Verist Paper No. 4American Sweatshops: Widespread and Thriving
I applied for an "Associate/Owner" position at Staples, an international office equipment and supply chain. I uncovered sweatshop-like conditions that I subsequently found are more the rule than the exception among retailers across this country employing some 22.8 million workers.
Here is how it works. When I told the Staples store manager that I wanted a full-time job, he informed me that initially I would have to work on a temporary, part-time basis, without any benefits. I found out later that numerous other employees at the store who had worked there from two to seven years were still in "part-time," status.
This arrangement is highly advantageous for the retailers. They minimize or avoid paying fringe benefits such as life and health insurance, retirement benefits, overtime or differential pay for Sunday work. When I told the manager that I wanted to work as many hours as possible, he told me that every employee at the store asks for that. The maximum he ever allowed me to work was 31.5 hours a week. Most often it was in the 21 to 26 hour range.
So at $7.25 an hour for a 31.50-hour workweek I grossed $228.38. After deductions for Social Security, Medicare and federal, state and local taxes, my net take home pay was $178.48. This translates to a net of $9,281 a year. That's poverty wage, especially in a high cost area such as Washington, D. C.
How do people sustain themselves on such abysmally low wages? From talking to my fellow employees I found that the younger ones either lived with their parents or in group houses and cramped quarters. Some of the older employees were retirees receiving Social Security or some other retirement benefits. Others had to work at two and sometimes even three jobs.
The way management handled the weekly work schedule assures the loss of control over one's life. The manager has almost total discretion on assigning when and how many hours each employee would work for the week ahead. The schedule comes out on Friday and day-shift employees can be assigned to work any time from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays, or 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays. But if you were scheduled to work on a specific day and things are slow at the store, you are out of luck and are summarily sent home. You got paid for only the hours you actually worked. There is no minimum pay that you are entitled to receive for having made the trip in to work, no matter how long it might have taken through gridlock traffic.
Ironically, even though adjusted for inflation, this was the lowest paying post-college job I had worked. It was also the most stressful and demanding. The job is highly stressful because of cumbersome management procedures and the fact that some managers and customers use you as a convenient psychological punching bag to displace their frustrations and hostilities. Some customers just loved venting their aggressions if you weren't familiar with some features of a piece of equipment, or you didn't know where the items they wanted were located, from among the thousands that the store carries.
But the most debilitating part of the job is that you have to be on your feet all day. Even if there are no customers around you are not permitted to stand or sit behind a counter. You had to constantly roam the aisles, making sure that all the shelves were full and the goods properly aligned. After seven or eight hours of this I was completely wiped out. I returned home feeling totally drained of energy and will power, and wound up vegetating in front of the boob tube most evenings.
During my 13 years as an investigative reporter and government whistleblower there was an article of faith among my colleagues that government bureaucracies were grossly wasteful and inept, and that private industry, motivated by the need to make a profit, was a model of efficiency.
That's why what I found at Staples was such a shock.
Sunday morning customers were streaming in, with Staples sales fliers in hand and teenagers in tow, wanting to see the particular computer/monitor/printer combinations that was shown as being on sale and which they wanted to buy for their college-bound sons and daughters.
It turned out we didn't have them in stock. One customer was even willing to buy a floor demo laptop computer, but a part was missing that no one could locate. Others wanted to buy individual items shown in the flier. But even though the computer inventory check showed the items were supposed to be in stock, we couldn't locate them. Customers were marching out of our store furious, vowing never to return again — after waiting an inordinate amount of time while we had tried frantically to track down the sales items unsuccessfully. These were big-ticket items that Staples was losing substantial profits on.
So what was going on here?
The day before, Saturday, there was no preparation to have in stock the items listed in the Staples fliers that went out with the Sunday paper. Instead, during Saturday night closing time the sales clerks were ordered to roam the store's sales display aisles, making sure that all the items we had on display were properly aligned and not out of place.
The more expensive items such as printer cartridges were under lock and key and the costly, big ticket items such as computers and printers were in back stockrooms to which only the managers had keys.
That's why during the busier times things were in a state of pandemonium. While the managers were preoccupied with the varied, daily operational and customer problems, the sales clerks, were trying to borrow the single key each manager had to get items from the back stockrooms to fulfill waiting customer orders -- who by now were ill-humored because they have had to wait so long. Their dispositions got worse when we had to tell them that we couldn't find the items even though a computer check had shown the goods to be in stock when the customers had phoned, prior to coming in.
An even more basic problem related to management's preoccupation with the short-term bottom line. Selling computers, printers and other office equipment requires considerable technical and sales expertise, which take time to acquire. Staples paid its store staff close to minimum wages, and high labor turnover was the result.
Meanwhile, while we in the trenches were being subjected to all that stress and paid $7.25 an hour, guess what Staples top management — Chairman/CEO Thomas Stemberg and the President John Bingleman — were pulling down? According to documents filed with Security Exchange Commission, Stemberg, including various stock options, took $6,343,408 or $3,172 an hour, while Bingleman took $6,783,723 or $3,392 an hour, which, by the way, included $95,886 for "Relocation Expenses!"
According to The Boston Globe, Stemberg was forced out of Staples. Binglemen retired.
Al Louis Ripskis, Coordinator
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