-pay-the-bills years, and there have been a few, Peter has been encouraging, warm and proud of my ability to save 15 to 20 percent of my income — as a percentage, far more, he tells me, than clients earning much, more more. He even makes filing my taxes pleasant!

Tony

In May 2010, it was he, a massage therapist who knows me and my pain threshold all too well, who figured out something was seriously wrong with my left hip due to the sort of 24/7 pain I was suffering. After another MRI, at Tony’s urging, the dismissive surgeon who had given me steroids that destroyed my hip bone, said those three fateful words: “We missed that.”

Assorted helpful colleagues

The one serious drawback of working alone at home all day? Loneliness, isolation and brain-freeze. With no one across the desk or in the next cubicle to ask for help or advice or to brainstorm with, you can quickly burn out. My friend K, in Nova Scotia, always makes me at least 32% smarter after every call, no matter what the subject. G, in upstate New York, is high-energy and optimistic, and W., a new friend in Montreal, brims with fantastic ideas and helpful connections.

Roy and Yvonne

Every time I do a local event for my book, the owners of The Village Bookstore, one of only seven bookstores left in our large and affluent county, come out with a box of books and the hope that, after my presentation, we’ll sell some. Sometimes the drive is 45 minutes each way. No matter what the hour or weather or day, they’re there and cheerful and I’m grateful!

My brother

I have two. This one is ten years younger and runs his own software company, a fact that leaves me awestruck. The other day I needed all sorts of advice on creating and protecting IP — intellectual property — for a new project I’m working on. He totally got it and referred me to his patent expert and an IP lawyer. It’s really helpful to have someone I know, like and trust who sees all the issues and had dealt with many of them already.

My husband

I had neglected (!) to include him in this initial list, which proves how ungrateful utterly reliant I’ve become in 13 years on his good will, good humor, generosity and energy. I hate buying anything to do with technology — I’m cheap, hate making major financial commitments and yet appreciate every single thing he’s bought for me/us, including the coolest thing ever, a MiFi, the size of a credit card which turns anywhere, (short of the Grand Canyon), into an instant wi-fi spot. He also does all the laundry, some cooking and, far more safety conscious than I, thinks of things like — “Hmm, we’re driving up to Canada in the winter. Maybe we need new snow tires.” Which we desperately did. I’m lucky that he, too, has been a journalist, (albeit on the photo side), since his freshman year of college as I did, so he’s helped me many times with work dilemmas.

Who is essential to helping you run your life better or more easily these days?

Do less, slowly, and take more breaks — but can you?

In behavior, business, culture, journalism, life, urban life, US, work on February 11, 2013 at 1:49 am

Now there’s an un-American sentiment!

A 2011 poll found that Americans had left 9.2 unused vacation days that year.

Time Selector

Time Selector (Photo credit: Telstar Logistics)

With a recession still in play for millions who would like nothing more than the chance to work 40 or more paid hours per week, working less is a privileged notion, a message meant for those of us lucky enough to have jobs, or freelance work.

It’s also a difficult-to-impossible luxury for people whose jobs come in shifts that require seven to 12 hours of non-stop work: cops, nurses, public transit workers, cabbies and firefighters, to name a few. One taxi driver I spoke to in Montreal, a man of 42, this week told me he works 70 hours a week — and barely makes $700 for his trouble.

From The New York Times:

THINK for a moment about your typical workday. Do you wake up tired? Check your e-mail before you get out of bed? Skip breakfast or grab something on the run that’s not particularly nutritious? Rarely get away from your desk for lunch? Run from meeting to meeting with no time in between? Find it nearly impossible to keep up with the volume of e-mail you receive? Leave work later than you’d like, and still feel compelled to check e-mail in the evenings?

 More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace. Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less. A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.

I admit, I heartily agree. I do all of these:

daytime workouts

short afternoon naps

longer sleep hours

more time away from the office

longer, more frequent vacations

while also being very aware that many people — like the millions working retail jobs, for example — enjoy zero flexibility in when and how they schedule their time. When I worked the 1-9pm shift during my time as a sales associate at The North Face, (the subject of my book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail), our “dinner” break might be ordered at 4 or 5pm.

And, with job security a hopeless fantasy, many office workers are simply too busy, or too scared to be seen “slacking off”, to even leave their desk for a meal, let alone head out for a walk, bike ride, yoga class or the gym during their workday.

I’ve stayed freelance for the control it gives me over my daily schedule and yearly activities. I just took two weeks away from my home/office in New York to visit Ontario and Montreal, and spent three of those days working.

Thanks to wi-fi and my laptop, and my work, I can basically work almost anywhere. After a grueling full day of interviewing people for a Times story on Wednesday, I came home and finished up an email interview, a quick turnaround of 500 words for a new client, at 10:30 that night. So much for Montreal nightlife!

I’ll be in D.C. for a few days in early May, and probably visit Jose in Tucson in late May where he’ll be teaching. We’ve planned a two-week trip to Newfoundland in September. That’s already 5 to 6 weeks’ vacation planned for 2013, with a break for me every three months or less. Whenever I pull in a decent income, the first impulse I have — paradoxically perhaps — is to take some time off, to travel, to see some art or ballet or theater to re-boot my creative juices and simply enjoy life.
Time me

Time me (Photo credit: mrlins)

Also from the Times article:

Along the way, I learned that it’s not how long, but how well, you renew that matters most in terms of performance. Even renewal requires practice. The more rapidly and deeply I learned to quiet my mind and relax my body, the more restored I felt afterward. For one of the breaks, I ran.

I’ve noticed this in my breaks as well — even a full 24 hours fully devoted to one’s own schedule of amusement can prove extremely restorative.

My final day in Montreal could have been a frenzy of rushed shopping or sight-seeing. Instead a friend from the 1980s when I worked there at the Gazette joined us for lunch. We reminisced for more than 3 hours. I then went for an exfoliation, an hour of bliss and eucalyptus-scented steam, and Jose and I went to a terrific and lively new restaurant, Hotel Herman, for dinner. The joint was jumping. We sat at the central bar and bumped elbows with fellow diners, one of whom was a museum curator from Chantilly who showed me a photo on her cellphone of her horse, Kalinka.
Our Montreal meals usually lasted 1.5 to three hours. Just not rushing was a great relief and deep, unaccustomed pleasure for two journalists who have been working to deadline since our undergrad years at college.
We’re back home now, a little broke but sated and refreshed.
How often during your day do you take a break?
What do you do to recharge?
Do you take vacations?

Without trust, we’re toast. Guess what? We’re toast.

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, news on March 17, 2012 at 1:14 am
Česky: Foxconn Pardubice, GPS: 50°1'28.591&quo...

Image via Wikipedia

There are few moments more nausea-inducing than realizing you have placed your trust and faith in the wrong person/place/institution.

I recently blogged, favorably, about a performance artist named Mike Daisey, whose one-man show about malfeasance at Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturing giant that makes computers for Apple, Dell and many others, was a huge hit here in the U.S., and received national attention and acclaim on This American Life, a respected and smart radio show.

Now it seems he made some of it up:

“Numerous fabrications” have been found in “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” the much-heralded story by Mike Daisey about dangerous and exploitative conditions in the Apple company’s Chinese factories.

Recent fact-checking about the story, which was first presented on Jan. 6, 2012 over National Public Radio outlets as an episode on Ira Glass’ show, “This American Life,” and subsequently performed as a critically acclaimed monologue at the New York Public Theatre (where it is scheduled to close Sunday after a much-extended run), has turned up inaccuracies involving facts both large and small, including the fabrication of several characters.

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was to be performed by Daisey at the Chicago Theatre on April 7. That performance has been cancelled. And tonight, NPR affiliate WBEZ, 91.5 FM, will air a segment about the Daisey controversy on “Marketplace” (which begins at 6:30 p.m.), followed by a full hourlong investigation of the issues on “This American Life” (beginning at 7 p.m.).

The show is set to complete its runs at New York’s Public Theatre this Sunday. The theater, which does not plan to cancel the final performances, issued this statement:

“In the theater, our job is to create fictions that reveal truth — that’s what a storyteller does, that’s what a dramatist does. ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’ reveals, as Mike’s other monologues have, human truths in story form.

And….cue dominoes falling.

This is the nature of journalism, for better and for worse. I now feel stupid and gullible for believing his “story form” — (WTF is that?) — and promoting his work.

But I also loathe, and want to expose, crummy and exploitative labor practices, some of which I wrote about in Malled, my book about retail work — in which I also detailed the eleven Foxconn worker suicides of May 2010. There have since been more.

I’m writing this on an Apple computer. I use an Ipad and an Apple laptop. My hands, morally speaking, are dirty!

Here’s the problem.

We want to work with people whose opinions, education, work ethic and principles we share and trust. Without the basic underpinning of trust — “Why, yes, I do believe your story” -- we can’t function culturally, socially, politically or financially.

We also all need to remain awake, skeptical, critical and questioning.

But the media — and I’ve been a journalist since 1980 — are also prey to “pack journalism”, rushing headlong to embrace the trope-of-the-day lest they look slow, stupid, uncool or lazy in front of their peers and bosses and readers and listeners.

And there are stories we want to believe. There are stories that are virtually impossible to report firsthand and when someone brings home the goods, we sigh in relief and hand them a laurel wreath for doing what we could not or did not or never would do ourselves.

Here’s yet another cheerful story this week of deception and broken trust — an Amish man who took $17 million from his co-religionists in 29 states and invested it improperly.

And an op-ed in this week’s New York Times called out some pretty ugly behaviors (gasp!) behind the doors of Goldman Sachs, where fat cat bankers call their clients “muppets”.

Wrote Greg Smith, 33, a GS banker who thus burned his bridges to his former employer:

Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.

Such a world we live in!

Do you trust what you read and hear?

From which source(s) and why?

There’s Blood On Your Ipad

In business, Money, Technology, work on January 9, 2012 at 12:46 am
Not a Mac mini ...

You know that, right?

It’s on mine as well. I’m writing this on a Mac and much of my work is done on on a Mac laptop.

But I have yet to find a way to reconcile where and how these products are made — the subject of this one-man show currently playing in New York City. Mike Daisey managed to find his way to Shenzhen, China and to the vast community/company town run by Foxconn, whose workers who sleep in enormous dormitories, a hive of cement cubicles, required to work shifts so long and onerous that — as I was finishing “Malled” — the company made unwelcome front-page news as 12 desperate workers committed suicide by jumping out of their windows.

Their solution? Nets.

Daisey was recently interviewed on The Leonard Lopate Show, (a daily Manhattan culture-based talk show on WNYC),  and one of his words stuck with me: workers there, he said, are seen as interchangeably and dispassionately as “biomass.”

Seriously?

Yes.

I spoke recently to a smart, wise career journalist, someone who has seen China firsthand from the Tiananmen Square to today; her last visit there was two years ago. She unhesitatingly agreed with Daisey’s assessment: “People have no idea. China right now just wants to make money and everything else be damned. They don’t care about workers or unions or rights. If someone drops dead on the assembly line, there are literally millions more eager to take their place.”

I include reporting on Foxconn and the suicides in my new book about retail because every time we buy something made in so ugly and brutal a fashion, we’re de facto implicated.

We all know who Steve Jobs was.

Few of us know who Terry Gou is, the CEO of Foxconn; this link is to a Wall Street Journal profile, when he was heading Hon Hai — and Gou, then, in 2007, was worth some $10 billion:

With a work force of some 270,000 — about as big as the population of Newark, N.J. — the factory is a bustling testament to the ambition of Hon Hai’s founder, Terry Gou. In an era when manufacturing has been defined by outsourcing, no one has done more to shift global electronics production to China. Little noticed by the wider world, Mr. Gou has turned his company into China’s biggest exporter and the world’s biggest contract manufacturer of electronics.

Hon Hai’s revenue has grown more than 50% a year in the past decade to $40.6 billion last year. It is expected to add $14 billion in revenue this year. That is roughly the equivalent of Motorola’s adding, within a year, the sales of CBS Corp.

Throughout his company’s rise, the 56-year-old native of Taiwan has maintained a low profile. Publicity, he says, risks helping competitors and alienating customers. “I hate that I [have] become famous,” Mr. Gou said in a recent three-hour interview at Hon Hai’s Taiwan headquarters. It was Mr. Gou’s first interview with Western media since 2002, following more than five years of requests by The Wall Street Journal. “We are so big we cannot hide anymore.”

One of the smartest and most insightful shows on American public radio is This American Life, an hour-long weekly show by Ira Glass, which (for non-American readers here) is broadcast on 500 stations and has about 1.7 million listeners.  Glass did a special version of Daisey’s show for his show.

You can listen to it here. It is astonishing.

Daisey did the kind of firsthand reporting that journalists should be doing — and most often do not. He went to Shenzhen — a city of 14 million he describes as looking “like Blade Runner threw up on itself.” Highly unusual when reporting on Chinese labor, he spoke to many of its workers. He showed one man — whose hand was destroyed from making Ipads — what one looks like when it’s in use; workers never see the finished product, he said.

It is something every single user of these products must think about.

Is the only answer to boycott these products? I’m not sure anyone will.

Are there other, better solutions?


When Do You Plan (Hope?) To Stop Working?

In aging, behavior, business, life, Money, work on November 28, 2011 at 2:02 am
Obadiah Sedgwick (1600?-1658), puritan clergyman

A Puritan clergyman. Do you really need to follow his lead? Image via Wikipedia

Now here’s a seriously depressing idea, working into your 80s.

A recent New York Times op-ed argues this is not only likely necessary for millions of Americans but — seriously? -- a terrific new development:

Retirement seems out of the question for increasing numbers of Americans who are saddled with debt and whose savings evaporated during the recent bust. Today’s workers should expect to labor longer, and companies should expect to employ more older workers.

The numbers supply a vivid picture of America’s graying work force. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of working Americans over 65 years old jumped 16 percent; the number of under-65’s in the labor force shrank. The trend started before the current downturn: the number of Americans over 65 in the labor force increased from 10.8 percent in 1985 to 12.1 percent in 1995 to 15.1 percent in 2005 to 17.4 percent in 2010. Until 2001, most workers age 65 and older had part-time jobs; since 2001, full-time work has been far more common….

Nearly 40 percent of 55- to 64-year-old Americans don’t have retirement accounts. Less than a quarter of this group owns a single stock or savings bond. The median net worth of 55- to 64-year-old Americans has declined during the last years and is now $254,000 (including housing), down from $273,000 just three years ago. American households saved less than 4 percent of their incomes for every year between 1999 and 2008; during this time, thrifty Germans were saving about one-tenth of their earnings. A nation that prefers spending to saving is going to find it difficult to enjoy a comfortable retirement.

Call me lazy, unmotivated, un-American. The thought of working into my 80s — instead of (I hope) being able to wind this thing down in the next decade or so, in my mid 60s — is appalling. I’ve been working for pay since I was 14 and started life-guarding.

Enough already!

Here’s a wild notion: Live low(er). Save more. Focus your goals not on the next set of paychecks, but when and how to extricate yourself from the hamster wheel of working for pay.

Read this powerful book on the “value” of income versus time.


Unlike some other nations, for whom the endless drama of “work-life balance” is less difficult to achieve (paid maternity leave for months, for example), Americans are heavily socialized and rewarded (no paid sick leave, short vacations) for working all the time.

Those who seriously value other non-work -related activities — quiet time alone, traveling, volunteer work, spending time with our loved ones or pets, learning or perfecting new skills for the pure pleasure of it — are derided as bohemians or, worse, hippies. Time spent un-tethered to commercial production is considered deeply suspicious.

Don’t you want to workworkworkworkworkwork?!

Don’t you want to keep buying more/bigger/faster/newer stuff?

Jose and I are fortunate, still working steadily in fields we enjoy, to be earning enough for our needs. We save and invest  and keep a careful eye on those funds. We have retirement savings, (40 percent of people in our age group have none),  and are also lucky enough to likely (just) to be able to collect Social Security payments and a company pension.

Nor do we have children, grandchildren or parents whose financial needs compete with ours, as so many people do.

But I disagree that:

1) paid work is the best use of our very limited time on this earth;

2) saving money is too hard.

I’ve had years, plural and sequential, in which all I was able to do was pay my bills and do almost nothing else, hanging onto my home (which I own) with a white-knuckled death grip. I know it’s terrifying to not have a lot of (or any) spare cash. I’ve dipped into my IRAs more than once.

But I have IRAs because I deliberately save money every year, usually 10-25% of my income. Anything less makes me feel ill. Nothing is worth not having savings accumulating. Nothing I could own, see, do, listen to, eat, hear, wear or otherwise consume, is worth that to me.

In lean years, I buy little, and it’s from consignment shops or only on sale. I use and wear items that are 10, 15 even 20 years old, well-cared for, that don’t look it. Our one car is 11 years old. We have every form of insurance possible to protect what we’ve worked hard to accumulate.

It’s a choice.

Do you want to keep working that long?

Will you have to?

What compromises are you willing, or able, to make to avoid this?

You Can’t Quantify Kindness: Our Statistical Obsession

In behavior, business, domestic life, education, family, Health, journalism, life, Money, women, work on May 4, 2011 at 1:44 pm
Chicago graph clim

Like this....but with feelings! Image via Wikipedia

Great piece in The New York Times by Alina Tugend about our growing — and misguided — obsession with measuring everything in our lives:

Numbers and rankings are everywhere. And I’m not just talking about Twitter followers and Facebook friends. In the journalism world, there’s how many people “like” an article or blog. How many retweeted or e-mailed it? I’ll know, for example, if this column made the “most e-mailed” of the business section. Or of the entire paper. And however briefly, it will matter to me.

Offline, too, we are turning more and more to numbers and rankings. We use standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and students. The polling companies have already begun to tell us who’s up and who’s down in the 2012 presidential election. Companies have credit ratings. We have credit scores.

And although most people acknowledge that there are a million different ways to judge colleges and universities, the annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report of institutions of higher education have gained almost biblical importance.

As the author of a newly released book about working retail I haven’t once (honest!) checked my amazon ranking number.

Seriously, what good can it possibly do?

Will my hips suddenly shrink or my bank balance double? I wish!

My thesis about why retail associates are so horribly paid is linked to this data obsession: you can’t measure kindness!

Think about the very best salesperson you ever met — (or hotel employee or waiter or nurse or teacher).

The EQ — or emotional intelligence — the skills that really left the strongest impression on you, are probably not their technical mastery of that new Mac or their grasp of the essentials of calculus, but how they helped you: with patience, humor, calm, grace.

All of these are essential qualities we simply cannot put on a graph.

And that which we cannot measure, we do not value.

I was in the hospital in March 2007 for three terrifying days, on a IV with pneumonia, from overwork and exhaustion. (Don’t ever get pneumonia — it makes you cough so hard, for hours at a time, you can break a rib.)

I finally begged the nurse to swaddle me tight in a cotton sheet, like an infant, to ease my aching muscles. She never raised an eyebrow at my weird request, but did it at once, with a compassion that I will never forget.

That healing quality of care, invisible, unmeasured and therefore too often undervalued, is not inscribed anywhere in my medical records.

It should be.

You Should Be Ashamed

In behavior, business, Crime, life, Money, women, work on January 13, 2011 at 1:35 am
Entrance to Lewis's department store, Liverpoo...

Image via Wikipedia

Want to score some freebies?

Try this — ripping off retail associates.

As suggested (nice work, fellow journos!) in Cosmopolitan magazine.

Yeah, screwing over low-wage employees in a recession is really a rockin’ idea.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,114 other followers