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

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?

19 thoughts on “It’s Labor Day: What does work mean to you?

  1. Being employed is an honor. I love to work on a team…be a collaborator. I think that is what makes a company (small or large) great. I want to live and work in a community that understands the value of each member….not one strong leader but many individuals who are self motivated to work. I think this starts with our nation’s leaders. I don’t want them to be motivated by public opinion polls…I want them to “get” the American people. I liked the old fashioned ways when an entire community helped to resurrect a building, a barn, etc to help their neighbor. How satisfying is that?

  2. At the moment, I really don’t have a job. (There is the “almost” job. It starts in January.) It is both strange and guilt-producing. I have worked since I was a toddler. And it’s hard to balance the idea that I “should” work (you know, just because) and that I am actually trying to accomplish some things that involve work even if it isn’t for pay, with the idea that maybe it’s time to not work. I do actually love the work I normally do, but it is very interesting–and a learning experience–to not do it.

  3. I like my job these days, especially since I know what I’ll probably be doing each and every day. However, I hope it won’t be my permanent job after graduation. I’m still hoping that I’ll make some income as an author, even though I’ve accepted that I’ll most likely need a 9-to-5 job to pay for expenses.

  4. There was a time I loved my job. I enjoyed meeting the public, I enjoyed doing the calculations that granted them the right benefits to survive. The Motto more or less was ‘It’s you job to ensure the claim gets paid rather than look for ways to stop it’.
    For the last few years before I retired things changed. More money was spent on new computer systems which linked with other systems supposedly to be able to verify things easier. It often didn’t work. New desks were bought and offices made more open plan to facilitate communication- it didn’t. It was just noisier.Dividing screens had to be bought. Separate teams were created to do jobs that people had dealt with themselves beforehand, now it was harder to chase down forms.And the Government, oh those people elected to care for others kept changing the legislation so that it was hard to keep track, but the changes were never beneficial to claimants.In the end I was glad to leave.
    Now I see huge National Debt from profligate spending and who do they target to help reduce this, the benefit claimants again, rather than close tax loopholes that make foreign Companies pay their share of tax and close tax havens down.

    1. Sad. But not at all surprising.

      One of the things about self-employment I do enjoy is that when one client drives me nuts (or vice versa) I can always find another to replace them. With one employer, whatever they want, goes.

  5. I’m indifferent about my job. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I hate it. Usually, it’s in between. Still, I feel good that my job (statistician for university-based medical research) has a do-gooder feel to it. They pay me, so I tolerate the bad days, revel in the good ones and track the impact of cool projects I’ve worked on. That part is fun.

  6. i absolutely love my job, (the kinders return tomorrow), but like you, i hope to move on to a new phase within the decade, so that i can have more time to discover and enjoy life and all that it offers )

  7. Despite effort and work on my part, I am one of the 14 million who doesn’t have a job right now. I have been putting effort into working for someone else and/or setting myself up as a consultant. I have been plenty active and helped out some folks, but no pay yet.

    There is so much empty discussion right now about jobs, and it is big business to purportedly get people back to work. Most people want to be valued and do their part for the larger community, earn money to make their own way in the world.

    I read your blog and see your hustle and it encourages me that I can find a way.

    1. I am so sorry to hear this!

      There are few situations more frustrating, dis-spiriting and frightening than not being able to find (well) paid work. We all need income!

      If my new book proposal sells, (and it is making the rounds of publishers this week and onward), I hope to address that issue in it.

      Thanks for the compliment. I do have Plans J-Z…I just went to the library to pick up a book about someone I think I’d like to write a biography of…to see how I can do it better! 🙂 I spend more energy now dreaming up (and activating) Plans B-Z than I’d like to. But so many other “sure things” fall through that I can’t rely on much. Oddly, though, I find the creative hustle more fun (!) than having a “real job”, fortunate enough to have benefits through my husband (huge help) and a pension (very rare these days) from his employer. We do have savings, and keep saving, but are not panicked as so many are now.

      1. Plans J-Z, I like that…  We talk in my accountability group about plan B and I laugh to myself because I have multiple plans too (though not perhaps as many as you).  I think it is this willingness to look well beyond the ‘norm’ or expected route for money/work that keeps me from feeling concern.  I know I have skills, I just have to find the right way to showcase them for those that have the money.

        I’m rooting for your book deal!


      2. I’ve actually blogged on this before…in this economy (and depending on your skills, education, training, ability or willingness to re-locate or re-train), having one backup plan is often not nearly enough. I think Americans are taught to “get a job” and not — as I think is far wiser, from college on — to “sell your skills.”

        I have multiple skills, any or all of which can be useful to others: French and Spanish, (reading and speaking); photography; design; drawing; writing; public speaking, even cooking and cleaning or chauffeuring if necessary. I think a lot of this is attitudinal — what someone is absolutely NOT willing to do (in my case, fast food work or chambermaid) and what else they will consider. For too many people, their egos get in the way. Do you want money or don’t you?!

        I don’t focus on “a job”. I focus on what I know how to do well/best/better than others, (for a price that suits me, whenever possible) and then find a decision-maker and then sell myself! I have a new idea for income that is so novel and “out there” — but I mentioned it to someone I interviewed for a story last week, and she’s helping me explore it, as it’s her area of expertise. If it works, I will be as shocked as anyone.

        But you can’t make it happen if you’re not willing to explore.


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  9. I really appreciate the comment above “being employed is an honor”. One of the questions I have had about work, is how important work/life balance really is. For me, I don’t mind sacrificing a little more on the “life” equation if I am working at a job that is challenging and filled with great people.

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