Let’s Just Rename It ‘Labor Exploitation Day’

LaboiStock_000026392590XSmallr Day was created in the 19th century by the unions to “celebrate the economic achievements of American workers.” But if we look at the 21st century “economic achievements” by U.S. corporations in taking advantage of low wage employees, we might as well rename it Labor Exploitation Day

Our workers have suffered mightily in the last few years. The $7.25 minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009. And thanks to the latest corporate cheap trick, even that paltry sum has been further eroded. The likes of McDonald’s, Walmart, and Walgreens are now issuing ATM-style “payroll cards” instead of regular paychecks.

Convenient, eh? Sure, if you want to pay $1.75 every time you withdraw money, and that’s on top of the ATM fee. Then there’s $2.25 for an out-of-network machine, 50 cents for a statement, another half-dollar for balance inquiry, and even a $10 fee to close your account. It’s easy to see that fees can easily add up to an hour’s pay every week. And if you don’t use the card in a given month? That’ll be seven bucks, thank you.

Oh, but the cards do have an upside. Doing away with actual paychecks saves a lot of money — for the employer. Visa says mega-companies like Mickey D and Wally Mart can save at least $780k annually. Gee, that’s enough to pay for 107,586 more hours of slave-level work.

And of course there’s another big advantage — for the banks. Payroll cards are generally exempt from regulations that govern debit and credit cards, like limits on overdraft fees. So naturally those are tacked on — at $25 a pop — under the euphemistic label “balance protection.”

Naysayers claim it doesn’t matter, because most minimum wage workers are teenagers working for gas money. Not so. Research by the National Women’s Law Center shows the majority are adult women, many with two of these superb jobs. McDonald’s and Visa even advise employees to get a second job in order to make ends meet on their low pay. So, if you’re one of the millions of minimum wage breadwinners forced to accept a payroll card instead of a real paycheck, you can hardly afford to work an hour a week just to get access to your money. That adds up to roughly $360 per year. It’s a month’s groceries, several tanks of gas, half the rent payment.

Members of Congress could fix this if they wanted to. Maybe we ought to force them onto payroll cards, with fees amounting to an hour’s pay per week of course. Based on the number of days they’re actually in session, the cards would cost over $7800 per year.

But I’m sure they’d be happy to pay it. After all, fair’s fair.

You can listen to Martha Burk’s radio commentary on Labor Day here.

In addition to hosting her radio show, guest contributor Martha Burk is the author of Your Voice, Your Vote: The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Power, Politics and the Change We Need! and Cult of Power: The Inside Story of the Fight to Open Augusta National Golf Club, and How It Exposed the Ingrained Corporate Sexism That Kept Women Down.

Image via iStockphoto

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    I hadn’t heard about these payroll cards. This is horrible — reminds me of the days when workers lived in company owned houses and had to buy food at the company store. They’d get so deeply in debt that they could never leave their jobs. There are reasons for these lyrics in the Tennessee Ernie Ford song:

    “You load sixteen tons, what do you get
    Another day older and deeper in debt
    Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
    I owe my soul to the company store.”

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    Just wanted to add this description of the song from Wikipedia because it’s so relevant to this discussion:

    “According to Travis, the line from the chorus, ‘another day older and deeper in debt’, was a phrase often used by his father, a coal miner himself.[5] This and the line, ‘I owe my soul to the company store’, is a reference to the truck system and to debt bondage. Under this scrip system, workers were not paid cash; rather they were paid with non-transferable credit vouchers which could be exchanged only for goods sold at the company store. This made it impossible for workers to store up cash savings. Workers also usually lived in company-owned dormitories or houses, the rent for which was automatically deducted from their pay. In the United States the truck system and associated debt bondage persisted until the strikes of the newly formed United Mine Workers and affiliated unions forced an end to such practices.”
    There is a real parallel between this and the payroll cards. While in the case of fast food workers, there’s no company store and company housing, it’s similar in that the corporate interests control the workers’ money — workers have to pay corporations to get their own money. Note that unionization is what stopped the practice for the mineworkers. We should all support the fast food workers’ efforts to organize.

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