The senate of the US state of Wisconsin has just approved a bill allowing 14-year-old children to engage in paid work until as late as 11pm.
Health authorities recommend that children in this age group should be getting 8-10 hours of sleep a night. Children who do not experience problems with concentration, memory, organising tasks, thinking creatively, regulating their emotions, distraction, irritation, hyperactivity, restlessness, poor mental health, poor growth, weight gain and reduced school performance.
Screw that, seems to be the message from the hotel and tourism lobbyists who campaigned for the change, which goes against federal child labour laws in the US. These already allow children to be shifted for up to three hours a day on school days, up to eight hours a day on non-school days for as many as six days a week.
“Businesses throughout the state see a massive increase in traffic during the summer tourist season,” explained a spokesperson pushing for child night-workers, “so much so that it can be difficult to find employees to work odd hours and seasonal times.”
I mean, they could offer to pay adults more money, but that’s just not how modern capitalism is choosing to roll.
Not only in the US, but also in the UK and Australia, the creative energy found by employers to avoid paying wage rises is reminding working people – yet again – that the promises made to them by neoliberal economics were all a wobbling jelly tower of lies, lies, lies.
The shift from rigid post-second world war industrial standards to a free market neoliberal model began in the 1970s, with great fanfare of how deregulated workplaces and contracting models would allow labour market “flexibility” and for businesses to more easily meet commercial needs. The dead giveaway that this was not perhaps in workers’ interests was the massive amount of regulation curiously imposed on trade unions at the same time.
The promise made to workers was that in a market-based economy governed by the dynamics of supply and demand, workers would be able to freely negotiate individual work contracts based on their value within those dynamics.
Of course, low-wage growth has just happened to be the cumulative result, with the risk of – again, highly regulated – brutal, punitive conditions of unemployment playing a very useful role for employers in scaring the bejeezus out of anyone who may dare ask for a payrise. Work-for-the-dole is not designed to be a competitive option.
The ructions to the economies of the US, UK and Australia in the wake of coronavirus disruption may have led some to believe that the time was – finally – ripe for workers to make their own insistences of value and be paid accordingly.
You’d be wrong. In the US, there is an actual labour shortage – an excellent piece in The Atlantic last week measured the seven-million-worker-sized gap in their present labour market with the analogy of every single working person in the state of Pennsylvania vanishing overnight. Simply, Americans are refusing to return to workplace conditions they no longer accept. The phenomenon’s been called The Great Resignation.
And yet the response to it by employers isn’t to make workplace conditions competitive. It’s to strong-arm legislatures into things like supporting the workplace exploitation of children – into the hospitality industry no less, which is a super safe place for a 14-year-old girl to be working in a service capacity on a Friday night, except it really isn’t.
The UK, of course, willingly legislated itself into its own labour shortage. The Brits were warned by militant communist journal, the Financial Times, in 2017 that as British industries were “addicted to cheap labour” shipped in from poorer EU countries, the cold turkey of “getting Brexit done” would provoke some proper jonesing. Now it’s 2021, and shortages of not only lorry drivers but also farm and food processing workers have provoked such supply problems that British supermarkets are placing photographs of food on shelves to hide the food that isn’t there.
Are employers finally recognising the value of these services and remunerating their true worth? In desperation, some are – but not all, and not at the rate required to meet the shortfall. Proposed remedies to the situation from the corporate-loving Tory government have so far included: offering Brexit-hypocritical short-term visas to restore EU workers to the jobs, deploying the army and using prison labour.
Is Australia any different? Only in that our labour shortages are presently more patchy. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry called for the numbers of skilled migrants to be doubled to 200,000 people a year. And a terrifying ABC piece recently celebrated the introduction of a Hunger Games employment paradigm for local strawberry picking. Ten strawberry pickers were to be given a one in a hundred chance of winning a $100,000 bonus in a lottery if they signed on to the job. Employers could have, of course, just paid those people an extra $1,000. I guess they didn’t want the employees to share collective confidence in their own labour value.
That would rather cause the whole rotten system to come crashing down, wouldn’t it? And that – as the neoliberals and employers know – is the truth that lies beneath.