The injustice of employee contracts

I got a new job recently doing back-breaking farm labor, which is great, because it means I’m not going to starve (yet), but my excitement was dampened a little bit when I read my contract, which makes the following statements:

  • “You will not be entitled to sick leave, bereavement leave or annual leave, paid public holidays, parental leave, overtime or any other paid leave. As you are a casual employee, you will have no right to any compensation for redundancy.”
  • “Breaks: An unpaid break of 30 minutes (longer by agreement) and a paid break of 10 minutes taken at or about the mid point of the morning and afternoon.”
  • “As a casual employee your wages are based solely on the hours worked or the amount of work completed on each assignment and you are not entitled to renumeration when you are not working on an assignment.”
  • “Notification of termination to the employer of 5 days is required. If insufficient notice is given by the employee they shall forfeit payment of five days as compensation to the company.”
  • “The use of mobile phones and personal music devices during working hours is prohibited.”

I “agreed” to these conditions and signed my work contract because I need to work in order to survive. Unfortunately, this job only pays enough to survive. It doesn’t pay enough for me to eat well and have any fun in my free time or cover health care or retirement. It certainly doesn’t pay enough to take care of a family, but I don’t have a family to take care of. So that last bit doesn’t apply to me.

I’m not complaining about my contract because I can’t just suck it up and deal with it. I’m complaining because the conditions stated above would never appear in a C.E.O.’s contract. In fact, they would never appear in most college graduates’ contracts. So why were they in mine? More importantly, why are these conditions allowed to be in anybody’s contract? These conditions appeared in my contract because I’m doing a job that’s almost exclusively done by migrant aliens. The people who do migrant farm labor can’t afford to stand up for themselves. So governments allow them to be taken advantage of, and nobody else complains.

You could argue that anyone who agrees to a work contract has no room to complain about the conditions they agreed to, but that attitude values semantics over human life. You could also say that if you don’t like the terms of the contract you can just get another job, but if it were so easy to get another job nobody would do migrant farm labor or entry-level service work. The reality of the world that we live in is that millions (if not billions) of people must agree to substandard contracts or die. The economy we’ve created for our children is a cruel place, and if you want to survive you’re going to have to agree to working conditions you don’t agree with. The only question is how inhumane those conditions are.

While you’re voting for your next politician, take a moment to acknowledge that they’re not going to do anything about unfair contracts. They’re going to keep allowing the rich to exploit the most poor and needy members of society, and they’re going to stand by silently while the media calls the poorest and neediest members of society “entitled.” And the next time you eat any food from the grocery store, stop and acknowledge that it was almost certainly harvested and processed by people who are perpetually working themselves to death with no hope of saving for a better future so you can have cheaper vegetables and farmers can buy a bigger house… and you don’t care.

But the next time you sign a work contract that says you waive your rights to vacation time, realistic wages, benefits or legal protection, stop and acknowledge that you’ve already silently consented to the exploitation of everyone poorer than you. So you don’t have any room to complain. By the categorical imperative you’ve already set, the value of human life is determined by how high much leverage one has over other people’s lives.

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Issues in the Workplace

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