Thursday, September 22, 2016

Who are our enemies?

Many disasters beset us. Some of them receive a great deal of public attention, such as terrorist attacks or floods, droughts, or earthquakes that are at least, in part, due to environmental degradation.

Other disasters are less familiar. Among them are the many different ways in which employers maltreat and defraud their employees, at times treating them quite inhumanely. Immigrants are particularly targeted, particularly those whose immigration status is uncertain. Often they earn very low wages--wages way below the legal minimum. Often the wages are not paid regularly, and sometimes the employees are not paid at all.

Frequently immigrants work in the building trades where they do jobs that are not only hard but also dangerous. They work on roofs, they climb ladders carrying heavy loads. They are constantly under pressure to work faster. Here accidents happen: workers fall off the roof, they fall off ladders. They injure themselves trying to work fast. Some employers will provide none or very inadequate medical care for young men injured on the job. The victims face a long struggle to get their injuries seen to properly.

But immigrants, whether documented on not, are not the only victims of their employers’ callous pursuit of greater profits.

Briefly in the news was the story of a gas station attendant who was pregnant and close giving birth. Her employers refused to give her a chair to sit on while she  sold drinks and candy and collected money for gas. They refused to assign her lighter duties or to allow her to take some extra breaks.

These  stories are usually treated as exceptions. Observers start talking about "bad apples." Most business people, they say, would of course be supportive of a pregnant woman in her last trimester.

But that is sheer fantasy. 

A Massachusetts legislator heard about the plight of this woman and introduced a "Pregnant Workers Fairness Act" which would have required employers to treat their pregnant employees with ordinary decency. The legislature wanted to make it a legal requirement that pregnant women be treated with modest humanity.

What happened next is truly astonishing. The lobbying arm of Massachusetts businesses, The Associated Industries of Massachusets (AIM), whose members are many large corporations with global reach as well as small, local enterprises, went to the legislature and put pressure on the Speaker of the House. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was bottled up in committee and never even reached the floor of the House.

Inhumane treatment of employees is not just a problem of a few bad apples. The business community of Massachusetts has gone on record that they don't favor humane treatment of pregnant women. We have not heard anything from the same association of Massachusetts businesses condemning the practices of contractors who hire immigrants and maltreat them. Many contractors, no doubt, do the right thing and hire union construction workers. But their association has not pressured the legislature for laws to forbid the exploitation of immigrant labor.

Business is highly respected in America. Many persons have well-meaning and decent  employers. But business as an institution, as a major social force in our country, has a very poor record when it comes to fair and decent treatment of the people who actually do the work and bring in the money.

Regardless of kind employers, regardless of a lot of public relations on the part of employers, the fundamental fact is clear and needs to be remembered: the relationship between employer and employee is an antagonistic one. The employer gets rich by paying his employees as little as possible, by providing as little health insurance as possible, by paying as little as they can for retirement. Employers’ profits come in part out of the employees’ pocket. For the employer workers are fair game.