Saturday, April 04, 2015

Work and Wage Slavery

The latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm what is easily apparent to all:

The bottom 20% of earners saw their income decline 3.5%
The second 20% of earners saw their income decline 2.7%
The third 20% of earners saw their income decline 2.8%
The fourth 20% of earners saw their income decline 2.1%
The top 20% of earners saw their income rise by almost 1%.
Over the same period of time that incomes were declining for at least 80% of Americans, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose by more than 10%. 

Thus the owners of capital grow wealthier while the majority of people who live by their labor grow poorer. Of course, apologists for the employing class will now point to the recent pay rises by in the past few months, by a number of businesses. The trend took hold last year, when basicwear giant Gap Inc. said it would raise its minimum hourly pay. Other firms followed, including Aetna, Ikea, Starbucks, Target, T.J. Maxx, and Walmart. And this week, McDonald’s said that it would boost hourly employee pay to at least the local minimum wage, plus a dollar. By the end of 2016, the average hourly wage rate should be more than $10, the company said.

First off, the big pay bumps that have been announced, in truth, just are not that big. Take the McRaise. It applies to just 10 percent of the company’s domestic workforce. (That’s because the hike only goes into effect in stores that McDonald’s itself runs. Most of its outlets are operated by franchisees.) And it’s a small raise — just enough to for employees to nab something off the dollar menu every hour or two. “They announced it on April Fools’ Day, and I really felt like it was a joke,” said Bleu Rainer, who works part-time at a McDonald’s in Tampa. “I was like, ‘For real?’ We want $15 an hour. We want union representation. We’re not playing with them. We want $15.” Getting $9 an hour would not change his ability to pay his rent or keep his lights on, he added. He’d still be scraping by in poverty. Walmart’s rise will go to about 40 percent of its work-force and cost the company just 6 percent of its 2014 profits. All of these pay raises have been concentrated in low-wage sectors, muting their effect on the overall economy and helping explain why the headline number is not moving yet. Giving a 2 percent raise to a teenager flipping burgers for $8.25 an hour is a lot cheaper than giving a 2 percent raise to a dental assistant making $20 an hour, after all. 

“The announcement from McDonald’s — it was PR stunt,” said Kendall Fells, the Fight for $15’s organizing director. “It’s laughable. But the workers have more momentum now than ever.”

America's major fast-food chains, retailers and department stores use "just-in-time" scheduling to maximize profit, which in turn creates unstable and stressful work environments for low-wage workers. This type of scheduling has increased dramatically because of sophisticated software that ties staffing to expected customer traffic. Algorithms, built on sales and economic data, provide real-time information for managers to make personnel adjustments. Not surprisingly, such haphazard scheduling wreaks havoc with low-wage workers. Hourly low-income workers endure significantly greater fluctuations in their hours and less predictability in how much they earn than full-time employees. Many don't even know their weekly schedules until the last moment. A University of Chicago study found that 41% of early career hourly workers and 47% who work part-time received a week or less of notice of their work schedules.

Imagine dealing with this as you are trying to earn a basic living, find reliable child care, get new vocational skills, or attend to medical needs. Women and workers of color most acutely struggle with this practice. Women comprise over two-thirds of the nearly 20 million workers in low-wage jobs like home health care, fast food work, and cash services. Similarly, a large proportion of minorities work low-wage jobs. Nearly 50% of African-Americans and Latinos receive their hours with a week or less notice. By comparison, almost 40% of whites receive weekly notice. Minorities also have much less of an ability to control their hours. Only 10% of Latinos and 12% of black workers reported being able to set their hours within certain limits or freely. Within this same context, 18% of whites said they could.

Nor is it much different in America’s economic rival. The number of China's high-net-worth individuals with more than 100 million yuan in personal assets rose by 3.9 percent to a new high of 67,000 last year. There are 17,000 individuals in China worth more than 500 million yuan ($80.6 million). Some 30 percent of them hold a combined wealth of 31 trillion yuan, Over the past seven years, the benchmark of making the top 100 rich list has been raised from 700 million yuan to 2 billion yuan, more than doubling their average wealth from 3 billion yuan to 6.4 billion yuan. China’s official threshold for rural poverty is an annual income of 2,300 yuan ($370) per person.

Last year, the Japanese government recorded relative poverty rates of 16%—defined as the share of the population living on less than half the national median income. That is the highest on record. Poverty levels have been growing at a rate of 1.3% a year since the mid-1980s. On the same definition, a study by the OECD in 2011 ranked Japan sixth from the bottom among its 34 mostly rich members. Bookshops advertise a slew of bestsellers on how to survive on an annual income of under ¥2m ($16,700), a poverty line below which millions of Japanese now live. Since 2012, the number of irregular workers—often earning less than half the pay of their full-time counterparts with permanent employment contracts—has jumped by over 1.5m. Casual and part-time employees number nearly 20m, almost 40% of the Japanese workforce. Welfare applications bottomed out at 882,000 in 1995 but have been rising steadily since. Last year they topped 2m for the first time.

We’re living in an increasingly plutocratic oligarchy, working  for the scraps our oh, so benevolent capitalist overlords are kind enough to toss our way.

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