Posts Tagged ‘Labor Day’

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?

Happy Labor Day! The Work We Value (And Do Not)

In behavior, business, life, Money, work on September 5, 2011 at 4:00 am
Passengers can go down into the engine room be...

Imagine working here all day! Hot, slippery, dangerous. And you thought a cubicle was tough? Image via Wikipedia

If you’re fortunate enough to have a steady paid income — and millions of Americans this year do not — you are likely enjoying a holiday for Labor Day.

It’s an odd word, labor, as we now speak more frequently of work, off-shoring, out-sourcing, downsizing, right-sizing or, my new personal fave euphemism — excessing.


Labor used to mean working hard, often with your hands, in a field or shop floor or factory or on a boat or truck or assembly line, scrubbing the grease and dust from your pores at day’s end.

In 1996, I dated a man who had a job of unimaginable exoticism — he was a ship’s engineer and his job was to keep a DEP ship moving smoothly through New York harbor with its cargo of, yes, sewage. It was a shit ship.

But his workplace, which I visited once, was deeply humbling to a white-collar writer whose worst fear was…being edited. To get to work, he climbed a steep metal ladder up the side of his ship. To reach the engine room, the impossibly hot, slippery, greasy place he spent his shifts, he climbed down another metal ladder.

He was lean, ropy with muscle, his hands callused and hardened. He knew (how!?) to keep the engine running smoothly. I was in awe.

I never had to ask, “Honey, how was your day?” If he smelled of burnt diesel, not such a good one. Every night he showered for a very long time to scrub the day’s sweat, grime and dirt from his skin.

My snottty friends, I am ashamed to say, were dismayed that we so enjoyed one another’s company. He was funny, smart, kind, strong, easy-going. And cute!

I earned twice his salary. Neither of us cared about that much, nor that he wore overalls to work. He was well-read and great company.

I recently learned a new phrase, “emotional labor” which is deeply embedded in a culture so heavily reliant — airlines, healthcare, hospitality, retail, restaurant work — on personal service. A fascinating and frustrating lesson I took away from my 27 months working in retail as a sales associate is this: we only pay for (value, through wages, bonus, commissions) what we know to be true, verifiable and statistically evident.

The very core of “emotional labor”– the gentle way a nurse touches a patient or a hairdresser shampoos you or how a vet handles a scared animal — means it’s invisible. It’s how we care.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past few years, certainly moving from a newspaper job at a mid-career professional salary to $11/ hr. no commission folding T-shirts in a mall, (the subject of my new memoir), is the incessant, rampant and toxic snobbery that still infects much of how we, in the U.S., deride many forms of difficult, honorable, often deeply unpleasant work.

Of labor:

Meat-cutters and packers and those who kill the animals we eat.

Retail clerks who toil for poverty-level wages.

The home health aides who change our parents’ and grandparents’ diapers and wipe their noses and feed them for us, for hourly wages less than the price of a cocktail.

Miners whose dark, dirty, dangerous work brings the coal that powers the plants that provide the electric power that allows us to live in greater ease and comfort.

Hospice workers and chaplains, ministering to those who most need them.

Soldiers doing the worst job possible.

Have a relaxing day!


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