Friday, December 01, 2006


In Other news

HOUSTON, TEXAS – Ending a monthlong strike, the union representing 5,300 janitors in Houston and the city’s major cleaning firms reached a tentative contract that raises their wages by nearly 50 percent over two years and provides them with a medical plan.

The organizing of the janitors last year by the Service Employees International Union was hailed by the labor movement as a major victory. The contract would gradually increase wages, which now average $5.25 an hour, to $7.75 by Jan. 1, 2009. The employers agreed to increase a janitor’s typical shift to six hours a day, from four, and to provide a medical plan. For a 30-hour week, a janitor would earn $232.50 in the final year, about $12,000 a year. “It’s a moment of great victory,” said Mercedes Herrera, a janitor for five years who earns $5.15 an hour. “I’ve earned the same ever since I started, so the raise is great.”

RONGCHENG INDUSTRY ZONE, TIANJIN, CHINA – At the end of a dusty road, we turned into the shower-curtain plant. Bao Jijun is in his early forties, tall, lean, and vigorous. He'd started his business three years before in a Beijing apartment with his wife and two other workers; within six months he was renting space at another factory; within a year he had leased this place. Now he had a hundred employees. We wandered through the workrooms, watching kids – almost everyone was between eighteen and twenty-two, as if the place were some kind of shower-curtain college – smooth long bolts of polyester onto huge tables, sew hems and grommets, fold the finished curtains into plastic bags, pack them into cartons. It's hard to imagine a much simpler product than a shower curtain.

Because of the summer heat, everyone worked from 7:30 to 11:30 and then again from 3:00 to 7:00. We'd been there for only a few minutes, in fact, when all labor ceased and everyone poured down the stairs into the cafeteria for lunch. Rice, green vegetables, eggplant stew, some kind of stuffed dumpling, and a big bowl of soup: 1.7 yuan, or about 20 cents. While people ate, we wandered into one of the dormitory rooms for girls (the boys were off a separate hall). Each room had four beds stacked on top of each other, one of which was for storing suitcases and clothes. The others were for sleeping, six girls to a room. There were stuffed bears, posters of pop singers, stacks of comics, little bottles of cosmetics. One desk to share, one fan. Next to the dormitory was a lounge with a giant TV and twenty or thirty battered chairs; the room next door had a Ping-Pong table. "Any of my workers who can beat me," Bao said, "gets a bottle of beer."

Virtually all of Bao's employees come from the province where he grew up, a couple hundred miles to the south. He let me interview as many as I wanted, with Wen acting as interpreter. The second worker I talked to was Liu Xia, eighteen years old, a lovely young woman nervous about talking to a strange American who inexplicably and impertinently wanted to know about her life. "There are four people in my home. My parents, my elder brother, and me. My parents aren't healthy. They do farm work, but my father has a bad knee, so my mother carries most of the load. I really wanted to help her. And my brother could go to college, but it would cost a lot. He is in the Shandong University of Science and Technology, studying mechanical design." In fact, it turns out, he had graduated just a week before, thanks to her earnings here at the curtain factory. I asked her if she had a stuffed bear on her bed like everyone else. Her eyes filled ominously. She likes them very much, she said, but she has to save all her earnings for her future.

From the New York Times and Bill McKibben in Harper's Magazine


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