Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Making poverty

"[E]mployers have systematically restructured their operations since the 1970s so as to shift greater risk onto workers and to undermine both union- and state-based labor protections. Such changes in employer policies and practices, along with the rollback of state regulation, are key drivers of the deterioration of pay and working conditions in U.S. workers have experienced in the past few decades."
Ruth Milkman, Filling the Bottom of the Hourglass

Too often the causes of poverty are attributed to people or places and not to the dynamics of the economy and the deteriorating quality of lower-wage jobs. And when we do recognize economic factors, we attribute all bad things to the foggy and all-encompassing process of globalization, about which we have as little control as understanding. A national conference on Economic Inequality and the Hourglass Economyon April 2-3 considered alternative viewpoints.

Recent state advocacy has focused on increasing the minimum wage and requiring paid sick leave. More broadly, we are seeing slow and incremental action to redress the lack of adequate health care. These are key attributes for all jobs. We sometimes naively assume, however, that labor laws that are passed are implemented and enforced. Not so. Another aspect of the growth of low-wage jobs is the lack of enforcement of wage and labor standards -- like getting paid, health and safety, and workers compensation to name a few. The basics we take for granted. This lack of enforcement derives from too few inspectors and too little motivation or public will.

Unfortunately, there is not a comprehensive database that documents workplace violations. Unregulated Work in the Global City by Annette Bernhardt, Siobhan McGrath, and James DeFilippis offer a view of the magnitude and dimensions of workplace violations in New York City. One key finding from the National Employment Law Project is that firms tend to "bundle" violations-- that is, firms that cheat on wages are also likely to have health and safety violations and misclassify workers. And many temp or staffing agencies funnel workers into these kinds of bad jobs.

Worker centers that provide legal representation and advocacy and state policy campaigns are two approaches for addressing workplace violations. Unions, of course, can play a key role. Cities and Jobs: Local Strategies for Improving Job Quality and Access, from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, offers an array of local policy practice ideas. We ought to shine the spotlight on job quality if we really want to address poverty in all its dimensions.

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