Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Broken World We Will Work In: not a review

I had seen an interesting short article at Mother Jones via Decline of Empire, and later a post  that commented on it at Small Holding.  The addition of Small Holding’s experience makes it more relevant, because I doubt you could get much different sides of the political spectrum from a lesbian Mother Jones Reporter and, keeper of the “collapse meter”, Small Holding.
Note:   I added to the front end  original block of Small Holding’s quotes because it will be relevant to some additional quotes later.  My addition ends at the XXX.
            Quotes in Grey are comments by Small Holding.

Mac McClelland, Mother Jones, 12 July 2011.

"It's hot in here," I said. It was like 90 degrees outside. "Don't you guys have air conditioning?"
"We do, but it's controlled by the big guys in the suits." Susie said everybody wears hats and coats during the winter because it's freezing inside….
"How much do these people make?"
About $9 an hour. When I said that wasn't very much—when I worked at the moving-company warehouse starting in 1998, I made $10 an hour—she replied, "For them it is. They have no jobs." Also, it's 50 cents an hour more than the people on the previous shift make. In a state with 8.6 percent unemployment [Ohio], fierce competition for limited job openings, and a minimum wage of $7.25, you could do a lot worse. XXX
Technically, these workers are all temps. They're hired as temps by the warehouse company, which is contracted to handle temporary staffing by a logistics company. If they make it 90 days, they have the opportunity to become full-blown employees of the logistics company, which means benefits and an extra dollar an hour. It's been six months since the logistics company graduated someone here from temp to employee status. At one of the other locations Susie manages, no one has been hired as a real employee for two years. One of the workers in this warehouse has been a temp for a year and a half.

It isn't much better where I work. We have had a few permanent hires the last few years, but damned few and only because we are at rock bottom for peon workers that require some skills like lift drivers and such. To be honest though it is pretty much spot on in several regards. After dragging my A$$ through a normal 10 hour day at that place I just have zero sympathy for anyone whining about being unemployed and thinking the government owes them unlimited lifestyle maintenance.

There are 100 people employed in the warehouse I visited, and Susie could fire every one of them today without costing her bosses a dime of lost profits. She has applications from hundreds of people ready to take the job.

Globalism has forced companies to compete with areas they shouldn't. Wealth redistribution has lead to our government taxing companies into margins so thin they are forced to use employees as work animals. Taxes based on continuous growth are now failing as that growth wanes along with cheap energy. Our liberal progressive government leaders give up every advantage an American worker has with their trade deficit agreements and contracts to bring business to disadvantaged countries. Well people when it comes to employment we are a disadvantaged country now so stop letting them give away every advantage we have. Or we could all end up working in conditions like the article portrays

At this point, you are probably saying:  “That did not add much to Small Holdings original post.”  And at this point you would be correct

Where this all eventually starts to come together is with the series of book reviews I have been doing.  I have just finished Honey (H. M.) Brown’s kind of creepy Red Queen (it has won best horror fiction awards without having anything supernatural in it: now that’s some apocalypse!), and was trying to decide what to read next.  I did a Google search for post-apocalyptic fiction.  Since my preference is for apocalypse-in-progress fiction, I had to do some digging and sifting.  Finally by skipping all the series-titles at this list, I came across some new items.

One of the items was Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.  When looking closer at it, I realized I already had his critically acclaimed The Wind Up Girl.  It had been on the back burner, because my allotted reading time for fiction had been taken up with apocalypse-in-progress novels.  I knew that the book was somewhat cyberpunky.  I had not realized that it was also a collapse-type book.  I should explain. 

Most cyberpunk novels have an atmosphere of partial urban collapse.  But they tend to bring in a lot of cool (versus practical) technology, and they tend more toward the action-adventure theme.  The characters are usually employed, and paid well, to perform some sort of nefarious dark activities within these grim near-future settings.  The movie Blade Runner is a perfect example.  I love well told Cyberpunk, but it is usually a grim world, not a collapsed one.  So I ordered Ship Breaker and started reading what I had on hand.

Well The Wind Up Girl world is very techi-, but it is also very collapsed.  I have only started it and it is already discussing food production collapses, big-Ag, and mass starvation.  They are also looking desperately for portable energy sources to replace liquid fossil fuels.  So it’s a collapsing world:  apocalypse-in-progress .

But having veered of on a (relevant) tangent, let us get back to the article we were discussing at the top:  the one with the hot factory where nobody is allowed to talk, and if you go to the bathroom more than once a day you can be fired.  Well when I saw the novel Ship Breaker it reminded me of an article I saw many years ago in the Atlantic Monthly, and when I saw Small Holdings post, I remembered the Mother Jones article and thought it all made an interesting continuum.

The Shipbreakers
William Langewiesche, The Atlantic Monthly August 2000: Volume 286 No. 2; article found here.

Dawn spread across [the] gargantuan landscape -- Alang, in daylight barely recognizable as a beach, a narrow, smoke-choked industrial zone six miles long, where nearly 200 ships stood side by side in progressive stages of dissection, yawning open to expose their cavernous holds, spilling their black innards onto the tidal flats, and submitting to the hands of 40,000 impoverished Indian workers. A narrow, roughly paved frontage road ran along the top of the beach, parallel to the ocean. It was still quiet at dawn, although a few battered trucks had arrived early, and were positioning themselves now for the day's first loads of steel scrap. On the ocean side the frontage road was lined by the metal fences that defined the upper boundaries of the 183 shipbreaking yards at Alang. The fences joined together into an irregular scrap-metal wall that ran intermittently for most of the beach, and above which the bows of ships rose in succession like giants emerging from the sea. Night watchmen were swinging the yard gates open now, revealing the individual plots, each demarcated by little flags or other markers stuck into the sand, and heavily cluttered with cut metal and nautical debris. The yards looked nearly the same, except for their little offices, usually just inside the gates. The most marginal yards could afford only flimsy shacks or open-sided shelters. The more successful yards had invested in more solid structures, some of concrete, with raised verandahs and overhead fans.

The workers lived just across the frontage road, in a narrow shantytown with no sanitation, and for the most part with no power. The shantytown did not have a name of its own. It stretched for several miles through the middle of Alang, and had a small central business section, with a few small grocery stalls and stand-up cafes. It was dusty, tough, and crowded. Unemployment there was high. The residents were almost exclusively men, migrants from the distant states of Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. They toiled under shipyard supervisors, typically from their home states or villages, who dispensed the jobs, generally in return for a cut from the workers' already meager pay. The workers chose to work nonetheless, because the alternatives were worse. In the morning light now, they emerged from their shacks by the thousands and moved across the frontage road like an army of the poor. They trudged through the yards' open gates, donned hard hats, picked up crowbars and sledgehammers, and lit crude cutting torches. By eight o'clock, the official start of the workday, they had sparks showering from all the ships nearby, and new black smoke rising into the distance along the shore.

Today roughly 90 percent of the world's annual crop of 700 condemned ships now end their lives on the beaches of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh -- and fully half of them die at Alang. With few exceptions, the breakers are not high-born or educated men. They are shrewd traders who have fought their way up, and in some cases have grown rich, but have never lost the poor man's feeling of vulnerability. They have good reason to feel insecure. Even with the most modest of labor costs, shipbreaking is a marginal business that uses borrowed money and generates slim profits. The risk of failure for even the most experienced breakers is real. Some go under every year. For their workers the risks are worse: falls, fires, explosions, and exposure to a variety of poisons from fuel oil, lubricants, paints, wiring, insulation, and cargo slop. Many workers are killed every year. Nonetheless, by local standards the industry has been a success. Even the lowliest laborers are proud of what they do at Alang.

It is a mind boggling article.  I would strongly suggest you read at least the sections that relate to conditions in India.
This is what we compete against in the open world economy, and this is where we are headed.  I don’t want to sugarcoat past American work experience.  We have our chicken factory disasters after all.  But I have worked with people that worked in those factories (before they got into construction) and they would tell you that they were disgusting, but not really that bad to work at.  You got into a zone and did your work.  So if you think it can’t be worse than a chicken factory, or a no-talking oven of a warehouse, I have some bad news for you.


PioneerPreppy said...

Not sure if you were trying to meet my point or not :)

Yet I think, to my mind anyway you reinforced it quite well. Globalism has reduced and is in the process of removing all advances we of Western European stock have managed to accomplish in the way of employee benefits. Look at all the other cultures from around the world most other cultural stock will toil and suffer under the same abysmal conditions for generations while the European cultures rarely let it go on more than a few years.

Sure things were bad for workers at several points in our history but within a decade or so had turned around. Globalism is undoing all of that and forcing us to either waste resources to bring our culture to them or suffer under theirs.

Just my take on it anyway.

russell1200 said...

I was in complete agreement with you. I think the term is wage arbitrage. I liked your comments because they gave a reference point beyond the obviously pro-labor Mother Jones.

The other factor is currency manipulation. Chinese currency policy essentially forces savings on themselves (in the form of buying our T-bills) and gives a discount to prices to us. So not only are we competing with people that live in shacks, but they are discounting their prices as well. The Germans do the same thing to Southern Europe, but at least they don't live in shacks. The last time our manufacturing was doing well (sometime in the 1980s) is when the main global trading countries (no Chinese involved then) came to currency agreement that actually gave the U.S. a slight currency advantage.

If you could find a way to keep people from gaming the currency system, in theory the wage arbitrage would not matter. Our large deficits also make it easier for them to find a use for all their extra cash. The Chinese buy T-bills because they have no choice. If they don't take our T-bills, they would have to buy product or services from us. To do that they would have to allow their people more money to spend (stop the forced savings through artificial currency pegs) and then there wages would go up to where we were at a relative balance.