Another garment factory disaster happened in Bangladesh since I posted about Sumi and Kalpona. This one is a collapsed building that has killed 200 workers. If you wonder how all these companies can deny any responsibility for garment industry disasters, it’s because they contract with someone who subcontracted to someone else. When a disaster happens, they can say they didn’t approve that contractor to subcontract to this specific factory that didn’t meet code. This happens in the first place because the contractor wants to guarantee the lowest possible price on goods to win the contract. In all of this workers are essentially cogs in the well oiled machinery of industrialization. Instead of machines serving humanity, humanity serves a system and that is nothing short of evil.
I can’t describe what things are like working in an Indian call center, but even in America call centers are run with a sweat shop mentality. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was way over idealized in its portrayal. I know because the most miserable job I ever had was working at a call center for General Motors here in Austin. IBM held a contract with Aditya Birla Minacs (a worldwide corporation that operates call centers in multiple states and countries based out of Bangalore, India) to provide a service to General Motors for the lowest possible price. The job was actually the most intellectually challenging job I have been paid for to date and included the most diverse group of coworkers I have known. The customers weren’t actually that bad. All the same, I have never before or since had a work environment that I felt was such a dehumanizing experience. I felt the system was so corrupt that I could not in good conscience ever purchase a General Motors vehicle.
Businesses like this are leeches on our local economy. Many of the employees at this place were on food stamps and section 8. There is a major employer in our city that hires nearly everyone full-time and requires a high school diploma and the ability to type to be hired. Yet their employees have little to no disposable income to put back into our economy, have no paid sick time or holidays, and are collecting public assistance just to make ends meet. The personal deductible on their health insurance for people who couldn’t meet certain healthy metrics including weight and blood pressure went to a couple of thousand dollars to way more if you had to put family members on it. Since the maximum pay you could promote to in any of the positions at Minacs was around $12-$13 an hour, this is easily more than a month’s pay on top of the insurance cost already taken out of employees’ checks. So when the City of Philadelphia wanted to pass a law that would guarantee workers sick time and Comcast protested, the first thought that went through my head was, “businesses like Comcast are probably what inspired Philadelphia to want to pass this law in the first place. I can think of a few laws that Minacs makes me want to get the City of Austin to pass including making it illegal to force employees to clock out to pee if they can’t hold their bladder until their break.”
Of course laws are universal reactions to specific situations. They are a start, but they cannot solve the sin behind the systemic injustice. What really has to be addressed is the whole situation that pits employees and employers against one another, or rather the Plantation Economy. The cynic in me says that while a better economy in my twenties might be why I never faced such a disempowering work experience until Minacs, the bigger cynic reminds me that most of my work experience was in Massachusetts and Alaska where workers have more rights. So let me say as a native Texan who is a product of Texas public education, it really burns my biscuits that our whole educational system is about providing a steady stream of disempowered, compliant workers who are used to meeting metrics (standardized tests) to achieve outside goals.
I often hear conservative law makers talk about how raising the minimum wage (which is below even what Minacs pays) would be damaging to the economy. I get that not every job is supposed to support a family. As a graduate student, I work at a grocery store to earn extra money and don’t expect it to be my career on which I feed my future children. However, places that expect that you will work full time and require a high school diploma and the ability to type are a different category. Minacs is not a place that is designed to let you work a few hours a week to earn some extra money to supplement your income while raising children, going back to school, or paying off debt by taking a second job. It is a grinding system that is designed to keep employees as disempowered and impoverished as the law allows and depends on taxpayer subsidization. It is morally atrocious if the full-time employees of companies like that are the ones who suffer when we make cuts to public assistance for fiscal responsibility. How about instead we enact legislation against employers who operate plantations?
The disturbing thing is that almost everything we buy involves participating in a system like this or worse. Of course the call center workers in India have it worse off. Of course the sweatshops in Bangladesh and China where most of our stuff is made are at the expense of human life and dignity. If we want to talk about Christian values and American politics, then let’s start by declaring that using human beings as components of machinery to enable our ease and comfort is about as far from Biblical values as you can get. If we are serious about change then we will lay it on corporations both as consumers and citizens of a democracy in which we actually have the power to initiate laws. There is no plantation economy that is just.