Over the past decade or so in the US, increasing attention has been turned to where our food comes from, and organic, non-GMO and farm-fresh food have been highlighted as the best options for our bodies and our communities. Similarly, students during the 1990s built a strong campaign to replace sweatshop-produced goods in their campus stores with fair labor-produced alternatives.
What if that same consciousness was expanded to all our possessions and all the services we use? We would see that many industries rely on unpaid and exploited labor as a given for their market price.
Landscaping is one such industry, made more so by its invisibility. Businesses often have their properties landscaped during non-business hours, and homeowners often have their yards tended when they are not home. The contract is signed, the owner is paid, the work is done, and the workers are never seen. In marketing-speak, this is touted as convenience, but it serves to disconnect the customer from thinking about who is doing the work, how they are treated, and how they got such a good “bargain.”
Here’s one story about the kind of exploitation that goes on when “no one’s watching” and how workers fought back:
Michael owned a landscaping company that he operated out of his home with small crews of workers. He was also a gun enthusiast, a fact he liked to share frequently, and a gambling man. After losing a bunch of money at the casino, Michael had delayed paying his workers as long as he could with excuses (“The client’s late in paying me. I promise I’ll have the money for next week”), but after several weeks, when the workers told him they couldn’t wait any longer, he pulled a gun on them and told them to never come back.
The workers had waited long enough and now needed their pay immediately; they couldn’t wait for a Department of Labor investigation when there was already a 2-year backlog of cases. So we decided to take action. We would confront him at his house, and invite a couple of ministers to wear their collars and accompany us. I hoped the sight of them would prevent a shooting. If not, at least they could deliver Last Rites.
Our group gathered before sunrise to drive together to Michael’s house. We knew from the workers when he usually left the garage, so the plan was to block his driveway until he paid. It usually doesn’t more than 45 minutes to get anywhere in Rhode Island, but Michael’s house, deep in a rural part of the state, was about as long as a drive as one could have without crossing state lines. The sun was coming up as we arrived and lined up at the foot of his driveway.
Like clockwork, Michael’s pickup started to pull out just before 7am. He stopped a few yards away from us, and began yelling. Then he saw the ministers and got quiet. We didn’t know if Michael went to church or not, but in a state as culturally Catholic as Rhode Island, we were betting that the sight of ministers in their collars standing with his workers would be enough of an unexpected combination for him that he would freeze up, confused. When it became clear that we weren’t moving, he climbed down from his truck. He pulled out a checkbook and paid in full. We drove away into the sun.
Direct action is not always so quick and easy, but home visits have a tendency to be very successful, because they tear down a delicately-hanging curtain between job and home. On the job, an exploitative employer has all kinds of self-rationalizations for their behavior: “It’s not personal, it’s business,” “I’ve got to look out for number 1,” “These people should be grateful they even have a job.” Conversely, their home is their personal castle where they are vulnerable and surrounded by people who have a different image of them entirely: provider, neighbor with the nice house and the cute dog, parent, churchgoer. They never expect these two worlds to meet, and when they do, they are thrown so off balance that they want to do whatever it takes to close the curtain again quickly. This gives the protesters incredible power that can best be harnessed by having a clear, concrete demand: “We are here for X. When we get it, we will leave.” But it goes beyond just one transaction—once the curtain has come down one time, it could happen again, anytime, anywhere, and the internalization of this by the exploiter can lead to a permanent shift in the balance of power.