“No poor man ever gave me a job.” How many times have you heard that one? Sadly, these words are often spoken by a working class person who should know better. It’s always said with a self-satisfied sneer, sometimes accompanied by some racial or gender slurs. Maybe you’ve heard people repeating the cruel sound bites from TV about how lazy and irresponsible poor people supposedly are.
I’m not much good at snappy comebacks, so here is what I would like to say in response to these individuals.
If you go around saying stuff like this, aren’t you just trying to conceal your own insecurities? You think you need people “below” you to prop up your self confidence, don’t you? You know in your heart that you are just one lay-off, just one health problem or just one family tragedy away from poverty yourself. So overcome by fear, you adopt a worshipful attitude toward the wealthy 1% and their allies, hoping that you’ll be exempted from financial disaster.
But secretly, don’t you feel you feel a bit ashamed? I hope so, because that means you haven’t surrendered your humanity yet. So let’s talk about poor people. Maybe no poor person ever offered you a job, but it takes a lot of poor people to maintain an employer. In fact, let me introduce you to some of the poor people who help keep employers in business.
Employers cannot not live without food, but the people who plant, raise and process our food are mostly poor people. Lucas Benitez was one of those people. He came to the USA at the age of 16 to pick tomatoes. The pay was low, the work was hard and there were threats against anyone who spoke out.
But Benitez was not intimidated. He is now an organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workerswhich negotiates with the big tomato buyers like Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and Whole Foods. Benitez also helped to break up slavery rings that kept farmworkers captive:
“Modern-day slavery is real. The Immokalee farm workers are working with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice investigated and prosecuted five cases of real slavery. Farm workers are recruited and put in slave camps that have armed guards 24 hours a day. Sometimes the workers receive only twenty to forty dollars per week for the whole week’s work. If you try to escape, and you are found, they take you back to the camp and beat you in front of the rest of the workers as an example to show that you can’t get away.”
Farmworker annual income in the USA is still only around $11,000; for a family it is around $16,000, but Benitez and his colleagues are as patient as they are hardworking. They may not have offered you a job, but they keep your employer well fed.
Employers wear clothes, both for legal and comfort reasons. How many words have been written in business publications about dressing for success? But it is poor people who are the backbone of the clothing industry, mostly out of sight and out of mind, but doing the hardest work.
So meet Kalpona Akter who first began working in the Bangladesh garment industry at the age of 12. The supply chain for many clothing lines begins in countries like Bangladesh with their low wages and repressive governments.
You may have heard of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. Back when garment sweatshops were in the USA, the owners locked the doors on the mostly immigrant women who worked there. A fire broke out and trapped many of them, killing 146 people, many of whom jumped to the deaths. It was one of the worst industrial accidents in US history and completely preventable. The same conditions exist in the Bangladesh garment industry where many of today’s sweatshops are now located. At least 400 workers have died since 1990 because of locked exits.
It was conditions like these that drove Kalpona Akter to organize garment workers in her country. She has had false charges brought against her and received many threats. But she has persisted, even coming to the USA to testify at a Walmart stockholders meeting:
“Based on my own experiences, the working conditions in Walmart’s global supply chain are very difficult. In my country, Bangladesh, garment workers receive just 20 cents an hour–barely enough to put food on the table for one worker, let alone her family. This work takes place in remarkably unsafe conditions. Last year over 40 workers were killed in fires at garment factories. ”
The garment workers of countries like Bangladesh may not have a job to offer you, but when you get dressed for that big interview, you might want to thank them anyway.
Cleanliness is important to good health. You wouldn’t want to go into a hotel that is dirty or visit a hospital where sanitation isn’t even an afterthought. A plague or epidemic could certainly produce a shortage of employers.
So we hire people to clean up after us. Many of them are poor people. In an industry whereofficial hourly pay ranges from a low of 7.69 an hour up to $14.19 an hour, the low is pretty low. The trend nowadays with union-busting and contracting-out is pushing wages downward. So is actual wage theft.
So meet Francine Jones. She put in 20 years at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago and recently went on strike with her union. Hotel housekeepers have an astounding injury rate. Here’s Francine Jones speaking out:
“Housekeeping is hard work that gets harder every year at the Hyatt, and over the years it’s taken a toll on my body. Today, I now have pain in my wrists from an injury at work, and I live with chronic pain in my back and knees from all the heavy lifting and bending I do to change beds, scrub floors and toilets, and push heavy furniture around to vacuum. I wake up at night because of the pain, and I need two hands to even just hold a coffee pot.”
Jones faces a terrible choice. Her job is wrecking her body, but Hyatt is reluctant to switch longterm workers to lighter duty. Leaving her job to save her health could throw her into desperate poverty.
Francine Jones and her colleagues may not have a job to offer you, but they help employers stay healthy. A shortage of employers due to an epidemic would certainly could put a crimp in your career plans. So the next time you check in to a motel or hospital, you might want to say thanks to the house keepers.
Are you getting the picture now? Many of these poverty level jobs are critical to the functioning of society. They also create a demand for goods and services that creates more jobs because poor people buy things. If people were paid decently, that would create more jobs. It’s a multiplier effect. And BTW, watch what you say about the unemployed. They spend money too, whether it’s from some kind of government aid, what they can borrow or what they can beg on the streets.
Actually the Wall Street 1% elite loves unemployment, not too much unemployment mind you, but just the right amount. They even have economists who calculate how much unemployment is the “healthiest” for the economy. Unemployment makes them money. It keeps wages down by throwing fear into workers that if they speak out or organize a union they’ll be fired. There are lots of desperate people who will replace them.
How desperate? Just advertise a minimum wage job fair in January and you’ll see thousands of people lining up freezing their asses off, even if there are only a few actual jobs available. They’re applying for jobs that won’t even pay the bills they have now, much less the ones that will come rolling in later. But what choice do they have in this dysfunctional economy? There are employers who laugh all the way to the bank at scenes like that.
Full employment means power in the hands of working class people. That’s the last thing the 1% wants to see.
So if poor people are so important to the economy, why the endless propaganda against them? Such as: They’re lazy. They’re irresponsible. They live off welfare. They don’t want to work. They’re drug addicts. They’re dirty. They’re a drain on society. They don’t pay taxes. They’re criminals. They breed like animals. They’re trash.
This is similar to the wartime propaganda used to dehumanize an enemy. It’s designed to make poor people feel ashamed and helpless, disarm them psychologically and wreck their self-confidence. It’s also designed to divide poor people from the rest of us, divide us from people like Lucas Benitez, Kalpona Akter and Francine Jones who want a global economy that actually works. Poor people are our allies, not our enemies.
So who wants us to join their class war against the poor? Who’s behind this nasty display of public bigotry? Just follow the money trail and see who benefits. You won’t have to travel far.
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