It’s 9:00pm in San JosÃ©. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Monday or any other day of the week, really. Every night is ‘late night shopping’ in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just the convenience stores: the mall is open, the grocer, the chemists, the local hardware shop, everything.
Twelve-hour days are standard now. Seventeen-year-olds work 48-hour weeks. Behind the register, adults work insane hours and still need a second job to get by. Underemployment is rife. At the entrance to every store is a ‘greeter’ whose sole job is to welcome customers to the store. This stultifying job pays rock-bottom wages. On street corners, teens sit on top of structures holding signs to entice passersby off the freeways and into the strip malls.
Real wages haven’t increased in decades, although there’s been a slight improvement in the last six months. From 1 January this year, the minimum Federal wage was increased to US$7.25 per hour. Mind you, that’s a three-step increase from $5.15 over 26 months. Twenty States already have a higher minimum wage than that. If you’re under 20 years old, the minimum Federal wage is as low as $4.25 per hour. Worse still are those industries which allow workers to keep their tips: the minimum wage then drops to a pitiful $2.13 per hour.
Money isn’t everything, though. Americans are currently demanding drastic changes to their so-called healthcare system, which is almost entirely private and employer-based. Health insurance from an employer only kicks in after months of full-time work, sometimes as long as half a year. That would be bad enough if businesses weren’t always looking for a way around even this tiny gesture towards caring for their workers.
With no law barring the behaviour, companies can choose to hire and fire at will. Andrew, 17, works at a local sports centre. Even though Federal US law says no 17-year-old should work more than 8 hours in one day, Andrew recently did a 12-hour shift because he ‘needed the hours.’ That doesn’t seem odd to him. His mother works an 80-hour week.
He was recently fired for asking for specific shifts and then re-hired when the company realised it needed him. There was one catch, however: the company said it now planned to fire and hire monthly. There would be no certainty, no planning and a general sense of fear for all staff.
‘They hire 10 and fire seven every month. A lot of people are just going to quit because they don’t want to have to fear for their job,’ Andrew said. ‘I think it’s really dumb. It shows a lot of mistrust of their employees. They’re not asking what’s going on, they’re not looking at it from the point of view of the employees.’
This type of precarious employment is becoming more commonplace in the US, with more than 3 million temporary jobs and around 28 million part-time jobs in a labour force of 151 million. What’s most striking looking at data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is that while the number of full-time jobs increases steadily with the population, part-time jobs fluctuate wildly depending on the economy. Holders of these jobs simply never know when it’ll be their turn.
This idea of precarity is nothing new activists in South America and Europe have been organising around the concept as neo-conservative policies have removed safety nets such as unions, lifetime jobs, the dole and public healthcare. Some workers, such as call centre workers and fastfood workers, have even embraced precarity as a lifestyle, saying it empowers them too.
Yet in the US, where workers live some of the most precarious lives possible, there is no similar movement. Are Americans so used to precarious employment, healthcare and ‘social security’ that the more recent erosion experienced elsewhere as sudden and shocking is here experienced with cynical indifference?
‘There’s a lot of anxiety, and at times anger, among American workers,’ says Harley Shaiken, Professor in Labour Issues at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘Workers express uncertainty even though the actual numbers look rosy. That’s the disconnect that plays out in their lives every day. The pressures of globalisation and fierce competitiveness have caused people to be apprehensive but also focus on their job. The net result has been less formal complaint than you might expect but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an issue. It shows up in polls and in other ways.’
Thanks to Luke Henning
America’s precarious workers have their lives marketed back to them as niches: Generation X, Generation Y. The insecurity created for them is presented as a feature of their own making. As a result, America’s precarious workers read magazines such as TempSlave and Processed World (although now they’ve moved from print to posting disgruntled and amused tales to sites such as Bastard Operator from Hell and Idiot Customers) but do not take to the streets in a united response.
Andrew, for example, has never known any other sort of employment. ‘I plan on having this job for a while. They’ve promised management opportunities by summertime,’ he says. ‘I caught them at a bad time when I got fired and I don’t respect that but I can see where they’re coming from. I can see myself being really loyal to them in the future.’
Some say it all started with Apple. Andy Hertzfeld notes that towards the end of the Macintosh software project in 1983, Steve Jobs bragged to Time magazine that his programmers were working 90-hour weeks. The finance team made sweatshirts emblazoned with ’90 hrs/wk and loving it!’ to commemorate the claim. Certainly, the software and film industries, with their crazy hours and impassioned creatives working until all hours of the night, led to a demand for late-night food stores and more (Douglas Rushkoff’s ‘fictional’ Microserfs commemorates this time).
An engineer ‘mostly working in networking and connectivity’ from 1991 to 1995 remembers working ‘a weekend here and there’ and past 10 o’clock ‘from time to time’ but says that ‘working at Apple was the big win: the hours we put in weren’t vastly different from what was happening at other Silicon Valley companies at that time.’
The 8-hour-day, hard won in both Australia and the US through industrial action over the 20th century, is a thing of the past in the 21st.
‘That’s life in this industry,’ says the ex-Apple engineer. ‘People who don’t want it should teach kayaking or go into advertising or something.’
Australia might soon be in a similar predicament. With consumer rights cast as more important than citizen-rights, lack of worker protection is being recast as ‘freedom from constraints’ there’s a reason the package was dubbed ‘WorkChoices.’
omes a cycle: precarious jobs, precarious unemployment benefits and, with the uncertainty over whether you can pay the rent, precarious housing. With the rental market as it stands in Australia, there’s also the whim of the landowner deciding the market could provide a better return and simply raising the rent beyond your current capacity to pay. With no fixed address or at least constant stress and instability in housing employers see you as more of a risk.
Often, the most precarious employees are the least willing to form a union and fight fearful of losing what little stability they have.
The ultimate aim is lower costs for employers and the fastfood/call-centre model is now seen as ideal for many different industries, a change that has been slowly introduced over the last 10 years. Major employers have been accused of casualising their workforce by changing shifts on a regular basis, blocking staff from reaching the number of months required on the same rotation to be awarded permanent positions with full benefits. Indeed, casualisation was one of the issues in the Fairfax strikes of 2000.
A recent study by the Commonwealth Employment Advocate in Australia showed that all AWAs had traded away at least one previously award-protected condition and 16 per cent had traded away all of them. Only Queensland and NSW have established State-based labour laws to counteract these effects on minors, with NSW relying on awards to establish minimum hours and Queensland setting minimum weekly hours to 38 for a child under 16.
It’s not all dire, though. As early as 1999, call centre employees at Victoria’s Data Connection threatened strikes for backpay and in 2005, Starbucks workers in New Zealand staged the first ever fastfood worker strike, a campaign that was joined by workers from Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Burger King and won: following the campaign, secure set hours were introduced.
While it’s not inevitable that Australia will follow the same path as the US under WorkChoices, it’s hard not to envision parallels. Precarious living seems to follow liberalisation of workplace conditions as a matter of course.
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