Thursday, May 08, 2014
MINIMUM WAGE ON AN ISLAND PARADISE
The knuckles creaked. The fog of holidays on my vocabulary cortex was thick and smothering.
But I missed you. So I fought through the articles of my inactivity to write this.
I hope you rang in the new year in style. Or, at least, avoided serious bodily harm.
I kept the celebrations very simple. Not because I am incapable of a bender, I'm only in my thirties after all, but because I was flying to Hawaii 36 hours later.
Yes, I began the new year immersed in the Xanadu of pop culture.
Well, 'Diet U.S.A.' Hawaii is like The States with slightly less 'Merica' in the recipe.
There are chain franchises, shopping, enormous human beings, and bad food, of course. We went to a sushi restaurant where they served hot dog frankfurts, with avocado, in a rice roll. As the tiny plate rolled past on the sushi train, carrying it's conceptually grotesque hot dog sushi, our mouths literally hung open in horror. The frankensushi, meanwhile, disappeared around a bend in the conveyor belt and never returned. I imagine it climbed off the sushi train and made a new life for itself as a surf instructor.
Despite these moments of American peculiarity, there is also a tangible atmosphere of relaxation on the island. It seems to take the edge off the usual intense experience of dealing with Americans in large herds.
Oh, and there are sea turtles, apparently.
Despite being from a Western democratic country myself however, there was still the initial 'culture shock' of being around people and institutions with such a profoundly different genesis than my own. It's a strange feeling, one that makes you feel alien, detached, from your surroundings.
I got over it though. Starbucks helped.
Once my initial bewilderment passed, I was able to relax and, most importantly, interact. With waiters. With tour guides. Even with, gasp, other tourists.
It was during one of these interactions that I was exposed to the popular topic of the minimum wage in the USA.
Our sea turtle snorkeling adventure guide was riffing about life in Hawaii. We was from "Cal-eee-fuurrnnn-ia". Something like California, but said slower and with less purpose. A friendly young surfer, he had apparently moved to Hawaii to live the 'island paradise' life. Then, without prompting, he uttered a cliche we had been exposed to a number of times in our first few days on the Island:
"You gotta pay to live in paradise."
It piqued our interest, because this had started to become a common theme amongst the Hawaiians we met. He went on to explain that, despite the fact that the Hawaiian lifestyle was indeed 'paradise', it was also the most expensive state in the USA to live in. When coupled with the fact that the minimum wage is so low in America, US$7.25 an hour in fact, he lamented that it can be tough to make ends meet for your average young 'beach bum'.
Intrigued, and somewhat to his surprise, I asked him how he survives these economic headaches.
"Extra jobs", he deadpanned.
We had heard this concept multiple times as well. But what kind of second job could a 'beach bum' find on an island paradise?
"I do promo work" he said, "but the best paid stuff is when I can get character work. Wearing a costume at a product event or something".
"Yeah, they pay more than double minimum wage. Like, $15 an hour."
But why, you ask? Why would he get paid more just because he put on a costume during a promotional job?
This jump in pay comes from the efforts of one group. Ironically, this group has become somewhat of a pariah in our society these days. Their name has become a dirty word.
As soon as our Californian put on a costume, he is classed as a ‘performer’ which means he is covered by a higher minimum wage that has been fought for by the powerful performers’ unions. In America, the likes of The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) are immensely powerful, due to many years of difficult negotiations, and solidarity amongst members.
Think about that for a moment.
Because of the work of unions, like SAG, our Californian’s wage is DOUBLE what an employee would otherwise have been paid.
How would your livelihood fare if half of your pay was suddenly taken away?
And yet, despite this tangible positive impact on people’s lives, I see unions increasingly demonized in the general discourse.
But what is a union?
A union is you. And I. A union is a collective of people, who join together to ensure that they and their peers receive fair remuneration for their efforts.
Does that sound intrinsically evil to you? Or a necessary balance in a system where negotiating power can sometimes be distributed unfairly?
On an individual level, so many of us believe in looking out for the welfare of each other. That we all benefit when the bar is raised for everyone, not just a few who will 'trickle' down the proceeds later.
But when you put a label on it, the dreaded ‘union’, suddenly that same concept becomes a corruption, rotting the foundation of our democracy. Or some other overzealous negative platitude. We're smarter than this disconnect suggests.
So as we begin 2014, please remember.
Remember there are people just like us in the world, living in ‘Western’ industrialised democracies, who exist on a barely living wage.
Remember that their predicament is totally fixable.
And, most importantly, remember that their situation exists, only because of a failure to stand together and ensure prosperity is shared when success comes.
This year, as you have a blindingly successful 2014, try and do something to help someone else achieve their goals. Be a mentor, give advice, buy someone a meal, or back a crowdfunding project.
Know that your generosity will bring us all up, including you, in the fullness of time.
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