On International Worker’s Day: Rights and Lack Thereof

When you have an office job, it’s easy to gripe about feeling demoralized or disengaged at work, about lack of advancement opportunities, office politics, aging desk furniture or fluorescent lighting, but when you put things in perspective, as my wise high school calculus teacher once told me, “it could always be worse.” And in America and around the world, worse ranges from “why is this still happening?!” to “WHY IS THIS STILL HAPPENING?!”

Economic Inequality

Though the Occupy Wall Street movement has long moved away from the public eye, the 99 percent, here and around the world, still face huge gaps in wealth, economic security, and wellbeing. For a quick and easy introduction to economic inequality and the many wellbeing factors it’s correlated with (health, mortality rates, lifespan, child wellbeing, etc.), watch Richard Wilkinson’s TED talk on “How economic inequality harms societies.”

Racial Inequality: See Baltimore

Christopher Ingram of the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog” wrote a startling piece comparing the differences in life expectancies between residents of different Baltimore neighborhoods:

One is born in Roland Park, a wealthy neighborhood in the north of the city. The other is born just three miles away in Downtown/Seton Hill, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The Roland Park baby will most likely live to the age of eighty-four, well above the U.S. average of seventy-nine. The Seton Hill baby, on the other hand, can expect to die nineteed=n years earlier at the age of sixty-five.  That’s fourteen years below the U.S. average. The average child born this year in Seton Hill will be dead before she can even begin to collect Social Security.

A CNN report using US Census Bureau data from 2013 show the median household income for whites in Baltimore was $60,550 as compared to just $33,610 for blacks in Baltimore. (For more on government-sponsored segregation: read this).

And Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood Freddie Gray was from, had the highest number of residents in state prison than any other neighborhood of Maryland. According to the Justice Policy Institute, More than half of residents age sixteen to sixty-four are unemployed, and 7.4 percent of children age 0-6 living in the neighborhood have elevated blood-lead levels (three times that of other Baltimore children, which can affect IQ and academic achievement.

Minimum Wage

According to the Economic Policy Institute, America’s federal minimum wage of $7.25 has fallen far behind price inflation—at 32 percent lower than the $9.54 it should be if it did keep pace (this is while CEO pay more than doubled since the 1990s). And even so, this is not the larger picture when you take into consideration how much more productive workers are today with the advent of exponential technological advances. How are workers to keep up with the standard of living? The Hamilton Project shows that raising the minimum wage could benefit 35 million workers.

Labor Force Participation

In February 2015, the International Monetary Fund released a report revealing that “almost 90 percent of countries have at least one gender-based restriction” that makes it harder for a female to participate in the labor force. For example, if a country doesn’t have laws in place to prevent violence against women or if a woman cannot legally open a bank account, it affects her treatment in the labor market as compared to a man. According to IMF economists, the potential GDP loss from low female labor participation can be more than 15 percent.

Fast Fashion & Supply Chain Responsibility

Friday, April 24, was International Labor Rights Forum’s Global Day of Action: Remembering Rana Plaza, the garment factory that collapsed the same day two years ago.  More than one thousand people were killed, most of them factory workers for Joe Fresh, JC Penney, Loblaws, and Children’s Place. In a segment on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Sunday, he reminded us how easy it is to forget to be aware of supply chain responsibility when we see the low prices on clothing price tags, and how companies take advantage of that to avoid taking responsibility or further action to enforce labor rights regulations for the manufacturing of their products. The reason why companies are able to provide such mass production of low-cost clothing is because of their reliance on sweatshops that pay inhumanely low wages without regard to working conditions or welfare of their employees. Not only are working conditions and low income affecting the workers, so are the toxic chemicals (including formaldehyde, phthalates, and brominate flame repellant) used in dyes to create this season’s “IT” color and for treatment of clothes in order to give them the unwrinkled appearance or to create “breathable” fabrics. Because we often don’t dig deeper into companies’ promises to remove unethical methods of production from their supply chain, they can easily continue to make such false promises without real action.

Of course, the fashion industry is not the only source of blame, and there are human rights and labor rights violations (not to mention human trafficking and slavery) across industries and across nations. You may remember the letter one American woman found in the decorations she bought from Kmart about labor camps in China, in which the author implored the consumer to “kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization” because “people who work here have to work fifteen hours a day without Saturday (or) Sunday break and any holidays, otherwise they will suffer torturement [sic], beat and rude remark, nearly no payment (10 Yuan/one month).” Or any number of heartbreaking images you can find on Google when you look up “child labor in cigarette factory,” or “palm oil human rights abuses,” or “conflict minerals forced labor,” and too many more abuses…

Echoes of the Haymarket Affair

And as un-enthralling as it appears, International Workers’ Day and the history of its origins still offer deeply important lessons for the present day. The day of recognition was officially initiated by Second International, a French socialist and labor party organization, in commemoration of the Haymarket Affair three years earlier. On May 1st, 1886, organized strikes and demonstrations occurred across the United States in support of the eight-hour work day, and two days later a protest outside a Chicago factory resulted in six workers being shot and killed by police.  Outrage over the deaths led labor organizers to hold a protest against police brutality at Haymarket Square the following day, where things quickly turned confrontational and devolved into chaos when police attempted to disperse the crowd and an unknown person threw a bomb. Sound familiar? Fundamental institutional transformation is never easy and things could always be worse, but let us remember our history as we try and make things better.