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?

Has Your Cube Shrunk? Employers Are Downsizing Space, Too

Cubicle Panorama
Image by Kyle and Kelly Adams via Flickr

Great, if depressing, story in The Wall Street Journal about how employers are shrinking their office spaces to save cash. Makes sense — rent is a huge fixed cost and, hey, who needs privacy?

“The majority of our clients are moving in the direction of reducing the amount of personal, or what we like to call ‘me’ space,” says Tom Polucci, group vice president and director of interior design for HOK Group Inc., a global architecture and design firm.

He says new workstations designed by HOK average 48 square feet, down from 64 square feet about five years ago. Partitions between cubicles also are shrinking, to 4 feet high or less, from 5 feet high.

Rivals Stantec Inc., DEGW, Mancini Duffy and M. Arthur Gensler Jr. & Associates Inc. report similar findings. They say companies of varying sizes in multiple industries are reducing per-employee office space by as much as 50%, and their total footprint by as much as 25%.

Some companies are removing cubicle walls to create open floor plans. Others are eliminating assigned workspaces for employees who primarily work off campus or spend most of their time in meetings. At any given time, Gensler estimates that 60% of employees are away from their desks.

I’ve worked in big open newsrooms with no cubicles — the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News — and in one with cubes, The Globe and Mail. I’ve twice, heaven!, had an office with a door, both times as a magazine editor in Manhattan. One afternoon, I got such a migraine (extremely rare for me) I couldn’t even make it to the elevator, so I lay down underneath my desk and slept for a while. Try that in an open-plan office.

Everyone who chooses journalism knows that newsroom noise and distraction are a part of the game; every newsroom always has several TVs on all the time. You learn early, or leave, how to do interviews, think and write with as many as 3 or 4 people sitting feet away, each of them talking. But for many employees, hearing your cubemate chew or make doctor’s appointments is gross and annoying. We had a guy at the News who spent much of his day talking on the phone really loudly.

That’s one good thing about working alone at home. Right now, the only sound I hear — loud and clear — is my neighbor’s laughter and phone conversation. I’m not sure, short of a cabin in the woods, you can escape noise or other people and get your work done.

Has your cube shrunk? Or do you head to a cafe to work on your laptop, preferring the background buzz of others?