“At some point, we need to have a serious conversation about $5 t-shirts”

The title of this piece quotes a Facebook post by Jennifer Doe, a widely respected labor organizer here in Boston.

Jennifer is referring, of course, to the latest workplace safety horror in Bangladesh: Last week, an eight-story building housing garment factories collapsed, with the death toll approaching 380 and very likely to rise. (Go here for extensive coverage by The Guardian.)

Last November, some 120 people died in a fire at another Bangladeshi garment factory. It bore an eerie similarity to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City, where 146 workers perished.

The $5 t-shirt, the $30 DVD player, and so on

The Bangladeshi workers were making clothes for U.S. brands. As we go about our business today, many of us could be wearing the results of their toil.

Which is exactly Jennifer’s point. Lots of consumer goods that we buy in shiny department, big box, and electronics stores carry low price tags in large part because they were made by workers in impoverished countries who earn subsistence wages while facing harsh, sometimes life-threatening working conditions.

Thrift vs. blood savings

I fully understand the value that many Americans put on thrift. Especially during these difficult times, inexpensive clothing, electronics, and other goods are especially appealing to anyone on a tight budget.

My mom grew up during the Great Depression. Throughout their lives, she and her sisters dutifully clipped coupons and waited for sales to buy things they needed. While concededly I have not wholly internalized their level of thrift, I get it: Hunting for a bargain is a good thing.

But we need to face the question of the human costs of these bargains. Most of us have purchased goods made by low-paid workers in other countries. In the case of products made in countries like Bangladesh, however, we’re talking about downright blood savings. These folks are dying so we can buy inexpensive stuff.

The path to labor globalization

The terrible situation in Bangladesh is hardly an isolated phenomenon.

The globalization of manufacturing involves the constant search for the cheapest, most exploitable labor possible. The rough pathway started with manufacturing jobs secured by union collective bargaining agreements in the north, followed by the flight of those jobs to anti-union southern states. When those wages got “too high,” manufacturers fled to other countries where workers were willing earn a tiny fraction of what even the lowest-paid Americans expected to receive.

More recently, as manufacturing workers in places like India have engaged in labor organizing, these companies are packing up again for new places to mistreat the rank-and-file, such as Bangladesh. However, now that Bangladeshi workers are protesting these recent disasters, I’m sure these companies will start looking elsewhere.

They may be running out of South Asian countries, but sub-Saharan Africa has yet to be fully exploited in this way. Wouldn’t it be obscenely ironic if American-led multinationals targeted the continent that supplied future slaves to the U.S. for their next round of exploitation? It’s not an implausible scenario.

Popular posts from 2012

I’ve collected a dozen of the more popular 2012 posts from Minding the Workplace. Especially if you missed them the first time around, I hope you find them interesting.

1. Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (December) — “It can range from petty mind games to severe, twisted harassment and stalking. The goals are to undermine a target’s confidence, keep the target off-balance, and instill fear and paranoia.”

2. Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (November) — “The bottom line? For many workers, the American Dream is no more. The assumption that working hard and playing by the rules would lead to a relatively comfortable retirement has been demolished.”

3. Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (September) — “So here’s the hypothesis: Bullying behaviors are not evenly distributed among all employers. Rather, bullying behaviors are disproportionately concentrated in a smaller number of toxic workplaces.”

4. Positive qualities of my best bosses (August) — “I’ve been giving some thought to the personal qualities of the many bosses I’ve worked for, going back to high school and extending to the present day. A handful stand out as being especially good, and I’ve come to realize that they shared a lot of positive characteristics. Here goes….”

5. Do “almost psychopaths” help to explain the prevalence of workplace bullying and abuse? (July) — “While the true psychopath may have trouble functioning in regular society, the almost psychopath often can navigate life successfully, including — perhaps especially in – the workplace.”

6. Cruelty on a school bus (June) — “A group of junior high school students from Greece School District in Rochester, NY, subject bus monitor Karen Klein to a profanity-laced stream of humiliating insults and threats.”

7. A movement emerges: Will unpaid internships disappear? (May) — “Now there’s an emerging movement against unpaid internships (especially in the private sector), and here’s evidence of its coming out party….”

8. Workplace bullying 2.0: Psychology and mental health (April) — “Of all the major disciplines relevant to studying, preventing, responding to workplace bullying, the fields of industrial/organizational psychology and its emerging sibling, occupational health psychology, rank first in terms of research and practice.”

9. Maryland teachers sue for bullying and harassment (March) — “Teachers in Silver Spring, Maryland, are suing their principal and the school board for ongoing bullying and harassment.”

10. Workplace wellness and workplace bullying (March) — “When you hear the term ‘employee wellness,’ do you also think about “workplace bullying”?”

11. Burnout in the non-profit sector (February) — “Non-profit employment attracts those who are drawn to changing society for the better. . . . However, it also feeds burnout tendencies that are exacerbated during difficult times.”

12. “Puppet master” bullying vs. genuine mobbing at work (January) — “Let’s start with what I call puppet master bullying. In these situations, a chief aggressor’s power and influence over a group of subordinates may be sufficient to enlist their participation in mistreating a target, creating what looks and feels like a mob. . . . By contrast, genuine workplace mobbing occurs when the malicious energy is shared among the many, who proceed to go after the few.”

OSHA cites convenience store owner for workplace violence risks

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which administers and enforces the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, has cited a convenience store owner for allegedly failing to safeguard its employees from robberies and other forms of violence on the job.

In the Matter of TMT Inc.

Bruce Rolfsen reports for the BNA Daily Labor Report (Nov. 30, by subscription only):

Citations issued Nov. 19 against a Texas convenience store owner for allegedly failing to protect workers from robberies and other violence marks an increased willingness on the part of the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to use the general duty clause as a tool to prevent workplace violence.
OSHA cited TMT Inc. with four alleged violations of the general duty clause, one each for Whip In stores in Garland and Mesquite, and citations for two stores in Dallas. Proposed fines total $19,600.
. . . The citation announcement marked the first time in recent memory that OSHA has used the general duty clause to cite a convenience store operator for violations related to workplace violence, according to observers who follow convenience store safety.

 

General duty clause

OSHA issued the citation under the law’s general duty clause, which requires employers to provide workers with conditions of employment “that are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

Despite thousands of individual regulations addressing workplace safety promulgated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, there is no specific provision addressing workplace violence. However, OSHA has released a fact sheet on workplace violence and engaged in educational initiatives for employers about the subject.

Application to workplace bullying?

OSHA’s recognition of workplace violence as a serious hazard raises hopes that workplace bullying, too, will get greater attention.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the federal government’s research arm on workplace safety, has included bullying in its studies of workplace violence and aggression and hosted meetings of leading researchers to discuss the impact of bullying on worker health.  NIOSH researchers have examined organizational dynamics of workplace bullying and the implications for intervention strategies.

Back in 2005, I participated in a working group convened by NIOSH to examine workplace bullying and psychological aggression. This included a day-long session in Cincinnati that, to this day, remains one of the most intense and insightful exchanges I’ve participated in on this topic.

We can now at least imagine the possibility that research findings about the harm caused by bullying will lead to a stronger regulatory response.  As I’ve noted earlier on this blog, some of the analysis for that response may be found in the work of professor Susan Harthill of Florida Coastal School of Law, who has argued persuasively that occupational safety and health law can be part of a multi-pronged approach that includes collaborative and cooperative efforts between public and private employment relations stakeholders.

Limitations

Of course, mild penalties are one of the genuine limitations of current federal workplace safety law, as reflected by rather paltry proposed fines (under $20,000) in the TMI case. In addition, this statute does not allow individual claims for damages by injured workers. Identical limitations would apply in workplace bullying situations as well.

Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction, and with the current Administration in place for another four years, it bears watching.

Fighting flight attendants: Not nearly as funny as it may seem

During the past week, we’ve been treated to two news stories about flight attendants getting into arguments that required their respective flights to head back to the gate.

One argument came on an American Eagle flight that was ready for take off. Ben Mutzabaugh, writing for USA Today‘s travel section, explains how it got started:

Passengers on a New York-to-Washington American Eagle flight were delayed for more than four hours Wednesday after the airline’s attendants got into an argument with each other, according to NBC Washington.

Witnesses tell NBC the spat seemed to begin when one attendant was on her phone. That’s when the flight’s other attendant made this announcement: “Everyone needs to put their phones away, and electronics and so on, including the flight attendant.”

On Wednesday, two attendants on a United Airlines flight got into it soon after take off, necessitating that the plane return to the airport. Mutzabaugh reports again:

A fight between two attendants forced a Chicago-bound United Airlines flight to return to Raleigh/Durham shortly after takeoff this morning, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh.

“Our law enforcement team was notified by the tower that the captain had requested law enforcement to meet the aircraft,” Mindy Hamlin, RDU spokeswoman, tells the News & Observer. “The aircraft had gotten about 50 miles out when he reported a possible assault on the aircraft.”

Flying the stressed-out skies

Fighting flight attendants. It sounds like the stuff of a late-night talk show monologue, doesn’t it?

But before we start making fun, let’s at least acknowledge that since 9/11, working in the passenger aviation industry has become an increasingly stressful job — especially for rank-and-file cabin crews. Layoffs and furloughs have been frequent. A job once associated with glamour and seeing the world has changed dramatically.

Flight attendants now are expected to be the front line eyes and ears against possible terrorism. They must work packed flights of passengers who are surly about going through the TSA security gauntlet and then stuffed onto planes with a beverage and pretzels to tide them over.

In addition to lousier working conditions, their compensation and benefits have been in a free fall. Their unions have been pressed to make major concessions, and airline pension funds have gone bankrupt. These cutbacks and pension fund implosions have occurred despite healthy bonuses given to high-level executives at many major airlines.

I don’t know anything about the individual flight attendants involved in these arguments. And regardless of the stressors they’re facing, the safety risks involved in these behaviors likely justify disciplinary measures.

That said, instead of joking about “cat fights in the air,” we should consider the strong possibility that stressful working conditions and sharp cuts in compensation are fueling tensions between these workers and making it more likely that similar incidents will occur.

News reports: Shooter near Empire State Building was a laid-off worker seeking revenge

At least nine people have been wounded and two are dead following a shooting this morning near the Empire State Building in Manhattan. One of the dead is the gunman, who was shot by police.

Early news reports at least raised the spectre of terrorism. One analyst even discussed the possibility that terrorists might stage a test run of sorts to see how law enforcement authorities would react to shootings in crowded midtown Manhattan. I suppose that in view of the memories of 9/11 seared onto New York’s consciousness, such speculation is natural.

But no, for better or worse, it apparently had nothing to do with terrorism. The shooter was a 53-year-old man who was laid off from his job, and his target was his former boss. Here’s a summary of news reports from Jason Sickles of Yahoo! News (link here):

The shooting occurred at 9:03 a.m. ET at Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street. The fatal incident was the act of a disgruntled former employee. The gunman, a 53 year-old women’s accessories designer named Jeffrey Johnson, was fired from his job during a corporate downsizing at Hazan Imports and returned to his office Friday morning to target his 41 year-old boss.

The shooter followed his coworker down 33rd Street, and shot him outside of Legend’s Bar, according to the New York Post. It is unclear if he fired into a crowd of pedestrians outside of the Empire State Building, or if pedestrians were caught in crossfire, reported the New York Daily News.

Frightening sign of the times?

Obviously we know way too little to make definitive assessments about what drove this man to do what he did. However, while conceding the likelihood of some pre-existing mental instability or illness, I’m willing to suggest that what pushed him over the edge had something to do with the desperation, fear, and anger that can accompany losing one’s job at middle age. I’m not making excuses for such a terrible act of violence, only offering a possible explanation.

Perhaps I’m guilty of speculatively filling in the gaps, but once I read some of these details, I had a sinking feeling that this is a sign of sad and desperate times.

Working Notes: August 22, 2012

Dear Readers,

From time to time I will use this new Working Notes feature to briefly flag items of interest, especially if I’m pressed for time and not able to write up a full blog post about each of them.  Here goes:

The e-mail deluge

Remember when e-mail was the neatest thing? Like when you had your first e-mail account? How exciting it was to receive and send those early missives! In fact, if you were like me, some of those e-mails involved exchanges with friends about “incredible” it was to be able to communicate this way!

AOL’s “You’ve Got Mail” message was so popular and recognizable that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan could star in the 1998 romantic comedy built around the line. Today, they’d have to title the sequel “You’ve Got 5,000 E-Mails” — and they’d have to update the plot to have Amazon clobbering Barnes & Noble and Borders (RIP). (It would be a horror movie.)

If you’re looking for some quick but serious advice on how to control the deluge, Christina Reinwald recently contributed a helpful Boston Globe feature on managing your e-mail, “11 steps to clean up your inbox.”

Suicides in the U.S. military

Robert Burns reports for the Associated Press (via Yahoo! News, here) on the spike in suicides in the U.S. Army:

Suicides among active-duty soldiers in July more than doubled from June, accelerating a trend throughout the military this year that has prompted Pentagon leaders to redouble efforts to solve a puzzling problem.

The Army, which is the only branch of the military that issues monthly press statements on suicides, said 26 active-duty soldiers killed themselves in July, compared with 12 in June. The July total was the highest for any month since the Army began reporting suicides by month in 2009, according to Lt. Col. Lisa Garcia, an Army spokeswoman.

Suicides in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are at high rates as well. This is an ongoing tragedy and a national shame. I’ll be writing more about this in the near future.

More on unpaid internships

Christian Neumeier writes about unpaid internships in a thorough, informative piece for truthdig.com:

Companies across the nation are gleefully denying interns fair wages for their work, in flagrant violation of long-standing labor law, and have the nerve to tell the world they are doing these people a favor.

I’ve written a lot about this topic. Go here for more blog posts and resources.

Kim Webster’s law school co-op with the New Workplace Institute

I’m delighted to welcome Kimberly Webster, Northeastern University law student and longtime Healthy Workplace Bill advocate, who will spend the fall quarter with the New Workplace Institute as a legal intern.

Northeastern, located here in Boston, is one of the nation’s leading training grounds for public interest lawyers. It is highly regarded for its innovative co-op program, in which students do full-time legal internships every other quarter. Kim has just completed her first year, and she’ll be joining us for her first co-op placement.

Kim will be playing an important role with several Institute projects, all of which you’ll be hearing about later.

More save-the-date: Author of Almost a Psychopath to speak at October 19 event

I’m also pleased to report that Dr. Ronald Schouten, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital and author (with James Silver) of Almost a Psychopath will be the featured speaker at the NWI’s Friday, October 19 program on workplace bullying, a half-day program in the morning through early afternoon.

I wrote a short, enthusiastic review of the book here and believe it offers valuable insights about certain individuals who engage in bullying at work and in abusive behaviors generally. We’ll be circulating more details about the program, which will be held at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, during the weeks to come.

Cruelty on a school bus

After watching this video, I am stunned by the unrelenting, ongoing, almost casual cruelty it depicts. A group of junior high school students from Greece School District in Rochester, NY, subject bus monitor Karen Klein to a profanity-laced stream of humiliating insults and threats. Suzan Clarke for ABC News reports (link here):

Klein, a 68-year-old mother of four and grandmother of eight, was riding on a school bus with several students from the district’s Athena Middle School in Rochester on Monday when she was subjected to mean and cruel mockery by several students.

In a 10-minute video that was uploaded to YouTube  on Tuesday by one of the students on the bus, several students can be heard taunting Klein, telling her she was a “fat ass,” “old ass,” dumb, poor and sweaty.  Most of the voices appear to be male, and their comments toward Klein are riddled with profanity.

The video is about 10 minutes long, but it feels like it goes on forever — or at least that’s how it must’ve felt to Karen Klein. One radio station blog reported that some of the kids involved posted it to their Facebook pages.

The video has gone viral, the news media have discovered it, and there’s even a fund created to support Karen Klein. (Google “school bus monitor video” and you’ll get dozens of news articles and blog commentaries.) At least there’s a public outcry about what occurred.

Okay, so lots of junior high kids can do and say mean things, and that doesn’t mean they inevitably will grow up to be horrible adults. But at a very young age, the kids in this video demonstrate the easy capacity for extreme, ongoing verbal abuse. There is no indication that they’re acting out of anger toward something that happened. They display not one ounce of conscience or understanding about what they’re doing to another human being. Apparently it doesn’t matter at all to them that she’s an older adult who obviously is becoming upset.

Let’s hope that Karen Klein is able to find a silver lining in the outpouring of public support she is receiving. And let’s hope these kids don’t grow up to become the adult versions of what they depicted in the video.

***

June 22, 2012 addendum — Jason Sickles reports for Yahoo! News (link here) that the fund for Karen Klein, originally intended to raise $5,000, has surpassed $500,000. Two of the boys involved in the verbal abuse have issued apologies. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, both the school district and the children who participated in the incident have been subjected to harassment and threats.

July 2, 2012 addendum — News outlets (e.g., Christian Science Monitor story here) have reported that the boys who harassed Karen Klein have been suspended from school for a year, and instead will be attending an alternative school during that time.  Klein is quoted as saying that she is “fine” with the penalty.

When I first heard that a suspension was in the offing, I was troubled by the possibility. These kids need more structure and discipline in their lives, not less. But the provision of alternative school arrangements makes this disposition an acceptable one.

The impromptu online fund started to give Klein a “vacation” has now reached well over $600,000, which means she’ll likely have the option of returning to work or retiring. It is the “feel good” aspect of this story, one in which people continued to give (and give) even though they were well aware that the original fundraising goal was a modest $5,000.

It also gave rise to greater public awareness of bullying behaviors and their impact on targeted individuals. The case of Karen Klein is a hybrid of sorts: We tend to separate school bullying from workplace bullying, but this event blended the two, with an adult employee being severely bullied by a group of school kids.

Readers left very insightful comments to this post, and I’d suggest reading through them for their collective wisdom.

***

Here’s an update that reports on the remarkable success of the fundraising campaign to help Karen Klein and what she plans to do with the money now that she has some freedom to decide her future.

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