Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Economics: No Farther Than Janitors

TORONTO, ONTARIO - While much of the attention to lowering labor costs involves moving operations to locations where employees are paid less than in the west, in particular China and India, the process of downward pressure on wages is visible even within North America. In my experience, one need look no farther than janitors. The work place where I stayed the longest--five years in the same building in Medford, Massachusetts--provided a nice lesson in what is happening at the "bottom" of the United States economy through the progression of janitors.

For better or for worse, at virtually every job I have ever held, I have tended to work late enough often enough that I have come to know the hired janitors. While I came to know each of them by at least their first name, for their protection I am including none of their names here, and have made other details about them and their employers more vague than I actually remember as well.

The janitor that was working in our portion of the building when I first started there had been born in Massachusetts. He was well along into his career but still more than a decade away from retirement. He did a good job and, to the best of my knowledge, did not have any performance issues of consequence. Yet, when the new management team hired after I started took a look at the situation, one of the early decisions they made outside of the core business was that janitorial services were too expensive, and the man was let go as a contractor in favor of a new janitorial contracting service that offered lower rates.

This new contracting service first brought in a new team of janitors that happened to be ambitious immigrants from an Asian country. In time, I had a number of conversations with the leader of this team, and discovered that in order to get this and two other similar jobs, he had to sign up with the service we had contracted with which cost him first a large sum to join in, and then ongoing affiliation fees not to mention a significant portion of what we were paying. In his case, he had to take out a loan to pay the up-front fees and one of the three jobs was basically paying off the loan over five years, and he was living off the other two. Furthermore, he was at the mercy of the service--if they decided for whatever reason to cut off all his jobs, then he had no recourse, and would lose all the fees he had paid.

This was a real fear. His team made several mistakes in executing our service, and when we complained, soon enough his team was gone. I never saw him in the building again, though I did have later contact with him and discovered he was trying to branch out into light electronics repair and end his janitorial work.

In his place, the new team was a woman working alone. She happened to be an immigrant from a Latin American country, so I rapidly earned her friendship by speaking Spanish to her one night. After the previous team, her story was a familiar one--our establishment was her fifth assignment for the contracting service, and she needed at least two of them just to pay the fees to the contractor. The line between her situation and indentured servitude was largely a legal rather than a practical distinction. Unlike the previous team, her work was almost perfect, and she would be our janitorial service until the work place was closed.

After the shut-down of that workplace began, I will never forget a night that worked late not so much because I needed to but because I wanted to make sure I spoke to the janitor one more time. Sure enough, she came through at her normal time and when I started to talk to her, I learned that while she knew something was up because of changing garbage patterns and reduced waste from the labs, nobody had told her that the business was closing. While she was in tears for losing a job and effectively about a third of her actual net income, she thanked me for at least providing her a bit more notice that the end was coming than she would have otherwise received.

Clearly, this was not a job that no United States native was willing to do--there was a man doing the job at the outset who would still have been doing the job had there not been cheaper alternatives available. The real issue appears not so much that those alternatives involved immigrants per se, though clearly that was the case, but that they involved exploited workers. The vast majority of even the reduced rates that we were paying were not going to the people doing to the work, but to the service that had them in near indentured servitude where they were in constant threat of losing their work and financially were not in a position to leave the situation. The topic of immigration reform is a much broader topic, but this example clearly makes a case that the only real beneficiary in this situation was the company exploiting them--the workers that they displaced had been hurt and they themselves had minimal benefit as their lives were little better than where they had come from--only hope for the future and lack of adequate funds to go back were keeping them here at all.

So, there's no need to look at China or Mexico for reasons why companies think they can reduce the cost of labor--they're doing it with their janitorial services right here in North America.

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