Stephanie Luce discusses the increase of low-wage work worldwide

By Brendan Deady

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

Stephanie Luce, a sociologist and labor studies scholar, discussed the causes and prevalence of low-wage employment in the increasingly globalized economy to a modest crowd of students and professors in the Commonwealth Honors College Events Hall Monday evening.

Luce is the latest speaker in the Distinguished Lecture Series on Social Thought and Political Economy hosted by Commonwealth Honors College and the social thought and political economy program at the University of Massachusetts.

Luce is a professor of labor studies at the City University of New York and research affiliate at UMass’s Political Economy Research Institute.

She focused her lecture, “Lifting up Low-wage work: Global Perspectives,” on defining low-wage labor and challenging the validity of popular explanations for why such a large portion of wage-laborers operate under the poverty line.

The United States is the richest country in the history of the world, yet one-third of its workers are living on wages that do not bring them above the poverty line. “It’s a pretty tragic situation,” Luce said.

The poverty line is the minimal wage a worker must earn in order to meet the basic necessities of living. The current minimal hourly wage, or living wage, that places a worker above the poverty line in the U.S. is $11.36. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

“The current minimum wage is not supported by a formula, it is a political negotiation that was reached based on inaccurate measure of living costs,” Luce said.

According to Luce, in order to reverse the trend of rising low-wage labor, it is important to understand why wages are set so low. In her opinion, many of the popular explanations ignore the actual cause: power.

Luce said many economists cite an increase in demand for skilled workers to accommodate technological advances, lack of training and education, shift from manufacturing industries into the service sector and globalization as the major causes for the staggering number of low-wage workers across the globe.

Luce countered these arguments by explaining many of the growing job markets require little training or higher education.

“The technology sector is often quoted as a burgeoning industry that requires high-skilled labor that many workers can’t meet,” Luce said. “In reality, many of these new jobs are low waged, unskilled manual labor positions on assembly lines.”

Luce emphasized that low wages are not inherent to specific occupations, but a construct of policies that favor employers in neo-liberal economies.

“A worker at McDonald’s in Denmark can earn $15 an hour while a worker for the same company in California is paid eight,” Luce said. “It is not the occupation that determines a wage but the policies of the economic system it operates within.”

Luce conceded that globalization contributes to the increase in low-wage labor but its effect is exacerbated by an unrestrictive economic atmosphere that favors large corporations.

“The problem here is that we’ve shifted the rules in the global economy that gives employers much more advantages over their workers,” Luce said.

She explained that corporations aren’t restricted by the physical borders of their employers and can capitalize on cheap labor in foreign markets to bring down wages in their domestic markets, pitting workers against each other.

Luce said labor studies scholars have noticed that corporations are increasingly utilizing part-time laborers to fill positions usually reserved for full-time staff to avoid costs of health benefits and guaranteed hours. The economic rationale behind the tactic is that companies need flexibility within the market to survive and prosper.

By making workers expendable and not guaranteeing any period of employment, it allows companies to respond to growth and decay in industry, but also increases competition between workers. The more competition for a position, the more willing an applicant will be to accept a lower wage and unfavorable conditions, according to Luce.

The aggressive tactics of corporations have provoked worker responses in recent years, demonstrated in the Occupy Movement that began in New York in 2011 and the subsequent fast-food worker strikes that followed and persist today.

A main goal of these protests is to raise the minimum wage, an initiative that Luce supports, but explained will not alleviate much of the hardships experienced by the working class.

“While wage increases have proved to be beneficial and have recently challenged the claims that wage increase leads to job loss and inflation, it tends to be an issue politicians are willing to concede to for the wrong reasons,” Luce said. “Raising wages will pacify workers without changing bigger structures or policies that are more detrimental.”

She added, “Raising the minimum wage does nothing to guarantee benefits or address job insecurity and it does not guarantee it’ll be enforced.”

The real importance of the worker right’s movements is bringing the issue into public discourse, especially in the U.S. where workers are among the least protected on the planet, according to Luce.

“It has organized a space to question who controls the economy, to recognize the power of employers to control our daily lives and to consider why we accept a system where corporations have the ability to influence the decisions of democracies,” Luce said.

Brendan Deady can be reached at [email protected]