If you attend a public school in Boston, it is likely that either you or someone you know works at some form of internship or minimum-wage job. For many students and adults, these jobs are a convenient way to make money, but working in a position viewed as disposable by a large franchise can have a number of downsides. This can be especially problematic for workers who rely on the income these jobs provide and don’t have the option of leaving if it becomes a toxic work situation.
Many examples of this abusive behavior can be found in a downtown movie theater in Boston. At this venue, these examples of circumvention were pretty wide-reaching, from a strong racial bias in the distribution of certain wages to superiors attempting to bully employees into accepting lower-paying positions.
In this instance, the company had developed a new work schedule for bartenders that involved them spending less time at the bar, and more time working at the cash registers. The bartenders are paid a lower hourly rate for time spent at the cash register, so they would make less money overall with this new schedule. Since no bartender would accept what was essentially a demotion, the general manager had private meetings with each of them to repeatedly ask them to accept a new contract. This led to an awkward situation in which the person I interviewed had to politely decline the requests to meet repeatedly since he had no one else to advocate for him.
In situations like these, it’s difficult for employees to advocate for themselves as their employers often see their positions as disposable. With jobs becoming increasingly more difficult to acquire, many workers would rather grin and bear such blatant violations of their rights than risk the possibility of being fired and losing a vital flow of income. Additionally, businesses often fail to tell workers their rights. In fact, some businesses may go out of their way to stop workers from knowing them, so a minimum-wage worker may not even know when they are supposed to advocate for themselves. Because of this, businesses can get away with far more than they should be able to.
To get a better sense of the shortcomings in minimum-wage jobs, I interviewed two workers in a large movie theater franchise. The main problems they mentioned were that their superiors (one in particular) had no checks placed upon them, and were able to exploit loopholes in the treatment of their employees. What we as a society need to do is provide legal safety nets in order to encourage them to report any shifty business in their hierarchies and explain to workers the steps they should take to advocate for themselves.
When asked what other workers in their position should do, the two theater employees I interviewed almost immediately said “Unionize. Get lawyers, and know your rights.” Here they referenced an organization that could provide legal representation for workers for a small fee. However, this is easier said than done, because if your employer believes that you and your coworkers are planning to form a union, they will sometimes try to fire you on the spot. That’s illegal, and if it happens you can sue, but lawsuits are costly and not a realistic option for a majority of minimum-wage workers.
Some of the most important rights a worker has are the laws surrounding whistleblowers. If you, as an employee, alert the authorities to any kind of code violation in your workplace, you cannot be fired for doing so.
Just as important are the laws surrounding discrimination, which are well known but often not enforced. The main reason for this lack of enforcement lies in the fact that employees often go years without discussing things like income with their coworkers. It was in this way that the coworkers of the people I interviewed detected racial bias in wage distribution. After discussions, the employees found that the general manager was paying white managers more. To detect unequal wages due to race, interaction among coworkers should be encouraged. While some businesses may not condone this, it is important for all workers to be aware that such discussions are in no way illegal, and they cannot be legally punished by an employer.
As important as it is for employees to have legal support outside of the company they work for, it is just as important for workers to have a method of going above the heads of their superiors to resolve issues within their companies. Providing the contact information of upper-level management in a company is a good example of this kind of system. When the people I interviewed were asked if there was any way provided for them to go over the head of their general manager, they both said there wasn’t. One even said, “they probably don’t want us snitching on them.”
Minimum-wage workers and interns in Massachusetts deserve to be advocated for. As a state and as a country, this is something that we as Americans need to work towards. The first step towards this would be the creation of unions for all workers, which would provide legal support for anyone facing off against massive corporations.
Also, laws should be implemented to ensure that employees have a way of reporting their superiors to upper management. And most importantly, we as people should respect the minimum-wage workers who we interact with daily during their jobs.