on the page magazine

issue no. 11, summer 2004


Inverted Values
Barbara Ehrenreich on fair pay and the corporate culture

A couple of years ago we interviewed Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. In this excerpt from our conversation, she talks about the movement against sweatshop labor, the low wages we pay those who care for our children and our parents, and the comedic potential of middle management.

OTP:   Reports show that 98 percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death. How is it that we have failed our workers again and find workers battling the same issues after a hundred years?

BE:   It's just so tempting. It's so apparently profitable to mistreat people and underpay them. And there's not enough will to stop these practices. There are some very exciting things like the campus concerns with stopping sweated labor. There's a new consciousness that was not here five years ago. But there still needs to be more public will to make a difference. I was just glancing at a resolution passed by the city of Bangor, Maine, saying that no clothes made in sweatshops can be sold in that city. And there's been a movement to get cities to pass ordinances like that.

OTP:   In an October 2000 interview with David Barsamian, you discussed the fallacies of the corporate philosophy that in response to criticism of sweatshop labor says, "We are providing work where no work exists and putting money into the pockets of poor Third World people." Nickel and Dimed reminded me of this argument from people who hire maids and nannies and feel they are giving work to people who need it. However, the women in these jobs get such low wages. How do we get away with blatant subordination of those we depend on the most?

BE:   To me, this represents an inversion of what our values ought to be. I think there's no kind of work that's more important than what our childcare workers, healthcare workers and eldercare workers do. Why aren't they at the top of the income distribution? At the top for respect and honor?

There's the whole pay equity issue. Historically, women were not expected to be supporting a family. There's also an unspoken assumption that taking care of others is an instinctual activity and doesn't need the same kind of reward or recognition that some other job would have.

OTP:   In another interview, you said you hoped more journalists would do the type of undercover journalism that you did for Nickel and Dimed, in other realms. What would some of those realms be?

BE:   There are so many possibilities. One that I wish I could do, but for many reasons I can't, would be to go undercover into middle management in corporate America. Study the corporate culture from that end. I got so curious when I was doing my work, thinking, "What's the rationale behind this? Why do they treat people like this? What is the corporate culture that I'm at the very bottom of?" I also think it would be hilarious.

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