ClassLow-Wage Work

Caught in The Web: The Young and the Jobless

One of the major drivers of the recent global wave of street protests— from riots in London to the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street—has been youth joblessness. Global youth unemployment saw its largest increase on record—the largest since good records have been kept, that is—in 2009. A fine online project documenting the worldwide problem of youth unemployment—and exploring young people’s own perspectives on the matter—is the 2012 United Nations World Youth Report (

Based, in part, on extensive online conversations with young people conducted in October 2011, the report contains, along with statistics, great photos as well as profiles of young people—a twenty-one-year-old first-time migrant worker in Shanghai working on new building interiors, a twenty-year-old housewife in Kashmir who was forced into marriage because of a lack of job opportunities—discussing their situations. It’s a diverse group—from mobile phone saleswomen to domestic workers, from Canadians to Zambians—but the uncertainty they feel about the future is broadly shared. For some, a sense of raw desperation is close to the surface: A twenty-year-old Hindu man says, “Because I am unemployed I roam around with other boys and people call me a vagrant. This makes me sad.”

The International Labour Organization also has a resource guide on youth employment ( subject/youth.htm), which includes statistics, expert discussion of trends, and photo slideshows and videos, exploring not only unemployment but also the spread of working poverty among young people.

The 99 Percent: Productive, but Poor

Another driver of the global protests, of course, is inequality and its less-discussed twin, exploitation. This is particularly visible in productivity statistics. One of the most striking features of our current era in economic history is how productive workers have been in recent decades, and how little they have gained from all their hard work. Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute has an in-depth report showing that the typical U.S. worker has not benefited much from her productivity since the 1970s. While workers’ productivity has increased dramatically over the last four decades, hourly compensation has grown relatively little. Mishel’s report can be found here: productivity-vs-compensation. From 1967 to 2011, productivity grew by 80.4 percent, while average hourly compensation went up only 39.2 percent.

Freelancers Fighting Back

One of the many ways this great productivity rip-off continues in our day is through employers simply not paying workers at all. We hear plenty about deadbeat dads but not nearly enough about deadbeat bosses. Wage theft from vulnerable immigrant workers performing manual labor has been receiving more attention in recent years, but the problem extends even to white-collar workers, from writers to graphic designers to psychoanalysts (many shrinks are essentially freelancers). The self-employed are particularly vulnerable, as they engage in many short-term contracts which are difficult and costly to enforce, and may have fewer personal ties to bosses. Because their employment is always precarious, they tend not to have institutions that represent them, or much solidarity from other work- ers. The Freelancers Union—of which, full disclosure, this columnist is a member—has a website ( documenting the amounts, and types, of work for which freelancers were not paid. The purpose of the site, for now, is to present information to lawmakers to argue for better labor protections for the self-employed. That’s a good goal, but the site could also be used as an organizing tool for workers to find each other and organize against the repeat offenders.

Unpaid wages are also common in the food industry. The food justice movement has, in recent years, been one of the more vibrant strains on the U.S. left, especially among young people, bringing together economic justice, environmentalism, and a concern with the quality of our everyday life. Several websites are vital resources for tracking struggles among food industry workers. One is the blog of Brandworkers International, a group that engages concerned citizens in fights for economic justice for retail and food workers. Like far too many labor movement websites, this one looks like hell, but it provides updates and news reports on the struggles of workers in these industries, ranging from a pressure campaign on a Brooklyn hummus producer failing to pay wages to its workers, to a victory for distribution workers at a New York City bakery, to national updates on legislative protections for immigrant workers. You can follow the Brandworkers’ blog by signing up for updates on the site, or by following Focus on the Food Chain on Facebook. Another excellent resource is the website of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a group of Latino, Mayan Indian, and Haitian immigrant workers. That site ( includes updates on CIW’s efforts to get major food purveyors—like Publix supermarket and the Chipotle fast-food chain—to raise prices by just a penny in order to provide the migrant workers who pick the tomatoes with a living wage.

Who’s Waging War on Teachers?

Speaking of workers fighting back, the growing education justice movement can, in part, be seen as an insurgent labor movement. Teachers frustrated by their unions’ lack of leadership and depressing compromises on unpalatable policy—agreeing to link teacher evaluations to student test scores, voyages. for example—have been finding many other ways to fight back, including joining the Occupy movement. As worry over the neoliberal assault on public education spreads, more activists and other citizens are demanding information on who exactly is funding this assault, and by what mechanisms and institutions. A terrific resource on this is Education Watch, a website ( operated by Great Schools for America, an organization founded by teachers to promote good teaching and fight the corporatization of public schools. Education Watch is an easily- searchable database showing the connections between wealthy people, policies encouraging privatization of education, the charter chains, and right-wing agendas.

Voyages Into History

The rapid technological changes we’re living through can make the future feel perilously close. But they also provide invaluable tools for exploring the past. One of many awe-inspiring new websites popularizing the historical research process is Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (www., which documents the forced journey of Africans to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, one of the most consequential and traumatic events in global labor history. The site provides data on more than thirty-five thousand journeys bringing slaves to the New World, and scholars are adding more every day. The information is drawn from libraries and archives around the world, and the site is hosted by Emory University and funded mainly by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The “Voyages” site also includes helpful guides to its data, as well as maps showing where most of the slaves departed from Africa, as well as the major ports from the Americas that were involved in such voyages. Also on the site is a detailed timeline, beginning with the first slave voyage in 1525, showing how many slave- according to data available thus far- embarked and disembarked each year, for the entire duration of the salve trade. The timeline ends with the last voyage, as late as 1867. The site also provides images of the original manuscripts- registries from the slave ships themselves- that make all the data collecting possible. All the information on the site can be assessed for free, and there is plenty of detailed instructions on how to use its many features.

The database also lists individual slaves, by African name and age, voyage, and year they arrived. That’s rich data for historians of the slave trade, as well as for the ordinary citizen. “Voyages” also begins to provide for the Middle Passage, as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial ( did for the Vietnam War, a sense of the many real lives destroyed.

Garment Work In Art

Also greatly aided by technology is art from the margins, which unfortunately, at this moment, includes almost all art on labor issues. Projects that once might have been seen by a handful of people can now have a far more global reach. Anne Elizabeth Moore is an artist who has a performance piece called “Garment Work,” which was an installation at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art last year, in which the artist and museum visitors work together to take apart a pair of jeans. During the performance, she makes connections between the Cambodian factories where the jeans were made and Chicago’s Michigan Avenue where they were purchased. A ten-minute video can still be seen here: www.