What’s Working: What’s in the Wash

It may be a tad early to stir up the ghosts of Halloween, but no matter the season, one man’s bed sheet flapping on the clothesline is another man’s floating haunt. As the winter nights creep closer, I’m seeing lots of something fluttering about in those long, dark hours. Maybe it’s just agitated spirits rising from the Millennium Summit held way back in 2000 in New York City. That’s when UN member states joined hands, so to speak, and vowed to change the world. The world has changed some, since.

Their aim, just one of many compassionate and optimistic resolutions to rise from that meeting: “To halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day . . . ” (Item II.19 of the United Nations Millennium Declaration). That’s right, in a mere 15 years those hard worn devotees of human rights hope to cleanse the world of some of its suffering, to make things come out of the wash, so to speak, at least a couple of shades brighter.

No easy feat, as this load of laundry is full of more than just fitted bed sheets: the “colors” and “whites” are all mixed up and sloshing about with the dirty nappies of the future’s labor pool. Whether today’s babies are clinging to a skinny, malnourished hip, or being wheeled about in a plush, triple stroller, come the time they reach working age should they reach working age they might well outnumber the souls of the dead and the posts they’ve vacated. One billion new jobs are needed during the coming decade so that the young people of the world might have non-criminal or otherwise socially marginal ways to sustain themselves.

As for some of those who are not-so-young, here in the US, the middle-aged Latina women in wash ‘n wear polyester uniforms that open my local McDonald’s at 6am are clearly gainfully employed and paid above the equivalent of “one dollar a day” minimum many elsewhere in the world somehow get by on. In this rich nation where many such women have come for work, they’re probably even “covered” by health insurance; a “benefit” in America that is fraught with high monthly premiums and deductibles, nominal pharmaceutical coverage, and multitudinous restrictions. All those times through the spin cycle have working folks looking rather frayed about the hem, but hey, they’re the lucky ones. Recent headlines in US papers warn that more than 43 million Americans lacked health insurance last year; how many of those lost souls are employed, to one degree or another, is not clear.

Then there are the unmatched socks that get lost in the wash: those part-time and temporarily-employed folks who somehow manage to keep things patched together, here and there. They fall into the dingy-grey category of “underemployed”. There’s this depressing phenomenon that casts a lurid pallor about such people: the longer one remains underemployed, or unemployed altogether, the less likely one will ever gain full employment again. Such people find themselves sliding down toward the pile of the unemployed underclass, those trapped in the permanent welfare cycle who must supplement their nominal, state-provided income by any means necessary. Indeed, I know someone who for three years, now, while furtively seeking employment worthy and no so worthy of her 40-year career, relies upon her small family to meet her needs while she remains unemployed and uninsured. Applying for welfare seems to be the only option left to her. Perhaps you know someone or two like that, as well. Come the first of the month, things get rather scary, don’t they?

The UN labor agency estimates over 180 million people worldwide are currently unemployed. That is, those who are counted as unemployed; be they the down-on-their-luck, minimally educated lumpenproletariat, or the college-educated, dot-com-bust bourgeois. Are those who are unemployed, and those who are full-time, minimum-wage earners, like the fast-food women with families of their own, counted among the number of the world’s working poor, who, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) were estimated at 550 million by the end of 2002?

Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO, acknowledges those who are overlooked in a sweeping view of the global economy, “Our measures of unemployment largely record the jobless who have some form of social protection” (the ILO’s “Report on Global Employment Trends 2003”). We’re not talking about those who don ragged cast-offs before setting off to pick through garbage piles for the day. Worldwide record numbers of those folks surviving on the dole (as the dole exists, to a varying degree in industrialized nations) is scary enough; such as in Germany, Italy, France and Russia, where the rise in unemployment for young people is paralleled by a rise in neo-fascist, anti-semitic, anti-immigrant discontent. Things seem pretty spooky all over.

No matter how much we want to look away from the eerie specter of the global economic situation we know we can’t. It’s darting in and out of our peripheral vision, appearing closer, each time we dare to look. Come 2010, almost 60% of the world’s labor force will be in Asia. China alone must somehow employ nearly one-quarter of the global workforce. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean are seeing their labor force grow, too. Unemployment in Latin America and the Caribbean is at a record high of nearly 10%.

A mere year after the UN met at the Millennium Summit, the winds of change blew everything about, further complicating an already complicated matter. The aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York wreaked economic havoc worldwide; some 10.5 million jobs were lost as the global travel and tourist industries suffered the fallout. I know someone who saw his gainfully self-employed status in the travel industry plummet to near zero sustainability post-September 11. He’s lucky, in that his country is not largely dependent upon tourism (as are Nepal and Croatia, for example) so in that sense, he has a shot at another means of support — if only he could find another means of support. Worst hit by the economic fall-out post-September 11 were those labor-intensive and export-oriented industries in developing countries. Such countries suffer hurricanes when a butterfly flaps its wings in the industrial world. As discontent in developing countries rises, just watch how that crazy wind shifts.

What we call”developing countries, such as China, India, Brazil, and Cuba, comprise the bulk of the working poor (such as women in the garment industry and poor farmers). “Developing” is the keyword, as these countries struggle to pull themselves from the muck of what we call “third world” status. At the recent World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Cancun (September 2003) the “G21” group of developing countries, including China, Brazil, and India, set their collective political power against the might of the US and the EU. Almost 5,000 delegates from 146 countries called for an end to cotton subsidies in rich countries, subsidies that keep millions in developing countries in poverty.

They were aided by the single, poignant message from a South Korean farmer who killed himself at this summit in an “act of sacrifice to show his disgust at the WTO and its policies.” ( Guardian Unlimited 11 September ’03). Supachai Panitchpakdi, WTO director-general, urged ministers to consider the proposal seriously. Lifting the subsidies could, he said, “… add $500bn a year to world income by 2015, lifting 144 million people out of poverty.” (ibid) But G21 couldn’t hold up against richer countries’ refusal to reform agricultural subsidies.

In a summary of “Global Employment Trends, 2003”, the ILO offers these broad but at least partially achievable solutions toward cleaning up the mess we’ve made. For the wash cycle: our dry-cleaned, precision-pressed CEOs, presidents, prime ministers, dictators, and other policymakers must roll up their sleeves and get elbow-high in dirty water. They must employ a pro-jobs policy and stimulate employment-intensive investment while providing employment creation incentive for the private sector. Such measures will require considerable monetary support from governments, including governments of minimal means.

For the rinse cycle: through active labor market policies and social safety nets, developing countries and the poorest members of societies need to be protected, somehow, from economic insecurity, also known as “external shocks” caused by the swiftly changing global economy — that curse carried on the wings of a butterfly, if you will. I suspect such protection requires more cooperation from rich nations than was given at the Cancun summit.

And finally, to help balance the load during the spin cycle: “Countries should adopt ‘pro-poor’ policies to help women and men secure productive and decent work in conditions of freedom, security, and human dignity,” the UN recommends, “In addition, ending restrictions on the right to organize, tackling discrimination and child and forced labor are essential steps toward the economic, social and political empowerment of the poor.” Ah, the humanistic implications of such a policy are as refreshing as a “spring scented” dryer sheet. If only things really could be so fresh and clean …

Well, come daybreak in 2015, when that lucky ole sun that’s got nothin’ to do ‘cept radiate 383 billion trillion kilowatts of energy and shine, shine, shine from heaven down on our hard working ol’ world, we’ll see what’s hanging on the line. Here’s hoping it’s not so scary as it seems.

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“What’s Working” profiles individuals and issues in the world of work: what people do for a living, and how they make do to live. For those who are gainfully or otherwise employed, “What’s Working” looks at work that’s truly valued, simply tolerated, and utterly reviled.