BY: SWIKAR OLI
I worked as a dishwasher at 15 years old. I scrubbed until my arms were sore, burned my hands in scalding water, cleaned out a rotting meat fridge, finding brief respite in its foul but crisp coldness. I tugged two bags of putrid meat and greens with tired arms, threw it into the dumpster on the other side of the road, only to have my second bag catch the edge of the bin on the toss up and have its toxic gush spray my lower half. That was one shift. I ended my four hours of work in a sorry state, accepting my $20 for the day with pruned hands. I was edged out of the job soon after. Another worker told me a 20-something undocumented immigrant had replaced me – likely for the same pay.
That’s why when I stumbled across this Minimum Wage machine, which shows users the rate at which low-wage earners make their money, I thought, yes. Good. Here is something that, while woefully short of depicting exactly what low-wage workers go through, gives a bit of perspective. I think it should go further.
There should be a disembodied voice, a booming one, rebuking you until you feel small enough in the shadow of the workplace that you burrow further into the job, trying to regain the self-worth it has robbed. A younger and sprightlier worker should be waiting just behind to replace you, smacking her gum. Behind her is a machine, inching closer on its wheels, clicking and whirring in cold mechanical competence, as if to say to you: That’s the best you can crank?
I guess I get why they didn’t add more – they might’ve gone over budget. Because when you add up all the strains on a low-wage worker, no explanation can do it justice.
Just last year, the total earnings of all full-time minimum wage workers in the U.S. was half the amount of bonuses given out on Wall Street. And the mounting evidence of large businesses undervaluing its workers seems to point to a basic lack of respect. McDonald’s, on its part, is responding to workers’ demands for a pay raise by either replacing them with machines or recommending they support themselves by not paying for heating – while also working a second full-time job.
Working in an Amazon warehouse is a draconian nightmare, where shifts can stretch to 10-plus hours, calling in gets you a point – three of which get you fired – and where not all workers are treated with the same respect. And Walmart, America’s largest private employer, is a horror show that dispenses dread as much as it does bargain soda.
By now, we know that this is bad. The Pew Research Center found that 73 per cent of Americans support raising the hourly minimum wage to $10.10. For perspective, raising pay to $10 an hour would hold the same value as the current federal $7.25 an hour standard would in 1968. In a letter to President Obama urging a minimum wage increase, more than 600 economists, including seven Nobel Prize winners wrote, “increases in the minimum have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during time of weakness in the labor market.”
So maybe the facts and figures, protests and demands just aren’t enough. Maybe, just as Delacriox’s Liberty Leading the People made the French re-examine the meaning of freedom, we need art to frame this plight. Maybe, people will see the current minimum wage as a powerful enough injustice with each turn of the crank and slow trickle of pennies.