America Gets Rich on Slave Labor

It's damn funny to listen to Bill Clinton and Pat Buchanan complain about China's use of prisoners to manufacture low-cost products. In reality, when it comes to slave labor, China has nothing on the United States.During the last decade alone, American businesses have laid off over a million people. Employees who were lucky enough to be spared from downsizing mania have seen their salaries frozen, their benefits cut back, their retirement plans looted. New hiring for decent jobs -- the $40,000-plus variety -- is virtually nonexistent. Executives preside over a new brand of corporate terrorism under which cowed workers know that they are easily replaceable while their jobs are not. So employees work long hours without asking for overtime pay and perfect the art of shutting up.The classic dynamic of labor-management relations prescribes a tug-of-war in which employers demand as much work as they can for as little pay as possible, while workers fight for precisely the opposite conditions. However, decades of government-approved union-busting and corporate sponsorship of politicians have destroyed every pretense of a fair balance.Now that they've taken away the company picnic, the year-end bonus and the dental plan, there's only one more thing to go: the paycheck. But shareholders need not worry-that's next.PRISON LABOR As in China, inmates in American prisons are forced to work in road gangs (in Mississippi, for example) or in sweatshops that make a variety of products-like those cool new "Prison Blues" jeans.In other cases, labor is coerced. During a recent visit to the maximum-security prison at San Quentin, California, inmates told me that roughly a third of them toil in prison workshops at wages ranging from 25 cents to a dollar per hour. In exchange for their sub-sub-sub-minimum-wage labor, they receive points towards such privileges as single cells and early parole hearings.Most American voters see nothing wrong with putting convicted criminals to work. Riled by absurd anecdotes of country-club jails decked out with 500 cable-TV channels and fully-equipped health clubs, they feel they're fighting back against crime. Never mind that prisoners can't commit crimes anymore or that most of the profits from prison labor goes directly to the private companies that do business with the prison system, while taxpayers see mere pennies on the dollar from these sordid little enterprises.Even in prison, a corporate-style atmosphere of rollbacks prevails. "They're cutting back the number of points you can earn from working," an incompetent San Francisco bank robber serving a 20-year term told me. "It's getting so that fewer guys want to work."MINIMUM WAGE AND CHILD LABOR Meanwhile, roughly six million Americans, many of them teenagers and young adults, toil at the federal minimum wage of $4.25 an hour. In some states, teens can receive a "training wage" as low as $2.50.Conservatives claim that most of these people are teens merely earning extra spending money for CDs and video games, not people trying to support themselves and pay rent. If so, then we live in the best of all possible worlds because $4.25 an hour works out to about $700 a month gross for a full-timer. After taxes, that's $500. Sure, in some places it's still possible to pay the rent with $500, but forget about other luxuries like food, clothing, transportation or health care.Even if you accept the argument that minimum-wage earners are all acne-scarred teenagers, how can an allegedly civilized country justify this kind of institutionalized exploitation? Our kids fall asleep in class after closing up the neighborhood Dairy at 3am on school nights. Meanwhile, companies like McDonald's and Burger King ride their cheap slave labor straight to the top of the Big Board.In school, kids learn that child labor was eliminated at the turn of the century. After school, they go to work.It would never occur to most Europeans to use children to deliver newspapers or operate cash registers. Adults work; children are permitted to remain children.Here in America, we teach the young we don't care about them the best way possible: we put them to work. Methods of capitalistic coercion vary. Middle-class kids sell Girl Scout cookies and cheddar cheese for the marching band. Poor kids push crack, but it's all the same thing: coerced capitalism.Low wages are just a start-actual working conditions are terrible. When I was 13, four of my toes got seriously frostbitten while I delivered copies of the Dayton Journal-Herald for two hours during a ferocious blizzard. For this I earned a grand total of $20 a week. But I figured I got off easy -- mass murderer John Wayne Gacy started his career by offing his paperboy. And my friend Cole, who at 16 worked at a Richmond, Virginia burger joint, was held up and shot at. Not only did he not receive a bonus or promotion for his risking his life in the line of deep-frying duty, he was paid a laughable $2.90 an hour.At first glance, twentysomethings seem to lack ambition, but they're not lazy -- just burned-out.


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