Saturday, May 11, 2013

Unpaid work, in three parts

1) NYU sophomore Christina Isnardi - not someone I've ever had as a student, or heard of until today, unsurprising considering NYU has like ten billion students - has organized against unpaid internships, specifically the illegal ones listed on the school's own career database (via). And, I mean, true enough - you go to that website (and unless you start grad school knowing that some wood-paneled office awaits you at the end - which you don't - you will) and lo and behold, perhaps a third of the "jobs" listed will pay anything at all. This had been bothering me, and I didn't do anything about it. Well, I did something, but not enough. 

What I like about the petition (which I of course signed) is that it acknowledges the myriad problems with unpaid internships: that they are often illegal, that they don't actually help you get a job, that they are only available to the rich (which I believe is less important than it's often made out to be - if they can't really get you a job, who cares how those who can afford not to get paid spend their time, but it no doubt impacts perceptions of who can enter which field, thereby impacting who tries; and sure, in some cases, they probably do get people jobs), they leave the quasi-employee open to all kinds of not-at-all-quasi harassment, etc. 

This was, I might add, my first experience looking at USA Today comments, and there are some charmers. "Join the nation's conversation," implores the paper, and what does that attract?
You have to love 20 somethings who aren't worth anything demanding renumeration for a position where they get experience so they can go out and get a job! This must be the same group whose parents gave them all trophies in soccer because they didn't want anyone to lose.
Yes indeed, so entitled, demanding to get fairly compensated for work that one is doing. Because that's really the mark of an entitled college student: having a job. This in response to:
Hey moron don't like it? Then DON'T APPLY!!!!
Both of these, by the way, from "top commenter[s]," both using what appear to be their own real names and Facebook accounts to comment.

2) Paging Emily Matchar: Food journalist Kristin Wartman has an op-ed in the NYT, arguing that if we-as-a-society are going to declare The Home-Cooked Meal the solution to all of our problems, the producers of said meal ought to be compensated. She points us back to a "long-forgotten" - well, not entirely, given that Madeleine Schwartz just wrote about it - movement from the 1970s, Wages for Housework.

The idea here is - and this is me expanding on where I think Wartman is/should be going with this, not just paraphrasing Wartman - Second Wave feminists decided that empowerment meant working outside the home. (This is Wartman.) Which was nice and all for whichever women had the potential and drive to go do something empowering, but effectively meant trading housework for blah outside-work for a great many women. Outside-work of the sort that, the men who do the same sort of work, they'd probably also prefer to stay home, if it were socially acceptable for them to express this. (This is WWPD.) And regardless, women who worked outside the home were more or less fated to continue doing housework as well, or outsourcing said housework to poorer women who'd perhaps rather be home with their own families, cleaning up a more homey heap of mess (Wartman.)

I *think* Wartman is arguing that subsidizing home cooking could happen in such a way as to encourage men to do half the work, or at least more of it. But there's also this aspect of the argument that's kind of defeatist, or realist, or at any rate unrelated to whichever dreamy world of Pollan-Bittman-inspired men who, home from their creative-class jobs, whip up something local-sustainable. It's more like, women will always for all eternity deal with drudgery, but will not always have husbands with jobs supporting this, and even if they do, they deserve financial independence/official recognition of their labor, so the state has got to start paying them.

And, I'm not sure quite what to make of this. It's not entirely unappealing - cooking is work. Its market value isn't as immediately obvious as that of labor done at a job-job, but if we really are eating so terribly as to cause an ever-worsening health crisis, then it is indeed in the state's interest to keep medical bills down by subsidizing leisurely trips to the farmers' market. Interesting, then, but.

Aside from whichever libertarian philosophical objections that don't bother me because I'm not a libertarian, there are just certain practical concerns. How exactly could the state pay you to home-cook a meal? How much say will the state have in what you make for dinner? If you give people money and say, 'stay home and cook kale,' maybe they won't spend it on food at all. (The 'welfare' critique, which is, I would think, why we don't hear more often about paying women/people of both sexes for housework.) If you give them food-vouchers, maybe they won't buy kale.

And if you give them kale-only vouchers (Wartman says, "money for good food"), what counts and what doesn't? The official science on what we are and are not supposed to eat changes all the time, 'processed' is a construct (is pasta processed?), and... it just seems complicated.

And those of us who don't have children, are we also getting these kale-vouchers? I suppose I'm not clear where the line between making it possible or easier to cook at home ends, and where effectively ordering "stay-at-home parents" (ahem, mothers) to report for "education on cooking, meal planning and shopping." And this gets to a bigger question for the food movement - is it that people think they don't have the time-and-money to cook, and are merely waiting for the government to step in and give them the resources, or do people actually prefer not having to cook? And: would it be as empowering to have the state giving you a home-cooking allowance as going out into the world (physically, or from your home, what with technology) and having a job?

These are, as the prose suggests, rambling thoughts, and there could well be some overarching reason why Wartman is entirely right or (I suspect) entirely wrong that you, my loyal band of equally-unpaid copy-editors and idea-clarifiers, can lay out.

3) In honor of Mother's Day, presumably, "Into The Gloss" profiles Arianna Huffington and her daughter, a young woman who, by freakish coincidence, works at the Huffington Post. (Not hating, just saying - nepotism once got me a summer job as a file clerk, and has got others in my life jobs at supermarkets, bakeries, etc. Same thing, really.) While the profile goes into the particular high-end lotions these two Huffingtons slather themselves with and why, the star of the show is Arianna's bathroom, which looks like the bathroom in an upscale department store (and, on that topic, if you're ever in a city and in need of facilities, upscale department stores are the place to go).

The profile gives off the kind of girl-power pseudo-feminism one comes to expect from fashion-and-beauty blogs. The takeaway is that we are to admire the elder Ms. Huffington on account of, she's a woman entrepreneur. And one with such great values, too - she has as fancy a shower as she does, one that allows you to "sit down and have a steam," because "it's just so detoxifying." We who must stand while we shower are basically walking toxic waste. Says Arianna:
The thing that’s exciting for me is that our Lifestyle sections are really growing. We put them all together under this theme of “Less Stress, More Living.” It’s a challenge, trying to practice that at work and at home, and trying to create peaceful, orderly environments in both spheres.
Affirms her daughter:
At HuffPo, I think she’s trying to do it differently. So, we have meditation that we can take twice a week, and nap rooms. I mean, it can be tough when you’re working in a twenty-four-hour news organization—there is always something else to be done.
Affirms an acolyte commenter:
The message I really caught from this, and it's something I'm working on, is to slow down. Get more rest & take care of your skin and body. Give yourself the gift of time.
It's Zen with a twist of Sandberg.

The advertorial of sorts - oh, we're also meant to admire Arianna for not having had cosmetic surgery, or so she claims, and I honestly haven't given this enough thought to know if I'm supposed to doubt this - is trying to convey that Huffington mère has created a softer, more feminine version of capitalist world takeover. Kinder, gentler, better for women. Except... the people (many - most? - of whom are women) whose content it uses but doesn't compensate.

Disclaimer time: I've never been on their unpaid-blogger crew, but I did once agree to let them reprint something I had written for pay elsewhere, but on other occasions, things I've written for pay elsewhere have popped up there, with some subtle distinction in format - once it just popped up, another time they had asked to reprint it and I hadn't even had a chance to get back to them. I've been asked to provide unpaid content for them on two other occasions, and declined once, never answered the second time. In principle, I oppose providing content to some other entity for 'exposure.' In principle, I also think it's less bad than unpaid internships, where one might do all manner of drudgery for 'exposure' to theoretical contacts who never even notice you're there. I am - as you may have guessed - far more enthusiastic about having a blog, where you get to write what you want, when you want, and try out ideas, and produce 'work' you maybe wouldn't send, in that state, to a publication.

So the general rule is, I'm not keen on free work for other people. But I also think, in principle, that it's wrong to blame those who take unpaid work of any kind, when the blame should go to the employers that exploit the opportunity. Yes, if all unpaid workers refused to be the 'supply' in this equation, companies would need to decide if the work was something they were prepared to pay for. Yes, it is possible that I have at times sabotaged my own writing-world prospects by refusing to consider unpaid jobs and trying to avoid the temptation to accept exposure as compensation. But the balance of power, the economy, the perception of the economy... people are going to take what they can get.

Anyway, longwinded story short, there's something about that bathroom that says, 'the money I didn't spend paying you fools, I spent on marble surfaces and $70 concealer.' I thought it. I wasn't alone. A commenter, self-identifying as "Guest," but no, not me (as if I'm ever that succinct), wrote: "Beautiful bathroom! Amazing what all of the Huffington Post's unpaid labor can buy." While I suppose technically, she was marble-bathroom-level rich before the HuffPost era, the point got across. 


Sigivald said...

Aside from whichever libertarian philosophical objections that don't bother me because I'm not a libertarian, there are just certain practical concerns. How exactly could the state pay you to home-cook a meal? How much say will the state have in what you make for dinner? If you give people money and say, 'stay home and cook kale,' maybe they won't spend it on food at all. [...] If you give them food-vouchers, maybe they won't buy kale.

Well, this libertarian thinks that those sound very much like libertarian concerns.

(Though admittedly they aren't the primary one of "by what right does the State take someone else's wealth to pay you to cook yourself dinner?")

Not only the unanswerable - as in "there's no way it could possibly work" - one of "how could they pay you do to that?", but also "how would they even price it?"

Would one get paid based on how long you spent notionally cooking? On skill level? A flat wage determined by Congress?


(I'm a bachelor - presumably therefore the State should be paying me for all the housework and cooking I do for myself? Because...

Ugh. The entire thesis is so economically illiterate I can't even analyze it.)

Phoebe said...


My critique is economic, but it's only "libertarian" by a real stretch. I'm fine with, for example, Bloomberg's controversial jumbo-soda-ban. And if the state wanted to throw some of our tax dollars towards keeping farmers markets open at times when people can actually go to them, I wouldn't lose sleep over this. So it's not that I don't think the state can intervene/nudge in this area. I'm not an anti-nannying purist. It's that this particular suggestion doesn't add up. It's that this reform would be the state intruding too much. Is it libertarian to think there should be a limit to state intervention, or that certain proposed laws/reforms are ridiculous? I'd think everyone thinks this - objections to a theoretical law ordering that we all wear potato-sacks would come from libertarians and socialists alike.

Limits of libertarianism aside, indeed, the proposal does make one wonder whether this is about home-cooking only in the case of children present.

Britta said...

In the 1960s/70s, the Swedish government paid housewives a salary. I don't have time or energy to look up the details, or to know how it's playing out now, but it can and has been done reasonably well by a functioning state.

Phoebe said...


I suspect this would get the same critiques as others of Scandinavian socialism - that this sort of thing can work in a small, homogeneous society, but that if the U.S. did this, there wouldn't be the same confidence that everyone would spend the money exactly how the state intended. There would also be the anti-immigration contingent worried about "housewives" showing up strictly for these benefits.