This was also published as my last article in The Water Tower.
I know people who can tell me exactly how food makes it from my mouth to my toilet bowl, but when I ask them how it got to the plate, they just stare at me blankly. Others can write complex computer code or stitch together fabrics into awesome outfits but have no idea whose labor gave them those creative resources in the first place. Some people can name every little ingredient in their restaurant dinner without knowing a thing about who served and prepared it.
Labor makes our lives possible, and the labor we see the least is often the hardest and worst treated. Making visible the backs on which our prosperity rests is key to combating global inequality.
The division and global spacialization of labor has been the project of (capitalist) humanity, more pronounced today than ever before. Agriculture was seen as the dawn of civilization because it allowed people to settle down and some to divert their labor to purposes other than food production. Twelve millennia later, we find ourselves in a country where less than two percent of our population works in agriculture, and we are still a net exporter of food.
The US way of life is based around the fact that we in large part leave the agricultural dirty work—fruit picking, cow milking, meat packing, shit shoveling, animal slaughtering—to poor, often migrant workers. As a result, agricultural workers have seen the lowest growth of any sector of our economy over the past century. Right here in Vermont, our dairy industry survives on the shoulders of migrant Latino workers, many of whom are underpaid, mistreated, and live in crowded housing, some without heating or drinking water.
Our way of life is also based around our outsourcing of industrial labor. We ship auto parts from dangerous factories in Malaysia and Indonesia to be assembled by low-wage workers Mexico to be sold to happy US drivers. We pay warlord slavedrivers in the Congo for the mineral coltan, which we ship to China, where sweatshop workers put it into cell phones, computers, and almost every tech device that powers US daily life and economy. We have permanently polluted the drinking water of Bangladesh with dyes and chemicals used in clothing production, sewn for pennies per day in unstable, overheated plants and shipped straight to American stores. Caring comes less naturally when all this occurs so very far away.
But we still benefit from labor exploitation right at home, and not just on our farms. Our country’s prosperity consequently makes us one of the most expensive places in the world, so while our minimum hourly wage—$7.25 nationally—might be seven times what people elsewhere make in a whole day, it is still less than half the living wage, what is deemed necessary to live decently. As a result, millions of Americans working full-time—in industries like food service, fast food, supermarkets, movie theaters, amusement parks, and more—still live in poverty. And there’s no ignoring how much we rely on this labor.
Take Sodexo, for example. UVM’s favorite food contractor, Sodexo has a terrible track record of worker abuse, from cultivating a generally stressful work environment to enforcing a “point system” that penalizes sick days. Such is the case of Cindy Smith, an eight-year Sodexo employee who this year began receiving points against her for leaving work early—with her manager’s full permission. Unfairly placed on “investigatory leave” and left without income, her experience has sparked a student movement for better Sodexo worker treatment.
A report about the movement by VPR also quoted Deb Ploof, the Cyber Café lady whom you’re not a true Catamount if you don’t know. Deb said this about working at Sodexo: “I have seen people reprimanded in front of their coworkers until they were in tears. I have some good friends [here]. They have been told they were useless. They were disrespected, intimidated, and threatened with termination and write-ups, just for trying to do their job to the best of their ability…This is enough to make anyone sick.” These are the labor conditions that you eat from and pay for; you should be sick too.
What’s to be done? I haven’t told you all this just to make you miserable, I’ve told you because there are ways to fight back. The problem is not a lack of money, but rather its unfair distribution. For the billions of people worldwide working for nearly nothing, there are a few people getting wildly rich. They ought to be exposed and embarrassed for what is truly their pure greed. They must be shamed into sharing a little more, because in most cases, it would require only slightly less cash in their pockets to help a tremendous number of people.
Campaign to raise the government’s or a company’s minimum wage, like the current Fight for $15 movement is doing. Raise awareness (and rage) about deplorable labor conditions abroad, exposing as a hoax many companies’ positive image. Highlight individual, human cases of worker abuse; help people like Cindy make their own and their coworkers’ voices heard. Join organizations like the Vermont Workers’ Center and Migrant Justice.
Most of all, don’t forget that corporations are powerless without the workers and consumers they rely on, which is all of us. Even against what appear unbeatable odds, people have leverage—if they chose to use it.