Tag Archives: General Motors

Contracting, Subcontracting, and Burned Workers

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.

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On Logs and Garment Factories

A tragic side effect of the bombing in Boston is that Sumi Abedin and Kalpona Akter won’t be heard in a city that would have listened to them.  They were scheduled to go on a ten city tour to end death traps.  This tour included three days in Boston that would have concluded with a protest outside the Gap in Harvard Square.  Sumi Abedin is a survivor of the Tazreen garment factory fire and Kalpona Akter is a labor organizer at the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.  They are in America and tomorrow they will be in Olympia, WA.  It shocks and abhors me to think that the value of a Bangladeshi life lost in the Tazreen fire was $1,200.  I am sobered to learn that demanding a pay of $71 for 208 hours of labor in a month is the sort of thing that can get you jail time and death threats.

While I don’t expect that any imams in Bangladesh are going to read this blog entry written in English by a mainline American Protestant woman, I still want to ask this question of them: What is the role of your faith tradition in standing up to injustice?  In a country where 85% of the population is Muslim, why are you not decrying these deplorable conditions?  But then I remember words from Jesus about getting the log out of your own eye before you can get the speck out of your neighbor’s and I realize that we Christians fail every bit to stand up even in America where we supposedly have power and don’t have to fear retaliation.

In Everyday Justice, Julie Clawson writes, “But the reality is that all of us who participate in the system have some responsibility for how it functions…Instead of abandoning sweatshops when they are revealed by the media, companies should instigate reforms and make recompense to cheated workers…True justice always involves healing and restoration of the broken.”

I think of the companies on my boycott list.  They include General Motors for operating a call center in South Austin that sees employees as pieces of machinery that exist for the purpose of profit, Wal-Mart for using contractors who use sweatshops and for putting small businesses out of business, and Chick-Fil-A for contributing money to groups that want to deny rights to LGBTQ people.  On the one hand, it seems very American to not want to do business with people who don’t agree with your principles.  But on the other, boycotting businesses rests on the assumption that the dollar or the bottom line is what really holds the power in the world.  In the case of General Motors and Wal-Mart, my boycott is precisely because they believe the dollar is worth more than human dignity.  And you might even argue that my boycott doesn’t matter since I’ve never actually owned a new car and most of my clothes come from thrift stores.

I called my friend in Boston to ask what it was like to be on lockdown while they hunted for the terrorists.  Since she lived in the suburbs, did she stay home that day?  No, she went to work at her job at M.I.T. because she would be docked a vacation day or pay.  That might not seem like much, but if you’re about to go on your maternity leave and have dependents who need your income, you’re already anticipating a financial sacrifice.  But then there is a photograph that has become viral on Facebook of a police officer holding milk for a young family that ran out on the day of lockdown.  This of course, begs the question of who sold him the milk.  Was it a grocery store cashier who wanted to make sure she didn’t get an occurrence in case she had to stay home for a sick child?  Or did she need that day’s wages to avoid eviction?  Or worse, did she know if she didn’t come into work that was it and she wouldn’t even have her job anymore?

So now I have to mention the good thing that Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby do: They close their businesses on Sundays and give their employees the day off.  That doesn’t let them off the hook for the bad things they do, but I don’t know of any well known progressive businesses that close for a day each week outside of family owned restaurants.  I’m not advocating a return to blue laws (which have been watered down to mainly meaning you can’t buy alcohol before noon on Sundays in Texas).  But somewhere in the spiritual practice of Sabbath is the understanding that money is not what holds the power and money is not what we must fear most.  If we were to stop doing business for one day a week and reduce our consumption, the world would not end.

But then we are obsessed with the apocalypse: the Zombie Apocalypse, the Left Behind Apocalypse, the Alien Invasion Apocalypse, the Vampire Apocalypse, the Nuclear Apocalypse, and I’m sure there are others.  We react in complete and utter terror at the idea that some outside force might shut us down and wonder how we would cope.  The scariest thing about all of this is that we all live in utter terror whether we are the CEO of Nestle (who somehow thinks that water should not be a human right) or the call center employee working two extra hours each day the week of Thanksgiving to make up for the lost pay of having a “holiday.”  We all tell ourselves if we can just lay up enough treasures, we won’t have to worry and be afraid anymore.  Sumi and Kalpona, the log in our eyes is this: we don’t any of us believe we have any power.  We have rendered unto Ceasar what is God’s.  We have yet to grasp that the Sabbath was made for us so that we might actually live.

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