The United States still counts a depressing 24 million unemployed, while the number of exploited unpaid workers keeps growing.
By **Scott Thill**
By arrangement with Alternet.Org.
Here’s a particularly nasty sign that the economy is still weaker than Donald Trump’s presidential run was: The United States still counts a depressing 24 million unemployed currently hunting for a full-time job, and the only employment sector really catching fire is unpaid jobs and internships, which have steadily increased to fill the undignified void. Whether you’re a new college graduate or an unemployed veteran of the pre-recession employment landscape, you’re now either fighting for a shrinking pool of new low-paying positions or plenty of gratis gigs where you won’t ever see a dime for your earnest blood, sweat, and tears.
Last week, the Department of Labor announced a minuscule drop in unemployment insurance claims to 409,000, barely below the annual average’s wheelhouse of 412,000 but well above 2011’s low of 375,000. For those who graduated college long ago, peak oil and climate change have continued to initiate obvious yet still destabilizing price increases in commodities like food and oil. Health insurance hikes continue unabated and unjustified, and over half of Americans think the housing market is moribund.
Meanwhile on campus, corporations are still avoiding college job fairs. Escalating tuition costs are said to be inevitable. Perhaps that’s just what happens when the University of Chicago decides to host an academic conference on Jersey Shore. Or perhaps Americans who bought into the dream of hard work, ATM housing and paid health care have now devolved to the point that they’re indistinguishable from college graduates just entering an anemic job market that shows zero signs of progressing. At this point, the only difference between the two is who eventually moves beyond the increasingly fashionable unpaid job or internship to a paid position.
If the predictable rise in unpaid jobs and internships isn’t a sign that the American worker is being undervalued, the Department of Labor’s recent decision to hire 250 additional regulators to enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act probably is. Passed in 1938, the FLSA mandated a national minimum wage, overtime for certain jobs and prohibited oppressive child labor. It also formed a cornerstone of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal social safety net, which is why Republicans in Maine and Missouri are predictably trying to repeal it as you read this. According to these greedy bastards, nothing says true American grit like 14-year-olds working overtime in dead-end jobs during school hours.
“[Marx] would laugh in disbelief that the capitalist system has created slaves within its own class. Disbelief that these slaves have been ’culturally enlightened’ and supposedly see the flaws in the system, yet continue to submit themselves to exploitation.
When it comes to paid and unpaid labor, how the FLSA fluctuates between varying state regulations and federal mandates is a mystery to almost anyone unschooled in government or occupational bureaucracy. But one thing seems clear: The U.S. Department of Labor hired its regulators because the system obviously needs regulation.
“Our top priority is protecting the rights of all workers in the American workforce,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Labor Division told AlterNet. “Clearly, participating in internships, externships and training opportunities are positive and career-building experiences for individuals. But it also means ensuring that employers act responsibly—and are held accountable when they treat their workers unfairly.”
To do that, Labor has encouraged unpaid employees and interns to call 1-866-4US-WAGE if they feel their employers aren’t operating in good faith orcompliance with national guidelines. The helpful but still ironic recent hiring of additional federal regulators has allowed the Wage and Hour Division to open new district offices across the country, enabling especially younger workers to better report violations “so that they know their rights.”
“That’s absolutely a priority,” the spokesperson added. “The investigators conduct extensive outreach at college campuses and at career centers all over the country. If we were to receive a complaint, we would investigate that complaint. But the fact of the matter is that Wage and Hour Division has not received a single complaint regarding an unpaid internship.”
While alarming, that factoid makes sense. As Fortune recently explained in a scary article titled “Unpaid Jobs: The New Normal?” unpaid employment necessarily breeds strange relationships in which employees and employers understand that the former are “going to give their all for nothing.” Because of that inequitable arrangement, employees often shirk their uneven responsibilities or give less than their all, especially if the promise of a paid position recedes with every week.
“It’s better to have one decently paid person than nine unpaid people who are making it so difficult because they’re slacking off or they’re difficult to manage,” the article quotes one frustrated employer. If unpaid labor truly is the new normal, one wonders how long it will be before the phones at Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which only recently stepped up its workplace regulation, starts ringing off the hook.
“Unpaid internships have a number of problems,” Rosy Rickett, cofounder of the UK’s Interns Anonymous, explained to AlterNet. “They’re elitist, because only the richer can afford to work for free. They devalue labor; having unpaid journalists or architects means that newspapers or architecture firms can undercut competitors. And they are often seen—by the British government at least—as a cure-all for youth unemployment figures. Clearly, paid jobs, not unpaid internships, solve unemployment. I’m not sure whether 250 regulators can do the job for the whole of the U.S., but maybe I underestimate them.”
Rickett’s point is well-taken. While American employees have been mired in a nowhere land pockmarked by a few low-paying jobs and lots of unpaid jobs, American corporate profits have reached an all-time high. Exorbitant executive bonuses are making a comeback. Not a single major bankster responsible for the so-called Great Recession has seen the inside of a jail cell, even though the price tag on bank failures in 2010 alone hit $2 billion and the remaining banks are bigger and more failure-prone than ever. In what world will 250 additional regulators at the Department of Labor be able to adequately regulate workplace injustice or exploitation? Probably the best news to come of this development is that the Department of Labor is hiring at all.
“Not investing time or money in an intern means that we often hear reports of interns not adding value to a company,” added Rickett. “Paying a worker means that you invest in them, and are therefore more likely to train them effectively and build up a good working relationship.”
According to Amy Potthast, director of Service and Graduate Programs at social and environmental justice employment clearinghouse Idealist.org, that persistent problem is more uncommon to nonprofit organizations that marry their employees and interns’ personal goals to their professional ones.
“In the nonprofit sector, where volunteers are usually essential to an organization’s human resources capacity, unpaid internships make sense,” Potthast explained. “Unpaid nonprofit internships differ from corporate internships in that they take place in a context of positive social and environmental impact. Very often, nonprofit interns pursue opportunities that allow them to build skills while working toward a mission they believe in. Their goals are not simply to learn, to network or to add to their resume, but to also significantly strengthen the community.”
The corporate sector has shown that it is mostly uninterested in fortifying such communal bonds. Sitting on record profits, dishing out offensive bonuses and cheaply restricting its hiring, it has illustrated a callous disinterest in the workers who have bailed out its recently failed stratagems. In fact, corporate inaction has become so obvious that even President Obama decided to publicly call bullshit on it.
It’s going to take fundamental shifts in priorities and policies to awaken the government and public alike to the bleaker, newer normal.
“It is time for companies to step up,” Obama complained on national television in May. “American taxpayers contributed to that process of stabilizing the economy. Companies have benefited from that, and they’re making a lot of money, and now’s the time for them to start betting on American workers and American products.”
But it’s going to take more than Obama using the bully pulpit to chastise American corporations or hiring more regulators to force their compliance with employment guidelines to create the sea change he campaigned on. It’s going to take fundamental shifts in priorities and policies to awaken the government and public alike to the bleaker, newer normal. It’s going to take painful realizations that the American economy, currency and consumption we’ve enjoyed (and abused) for the last several decades is likely gone for good. Our increasing climate and economic catastrophes demand adaptation.
So the only significant way unpaid labor will be equitable in what’s left of late capitalism is if it’s accompanied by a secure social safety net that can aid an ailing populace’s basic needs. After all, there’s a reason the godfather of labor theory Karl Marx regarded surplus labor—usually, unpaid labor—as the ultimate source of capitalist profit.
“What would Karl Marx make of this?” Interns Anonymous asked in an insightful analysis called “WWMD: What Would Marx Do?”
“He would laugh in disbelief that the capitalist system has created slaves within its own class. Disbelief that these slaves have been ’culturally enlightened’ and supposedly see the flaws in the system, yet continue to submit themselves to exploitation. They are a sub-culture existing within the middle class itself, and they are full of contradictions: Impoverished yet decadent; desperate but unwilling; culturally enlightened yet utterly naive. They are magnets for exploitation.”
Copyright 2011 Scott Thill
By arrangement with Alternet.Org.
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com.