How much is an hour worth? The war over the minimum wage

Some economists say it should be raised. Others say it’s already too high. But what if both sides are missing the point? By 

No idea in economics provokes more furious argument than the minimum wage. Every time a government debates whether to raise the lowest amount it is legal to pay for an hour of labour, a bitter and emotional battle is sure to follow – rife with charges of ignorance, cruelty and ideological bias. In order to understand this fight, it is necessary to understand that every minimum-wage law is about more than just money. To dictate how much a company must pay its workers is to tinker with the beating heart of the employer-employee relationship, a central component of life under capitalism. This is why the dispute over these laws and their effects – which has raged for decades – is so acrimonious: it is ultimately a clash between competing visions of politics and economics.

In the media, this debate almost always has two clearly defined sides. Those who support minimum-wage increases argue that when businesses are forced to pay a higher rate to workers on the lowest wages, those workers will earn more and have better lives as a result. Opponents of the minimum wage argue that increasing it will actually hurt low-wage workers: when labour becomes more expensive, they insist, businesses will purchase less of it. If minimum wages go up, some workers will lose their jobs, and others will lose hours in jobs they already have. Thanks to government intervention in the market, according to this argument, the workers struggling most will end up struggling even more.

This debate has flared up with new ferocity over the past year, as both sides have trained their firepower on the city of Seattle – where labour activists have won some of the most dramatic minimum-wage increases in decades, hiking the hourly pay for thousands of workers from $9.47 to $15, with future increases automatically pegged to inflation. Seattle’s $15 is the highest minimum wage in the US, and over double the federal minimum of $7.25. This fact alone guaranteed that partisans from both sides of the great minimum-wage debate would be watching closely to see what happened.

But what turned the Seattle minimum wage into national news – and the subject of hundreds of articles – wasn’t just the hourly rate. It was a controversial, inconclusive verdict on the impact of the new law – or, really, two verdicts, delivered in two competing academic papers that reached opposite conclusions. One study, by economists at the University of Washington (UW), suggested that the sharp increase in Seattle’s minimum wage had reduced employment opportunities and lowered the average pay of the poorest workers, just as its critics had predicted. The other study, by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, claimed that a policy designed to boost worker income had done exactly that.

The duelling academic papers launched a flotilla of opinion columns, as pundits across the US picked over the economic studies to declare that the data was on their side – or that the data on their side was the better data, untainted by ideology or prejudice. In National Review, the country’s most prominent rightwing magazine, Kevin D Williamson wrote that the UW study had proven yet again “that the laws of supply and demand apply to the labor market”. Of course, he added, “everyone already knew that”.

Over on the left, a headline in the Nation declared: “No, Seattle’s $15 Minimum Wage Is Not Hurting Workers.” Citing the Berkeley study, Michelle Chen wrote: “What happens when wages go up? Workers make more money.” The business magazine Forbes ran two opposing articles: one criticising the UW study (“Why It’s Utter BS”), and another criticising liberals for ignoring the UW study in favour of the Berkeley study (“These People are Shameless”). This kind of thing – furious announcements of vindication from both sides – was everywhere, and soon followed by yet another round of stories summarising the first round of arguments.

When historians of the future consider our 21st-century debates about the minimum wage, one of the first things they will notice is that, despite the bitterness of the disagreement, the background logic is almost identical. Some commentators think the minimum wage should obviously go up. Some think all minimum-wage laws are harmful. Others concede we may need a minimum wage, but disagree about how high it should be or whether it should be the same everywhere – or whether its goals could be better accomplished by other measures, such as tax rebates for low-income workers.

But beneath all this conflict, there is a single, widely shared assumption: that the only important measure of the success of a minimum wage is whether economic studies show that it has increased the total earnings of low-wage workers – without this increase being outweighed by a cost in jobs or hours.

It is no coincidence that this framing tracks closely with the way the minimum wage is typically discussed by academic economists. In the US’s national organs of respectable public discourse – New York Times op-eds, Vox podcasts and Atlantic explainers – the minimum-wage debate is conducted almost entirely by economists or by journalists steeped in the economics literature. At first glance, this seems perfectly natural, just as it may seem completely natural that the debate is framed exclusively in terms of employment and pay. After all, the minimum wage is obviously an economic policy: shouldn’t economists be the people best equipped to discuss its effects?

But to historians of the future, this may well appear as a telling artifact of our age. Just imagine, for a moment, combing through a pile of articles debating slavery, or child labour, in which almost every participant spoke primarily in the specialised language of market exchange and incentives, and buttressed their points by wielding competing spreadsheets, graphs and statistical formulas. This would be, I think we can all agree, a discussion that was limited to the point of irrelevance. Our contemporary minimum-wage debates are similarly blinkered. In its reflexive focus on just a few variables, it risks skipping over the fundamental question: how do we value work? And is the answer determined by us – by politics and politicians – or by the allegedly immutable laws of economics?

In the last four years, some of the most effective activists in America have been the “Fight for $15” campaigners pushing to raise the minimum wage – whose biggest victory so far had come in Seattle. Thanks to their efforts – widely viewed as a hopelessly lost cause when they began – significant minimum-wage increases have been implemented in cities and states across the US. These same activists are laying plans to secure more increases in this November’s midterm elections. The Democratic party, following the lead of Bernie Sanders, has made a $15 minimum part of its official national platform. US businesses and their lobbyists, historically hostile to all minimum-wage increases but well aware of their robust popularity, are gearing up to fight back with PR campaigns and political talking points that paint the minimum wage as harmful to low-wage workers, especially young workers in need of job experience.

In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has pledged that a Labour government would raise the national minimum wage to £10 “within months” of taking office. (It is currently on schedule to rise slowly to £9 by 2020, which has been criticised by some on the right, citing Seattle as evidence that it will eliminate jobs.) In recent years, EU policymakers have raised the possibility of an EU-wide minimum-wage scheme. All this activity – combined with concern about rising economic inequality and stagnating wages – means the minimum wage is being studied and debated with an intensity not seen for years. But this is a debate unlikely to be resolved by economic studies, because it ultimately hinges on questions that transcend economics.

So what are we really talking about when we talk about the minimum wage?

The first minimum-wage laws of the modern industrial era were passed in New Zealand and Australia in the first decades of the 20th century, with the goal of improving the lives and working conditions of sweatshop workers. As news of these laws spread, reformers in the US sought to copy them. Like today’s minimum-wage proponents, these early reformers insisted that a minimum wage would increase the incomes of the poorest, most precarious workers. But they were also explicit about their desire to protect against capitalism’s worst tendencies. Without government regulation, they argued, there was nothing to stop companies from exploiting poor workers who needed jobs in order to eat – and had no unions to fight on their behalf.

In the field of economics, the concern that a state-administered minimum wage – also known as a wage floor – could backfire by reducing jobs or hours had been around since John Stuart Mill at least. But for many years, it was not necessarily the dominant view. Many mainstream economists supported the introduction of a minimum wage in the US, especially a group known as “institutionalists”, who felt economists should be less interested in abstract models and more focused on how businesses operated in the real world. At the time, many economists, institutionalist and otherwise, thought minimum-wage laws would likely boost worker health and efficiency, reduce turnover costs, and – by putting more cash in workers’ pockets – stimulate spending that would keep the wheels of the economy spinning.

During the Great Depression, these arguments found a prominent champion in President Franklin Roosevelt, who openly declared his desire to reshape the American economy by driving out “parasitic” firms that built worker penury into their business models. “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country,” he said in 1933.

Inevitably, this vision had its dissenters, especially among business owners, for whom minimum-wage increases represented an immediate and unwelcome increase in costs, and more generally, a limit on their agency as profit-seekers. At a 1937 Congressional hearing on the proposed Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) – which enacted the first federal minimum wage, the 40-hour work week and the ban on child labour – a representative of one of the US’s most powerful business lobby groups, the National Association of Manufacturers, testified that a minimum wage was the first step toward totalitarianism: “Call it Bolshevism or communism, if you will. Call it socialism, Nazism, fascism or what you will. Each says to the people that they must bow to the will of the state.”

Despite these objections, the FLSA passed in 1938, setting a nationwide minimum wage of $0.25 per hour (the equivalent of $4.45 today). Many industries were exempt at first, including those central to the southern economy, and those that employed high proportions of racial minorities and women. In subsequent decades, more and more of these loopholes were closed.

But as the age of Roosevelt and his New Deal gave way to that of Reagan, the field of economics turned decisively against the minimum wage – one part of a much larger political and cultural tilt toward all things “free market”. A central factor in this shift was the increasing prominence of neoclassical price theory, a set of powerful models that illuminated how well-functioning markets respond to the forces of supply and demand, to generate prices that strike, under ideal conditions, the most efficient balance possible between the preferences of consumers and producers, buyers and sellers.

Viewed through the lens of the basic neoclassical model, to set a minimum wage is to interfere with the “natural” marriage of market forces, and therefore to legislatively eliminate jobs that free agents would otherwise have been perfectly willing to take. Low-wage workers could lose income, teenagers could lose opportunities for work experience, consumer prices could rise and the overall output of the economy could be reduced. The temptation to shackle the invisible hand might be powerful, but was to be resisted, for the good of all.

Throughout the 70s, studies of the minimum wage’s effects were few and far between – certainly just a small fraction of today’s vast literature on the subject. Hardly anyone thought it was a topic that required much study. Economists understood that there were indeed rare conditions in which employers could get away with paying workers less than the “natural” market price of their labour, due to insufficiently high competition among employers. Under these conditions (known as monopsonies), raising the minimum wage could actually increase employment, by drawing more people into the workforce. But monopsonies were widely thought to be exceptionally unusual – only found in markets for very specialised labour, such as professional athletes or college professors. Economists knew the minimum wage as one thing only: a job killer.

In 1976, the prominent economist George Stigler, a longtime critic of the minimum wage on neoclassical grounds, boasted that “one evidence of the professional integrity of the economist is the fact that it is not possible to enlist good economists to defend protectionist programs or minimum wage laws”. He was right. According to a 1979 study in the American Economic Review, the main journal of the American Economic Association, 90% of economists identified minimum-wage laws as a source of unemployment.

“The minimum wage has caused more misery and unemployment than anything since the Great Depression,” claimed Reagan during his 1980 presidential campaign. In many ways, Reagan’s governing philosophy (like Margaret Thatcher’s) was a grossly simplified, selectively applied version of neoclassical price theory, slapped with a broad brush on to any aspect of American life that Republicans wanted to set free from regulatory interference or union pressure. Since becoming law in 1938, the US federal minimum wage had been raised by Congress 15 times, generally keeping pace with inflation. Once Reagan was president, he blocked any new increases, letting the nationwide minimum be eroded by inflation. By the time he left office, the federal minimum was $3.35, and stood at its lowest value to date, relative to the median national income.

Today, invectives against Reaganomics (and support for minimum-wage increases) are a commonplace in liberal outlets such as the New York Times. But in 1987, the Times ran an editorial titled “The Right Minimum Wage: $0.00”, informing its readers – not inaccurately, at the time – that “there’s a virtual consensus among economists that the minimum wage is an idea whose time has passed”. Minimum-wage increases, the paper’s editorial board argued, “would price working poor people out of the job market”. In service of this conclusion, they cited not a single study.

But the neoclassical consensus was eventually shattered. The first crack in the facade was a series of studies published in the mid-90s by two young economists, David Card and Alan Krueger. Through the 1980s and into the 90s, many US states had responded to the stagnant federal minimum wage by passing laws that boosted their local minimum wages above what national law required. Card and Krueger conducted what they called “natural experiments” to investigate the impact of these state-level increases. In their most well-known study, they investigatedhiring and firing decisions at fast-food restaurants located along both sides of the border separating New Jersey, which had just raised its wage floor, and Pennsylvania, which had not. Their controversial conclusion was that New Jersey’s higher wage had not caused any decrease in employment.

In Myth and Measurement, the duo’s book summarising their findings, they assailed the existing body of minimum-wage research, arguing that serious flaws had been overlooked by a field eager to confirm the broad reach of neoclassical price theory, and willing to ignore the many ways in which the labour market might differ from markets in consumer goods. (For one thing, they suggested, it was likely that monopsony conditions were much more common in the low-wage labour market than had been previously assumed – allowing employers, rather than “the market”, to dictate wages). The book was dedicated to Richard Lester, an economist from the institutionalist school who argued in the 1940s that neoclassical models often failed to accurately describe how businesses behave in the real world.

Card and Krueger’s work went off like a bomb in the field of economics. The Clinton administration was happy to cite their findings in support of a push, which was eventually successful, to raise the federal minimum to $5.15. But defenders of the old consensus fought back.

In the Wall Street Journal, the Nobel prize-winning economist James M Buchanan asserted that people willing to give credence to the Myth and Measurement studies were “camp-following whores”. For economists to advance such heretical claims about the minimum wage, Buchanan argued, was the equivalent of a physicist arguing that “water runs uphill” (which, I must note, is not uncommon in man-made plumbing and irrigation systems). High-pitched public denunciations like Buchanan’s were just the tip of the disciplinary iceberg. More than a decade later, Card recalled that he subsequently avoided the subject, in part because many of his fellow economists “became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole.”

There were some shortcomings in Card and Krueger’s initial work, but their findings inspired droves of economists to start conducting empirical studies of minimum-wage increases. Over time, they developed new statistical techniques to make those studies more precise and robust. After several generations of such studies, there is now considerable agreement among economists that, in available historical examples, increases in the minimum wage have not substantially reduced employment. But this newer consensus is far short of the near-unanimity of the 1980s. There are prominent dissenters who insist that the field’s new tolerance for minimum wages is politically expedient wishful thinking – that the data, when properly analysed, still confirms the old predictions of neoclassical theory. And every new study from one side of the debate still generates a rapid response from the other team, in both the specialist academic literature and the wider media.

What has returned the minimum wage to the foreground of US politics is not the slowly shifting discourse of academic economists, but the efforts of the Fight for $15 and its new brand of labour activism. The traditional template for US labour organising was centred on unions – on workers pooling their power to collectively negotiate better contracts with their employers. But in the past four decades, the weakening of US labour law and the loss of jobs in industries that were once bastions of union strength have made traditional unions harder to form, less powerful and easier to break, especially in low-wage service industries.

These conditions have given birth to what is often called “alt-labour”: a wide variety of groups and campaigns (many of them funded or supported by traditional unions) that look more like activist movements. Campaigns such as the Fight for $15 often voice support for unionisation as an ideal (and their union backers would like the additional members), but in the meantime, alt-labour groups seek to address worker grievances through more public means, including the courts, elections and protest actions, including “wildcat” strikes.

In November 2012, some 200 non-unionised workers at fast-food chain restaurants in New York City walked off the job and marched through the streets to broadcast two central demands: the ability to form a union and a $15 minimum wage. (At the time, New York’s minimum wage was $7.25, the same as the national minimum.) The marches also sought to emphasise the fact that, contrary to persistent stereotype, minimum-wage jobs are not held exclusively, or even primarily, by teenagers working for pocket money or job experience; many of the participants were adults attempting to provide for families. The march, the largest of its kind in fast-food history, was coordinated with help from one of the US’s largest and most politically active unions, the Service Employees International Union. Soon the SEIU was helping fast-food workers stage similar walkouts across the country. The Fight for $15 had begun.

As the campaign gathered steam – earning widespread media coverage, helping secure minimum-wage increases in many cities and states, and putting the issue back into the national political conversation – the media turned to economists for their opinion. Their responses illustrated the extent to which the old neoclassical consensus had been upended, but also the ways in which it remained the same.

The old economic consensus insisted that the only good minimum wage was no minimum wage; the new consensus recognises that this is not the case. Increasingly, following Card and Krueger, economists recognise that monopsonistic conditions, in which there is little competition among purchasers of labour, are more common than once thought. If competition among low-wage employers is not as high as it “should” be, wages – like those of fast-food workers – can be “unnaturally” suppressed. Therefore, a minimum wage is accepted as a tweak necessary to correct this flaw. For economists, the “correct” minimum wage is the one calculated, on the basis of past studies, to give the average worker more money without significantly reducing the number of available jobs.

But this meant that almost no economists, even staunch defenders of minimum-wage increases, would endorse the central demand of the Fight for $15. A hike of that size, they pointed out, was considerably more drastic than any increase in the minimum wage they had previously analysed – and therefore, by the standards of the field, too risky to be endorsed. Arindrajit Dube, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, and perhaps contemporary economics’ most prominent defender of minimum-wage increases, cautioned that $15 might be fine for a prosperous coastal city, but it could end up incurring dangerously high costs in poorer parts of the country. Alan Krueger himself came out against setting a federal target of $15, arguing in a New York Times op-ed that such a high wage floor was “beyond the range studied in past research”, and therefore “could well be counterproductive”.

Of course, these economists may be right. But if all minimum-wage policy had been held to this standard, the US federal minimum wage would not exist to begin with – since the initial jump, from $0 to $0.25, was certainly well “beyond the range studied in past research”.

Almost exactly a year after fast-food workers first walked off the job in New York City, launching the Fight for $15, the country’s first $15 minimum wage became law in SeaTac, Washington, a city of fewer than 30,000 people, known mostly (if at all) as the home of Seattle’s major airport, Seattle-Tacoma International. It was an emblematic victory for “alt-labour”: for years, poorly paid airport ground-crew workers had been trying and failing to form a union, stymied by legal technicalities. With SEIU help, these workers launched a campaign to hold a public referendum on a $15 wage – not expecting to win, but in the hope that the negative publicity would put pressure on the airlines that flew through SeaTac. But in November 2013, the city’s residents – by a slim margin of 77 votes – passed the country’s highest minimum wage.

That same day, a socialist economist named Kshama Sawant won a seat on Seattle’s City Council. Sawant had made a $15 minimum wage a central plank of her campaign. Afraid of being outflanked from the left in one of the most proudly liberal cities in the US, most of her fellow council candidates and both major mayoral candidates endorsed the idea, too. (At the time, the city’s minimum wage was $9.47.) On 2 June 2014, the city council – hoping to avoid a public referendum on the matter – unanimously approved the increase to $15, to be phased in over three years, with future increases pegged to inflation.

The furious Seattle minimum-wage debate of last summer was ostensibly about the $15 rate. But the subject of those competing studies was actually the city’s intermediate increase, at the start of 2016, from the 2015 minimum of $11, to either $13 – for large businesses with more than 500 employees – or $12, for smaller ones. (Businesses that provided their employees with healthcare were allowed to pay less.)

When a group of researchers at the University of Washington (UW) released a paper analysing this incremental hike in June 2017, their conclusion appeared to uphold the predictions of neoclassical theory and throw cold water on the Fight for $15. Yes, low-wage Seattle workers now earned more per hour in 2016 than in 2015. But, the paper argued, having become more expensive to hire, they were being hired less often, and for fewer hours, with the overall reduction in hours outweighing the jump in hourly rates. According to their calculations, the average low-wage worker in Seattle made $1,500 less in 2016 than the year before, even though the city was experiencing an economic boom.

Some of the funding for the University of Washington researchers had come from the Seattle city council. (The group has released several other papers tracking the minimum wage’s effects, and plans to release at least 20 more in the years to come.) But after city officials read a draft of the study, they sought a second opinion from the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley – a research group long associated with support for minimum-wage increases. The Berkeley economists had been preparing their own study of Seattle’s minimum wage, which reached very different conclusions. At the city’s request, they accelerated its release, so it would come out before the more negative UW paper. And after the UW paper was released, Michael Reich, one of the Berkeley study’s lead authors, published a letter directly criticising its methods and dismissing its conclusions.

illustration for long read about the minimum wage: people trapped inside a dollar sign
 Illustration: The Project Twins

It was around this point that the op-ed salvos started flying in both directions. The conditions for widespread, contentious coverage could hardly have been more perfect: supporters of the Fight for $15 and its detractors each had one study to trumpet and one to dismiss.

Conservatives leaped to portray liberals as delusional utopians who would keep commissioning scientific findings until they got one they liked. Some proponents of the Fight for $15, meanwhile, scoured the internet for any sign that Jacob Vigdor, who led the UW study, had a previous bias against the minimum wage.

Critics of the UW study pointed out that it had only used payroll data from businesses with a single location – thus excluding larger businesses and chains such as Domino’s and Starbucks, which were most likely to cope with the short-term local shock in labour costs (and, plausibly, to absorb some of the work that may have been lost at smaller businesses). The Berkeley study, on the other hand, relied solely on data from the restaurant industry, and critics contended this did not fully represent the city’s whole low-wage economy.

But on one point, almost everyone agreed. Both studies were measuring the one thing that really mattered: whether the higher minimum wage led to fewer working hours for low-wage workers, and if so, whether the loss in hours had counteracted the increase in pay.

This approach revealed a fundamental continuity between the post-Card and Krueger consensus and the neoclassical orthodoxy it had replaced. When Roosevelt pushed for America’s first minimum wage, he was confident that capitalists would deal with the temporary price shock by doing what capitalists do best: relentlessly seeking out new ways to save costs elsewhere. He rejected the idea that a functioning economy simply must contain certain types of jobs, or that particular industries were intrinsically required to be poorly compensated or exploitative.

Economies and jobs are, to some extent, what we decide to make them. In developed economies like the US and the UK, it is common to lament the disappearance of “good jobs” in manufacturing and their replacement by “bad” low-wage work in service industries. But much of what was “good” about those manufacturing jobs was made that way over time by concessions won and regulations demanded by labour activists. Today, there is no natural reason that the exploding class of service jobs must be as “bad” as they often are.

The Fight for $15 has not notched its victories by convincing libertarian economists that they are wrong; it has won because more and more Americans work bad jobs – poorly paid jobs, unrewarding jobs, insecure jobs – and they are willing to try voting some of that badness out of existence.

This willingness is not the product of hours spent reading the post-Card and Krueger economic literature. It has much more to do with an intuitive understanding that – in an economy defined by historically high levels of worker productivity on the one hand, and skyrocketing but unevenly distributed profit on the other – some significantly better arrangement must be possible, and that new rules might help nudge us in the right direction, steering employers’ profit-seeking energies towards other methods of cutting costs besides miserably low pay. But we should not expect that there will be a study that proves ahead of time how this will work – just as Roosevelt could not prove his conjecture that the US economy did not have an existential dependence on impoverished sweatshop labour.

Last November, I spent several days in Seattle, mostly talking with labour activists and low-wage workers, including fast-food employees, restaurant waiters and seasonal employees at CenturyLink Field, the city’s American football (and soccer) stadium. In all of these conversations, people talked about the higher minimum wage with palpable pride and enthusiasm. Crystal Thompson, a 36-year-old Domino’s supervisor (she was recently promoted from phone operator), told me she still loved looking at pictures from Seattle’s Fight for $15 marches: proof that even the poorest workers could shut down traffic across a major city and make their demands heard. “I wasn’t even a voter before,” she told me. In fact, more than one person said that since the higher wage had passed, they were on the lookout for the next fight to join.

The more people I talked to, the more difficult it was to keep seeing the minimum-wage debate through the narrow lens of the economics literature – where it is analysed as a discrete policy option, a dial to be turned up or down, with the correct level to be determined by experts. Again and again, my conversations with workers naturally drifted from the minimum wage to other battles about work and pay in Seattle. Since passing the $15 minimum wage, the city had instituted new laws mandating paid sick and family leave, set legal limits on unpredictable shift scheduling, and funded the creation of an office of labour investigators to track down violators of these new rules. (One dark footnote to any conversation about the minimum wage is the fact that, without effective enforcement, many employers regularly opt not to pay it. Another dark footnote is that minimum wage law does not apply to the rapidly growing number of workers classified as “independent contractors”, many of whom toil in the gig economy.)

It was obvious in Seattle that all these victories were intertwined – that victory in one battle had provided energy and momentum for the next – and that all of these advances for labour took the form of limits, imposed by politics, on the latitude allowed to employers in the name of profit-seeking.

Toward the end of my visit, I went to see Jacob Vigdor, the economist who was the lead author of the UW study arguing that Seattle’s minimum wage was actually costing low-wage workers money. He told me he hadn’t ever expected to find himself at the centre of a national storm about wage policy. “I managed to spend 18 years of my career successfully staying away from the minimum wage,” he said. “And then for a while there it kind of took over my life.”

He wanted to defend the study from its critics on the economic left – but he also wanted to stress that his group’s findings were tentative, and insufficiently detailed to make a final ruling about the impact of the minimum wage in Seattle or anywhere else. “This is not enough information to really make a normative call about this minimum-wage policy,” he said.

The UW paper itself is equally explicit on this front, something its many public proponents have been all too willing to forget. But it wasn’t just pundits who took liberties with interpreting the results: in August 2017, the Republican governor of Illinois explicitly cited the paper when vetoing a $15 minimum-wage bill. That same month, the Republican governor of Missouri also cited the UW study, while signing a law to block cities within the state from raising their own minimum wages. Thanks in large part to efforts of business lobbyists, 27 states have passed “pre-emption” laws that stop states and counties from raising their wage floors. (Vigdor has since acknowledged, on Twitter, that it was disingenuous for the governors to cite his study to justify their “politically motivated” decisions.)

Much like my conversations with low-wage workers across the city, talking to Vigdor ultimately left me feeling that, when examined closely, the minimum-wage discourse playing out in the field of economics – and, by extension, across the media landscape – had startlingly little direct relevance to anything at all other than itself. I mentioned to Vigdor that, walking around Seattle, I’d seen a surprising number of restaurants advertising an immediate, urgent need for basic help: dishwashers, busboys, kitchen staff. This had motivated me to go digging in state employment statistics, where I learned that in 2016 and 2017, restaurants across Seattle recorded a consistent need for several thousand more employees than they could find. How did this square with the idea that the higher minimum wage had led to low-wage workers losing work?

“That’s a story about labour supply,” Vigdor said. “Our labour supply is drying up.” Amazon and other tech companies, he said, were drawing in lots of high-skilled, high-wage workers. These transplants were rapidly driving up rents, making the city unlivable for workers at the bottom of the economic food chain, a dynamic exacerbated by the city’s relatively small stock of publicly subsidised low-income housing.

These downward pressures on the labour supply, Vigdor pointed out, were essentially independent of the minimum wage. “The minimum wage [increase] is maybe just accelerating something that was bound to happen anyway,” he said.

This was not the sort of thing I had expected to hear from the author of the study that launched a hundred vitriolic assaults on the $15 minimum wage. “A million online op-ed writers’ heads just exploded,” I said.

Vigdor laughed ruefully. “Well, we’re going to be studying this for a long time.”

A few days earlier, I met with Kshama Sawant, the socialist economist who had been so instrumental in passing the $15 wage. She was eager to make sure I had read the Berkeley study, and that I had seen all the criticisms of the UW study. But her most impassioned argument wasn’t about the studies – and it was one that Roosevelt would have found very familiar.

“Look, if it were true that the economic system we have today can’t even bring our most poverty-stricken workers to a semi-decent standard of living – and $15 is not even a living wage, by the way – then why would we defend it?” She paused. “That would be straightforward evidence that we need a better system.”

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Cómo operan las controversiales compañías que nos vigilan en el trabajo a través de nuestra información digital

Si trabajabas para Ford en 1914, es probable que la empresa contratara a un investigador privado para que te vigilara.

Él sabría si te detuviste a tomar un trago, o si te peleaste con tu pareja, o si hiciste algo que afectara tu desempeño al día siguiente. Y todo llegaría a oídos de tu jefe.

Este seguimiento se daba debido a que los trabajadores de esta automotriz ganaban un salario de US$5 por día, casi el doble de lo normal en esa época, y que hoy serían unos US$124.

Tenías que ser un ciudadano modelo para pertenecer a la empresa.

Este operativo tipo ‘Gran Hermano’ estuvo a cargo del Departamento de Sociología de Ford, un equipo de inspectores que llegaba sin previo aviso a las casas de los empleados.

Tu hogar debía estar limpio, tus hijos asistiendo a la escuela, tu cuenta de ahorros en orden.

De lo contrario no solo perdías oportunidades de un ascenso, sino que tu empleo estaba en riesgo.

Empleados de Ford a principios del siglo XXDerechos de autor de la imagenGETTY IMAGES
Image captionFord ofrecía un salario que duplicaba los US$$2,39 por día que un trabajador ganaba en la época, pero exigía un código de conducta.

Pero la empresa también ofrecía múltiples apoyos, desde servicios médicos hasta cursos de limpieza.

El programa duró 8 años y era costoso. Muchos trabajadores rechazaban supaternalismo e intrusión.

Área en crecimiento

Hoy parecería algo intolerable para muchos, pues ¿qué tiene que ver tu trabajo con tu ropa sucia, tu cuenta bancaria o tus relaciones?

No obstante, la idea de que los empleadores intenten controlar la vida de los trabajadores fuera del horario laboral ha persistido, y las herramientas digitales lo han hecho más fácil que nunca.

¿Qué pueden (y no pueden) los empleadores hacer con estos datos? ¿Dónde deberíamos trazar una línea?

Todos estamos siendo calificados todos los días. Los costosos boletos de avión que compré recientemente ya aparecieron en mi puntaje de crédito.

El hecho de que he dejado de correr todas las mañanas ha sido notado por mi aplicación de entrenamiento físico.

Facebook sabe que me encanta la cerveza y pone anuncios en mi pantalla al respecto.

Personas con el móvil frente a un letrero de FacebookDerechos de autor de la imagenREUTERS
Image captionLas redes sociales son una importante fuente de datos sobre el comportamiento de una persona.

Hasta se ha adoptado un sistema de puntuación en el mundo corporativo. Las áreas de recursos humanos están procesando cada vez más volúmenes de datos para calificar a los empleados.

Hay cafeteras “inteligentes” que dan una bebida caliente con la identificación del trabajo, una oportunidad más para que tu jefe sepa cómo es tu comportamiento.

Algunos analistas creen que esta industria podría valer más de US$1.000 millones para 2022.

Un gran objetivo de la recopilación de datos es hacer “predicciones sobre cuánto tiempo permanecerá un empleado en el puesto, lo cual puede influir en la contratación, despido o retención de personal”, dice Phoebe Moore, profesora de Economía Política y Tecnología en la Universidad de Leicester en Reino Unido.

La recopilación de datos está “cambiando las relaciones de empleo, la forma en que las personas trabajan y cuáles pueden ser las expectativas”, dice Moore.

China tiene tantas cámaras que pueden rastrear a un reportero de la BBC en 7 minutos.

Sin embargo, este enfoque no considera aspectos no cuantificables del trabajo.

El dilema de los datos

Una persona sana, físicamente activa es mejor en el trabajo, ¿verdad?

La investigación sugiere constantemente que ser activo disminuye el ausentismo y aumenta la productividad. Esto ha engendrado una próspera industria de la salud y el bienestar con programas que valen miles de millones.

Los empleados valoran estas iniciativas de salud no solo porque sus jefes les den tiempo libre para participar, sino también porque hay recompensas si permiten que su ejercicio sea monitoreado en el móvil o las pulseras inteligentes.

La investigación sugiere que los programas de acondicionamiento físico funcionan mejor cuando se combinan con estímulo social, colaboración y competencia.

Las oficinas organizan clubes de corredores, clases semanales de gimnasia o competiciones.

Empleados haciendo una rutina de ejercicioDerechos de autor de la imagenGETTY IMAGES
Image captionCada vez son más comunes los programas de ejercicios en las oficinas.

Existen varias razones positivas para recopilar datos sobre los empleados, desde mejorar la gestión de riesgos hasta examinar si hay discriminación de género.

“Las empresas fundamentalmente no entienden cómo las personas interactúan y colaboran en el trabajo”, dice Ben Waber, director de Humanyze, una empresa que analiza datos sobre sitios de trabajo.

Él dice que puede mostrarlos.

Dos fuentes

Para hacerlo, reúne datos de dos fuentes: los metadatos de las comunicaciones de los empleados, como su correo electrónico, teléfono o servicio de mensajería corporativa.

Eso no es leer el contenido de los mensajes, ni conoce las identidades de las personas, sino que analiza datos como la duración de llamadas, frecuencia y localización, y con eso sabe a qué departamento pertenece un empleado.

La segunda fuente viene de dispositivos como sensores infrarrojos Bluetooth que detectan cuántas personas trabajan en un área de una oficina y cómo se mueven.

También usan credenciales de identificación ‘sobrealimentadas’ que, como dice Waber, están reforzadas con “micrófonos”

No graban lo que dicen los empleados, pero “procesan la voz en tiempo real”, lo cual permite medir cuánto tiempo habla el empleado y con qué frecuencia es interrumpido.

Una videocámara en una oficinaDerechos de autor de la imagenGETTY IMAGES
Image captionAlgunas empresas usan cámaras y sensores de infrarrojos Bluetooth para detectar cuántas personas trabajan en una determinada parte de una oficina y cómo se mueven.

Después de seis semanas de investigación, el empleador obtiene una “visión general” del problema que quiere resolver, según los datos analizados.

Si el objetivo, por ejemplo, es aumentar las ventas, pueden analizar qué hacen sus mejores vendedores.

O si quieren medir la productividad, pueden inferir que los trabajadores que son más eficientes a menudo hablan más con sus gerentes.

Waber lo ve como “una lente sobre problemas de trabajo muy grandes, como la diversidad, la inclusión, la evaluación de la carga de trabajo, la planificación del espacio de trabajo o la regulación de riesgos”.

Dice que eso ayuda a las empresas a ahorrar millones de dólares e incluso años de tiempo.

Recolección y protección

Pero no todos están convencidos de la utilidad de estas técnicas, o si esa tecnología puede justificarse.

Hoffman recuerda que estos programas no siempre fueron fáciles de vender: “Vas a obtener los datos y vas a usarlos en mi contra”, le decían a menudo los trabajadores escépticos.

Un hombre ante un servidor informáticoDerechos de autor de la imagenGETTY IMAGES
Image captionEl análisis de la fuerza laboral combina software y metodología para leer datos relacionados con los empleados

Y un problema fundamental es que estas mediciones de seguimiento de estado físico a menudo son inexactas.

Las personas son muy malas para autoinformarse y los rastreadores de estado físico y los teléfonos inteligentes no son exactamente precisos.

Tampoco está claro si contar pasos, por ejemplo, es realmente una buena forma de medir la actividad, porque esta medición no tiene en cuenta la intensidad.

Otro problema es la cantidad de datos que estos programas pueden recopilar.

No solo hacen un seguimiento de la actividad diaria; también suelen ofrecer exámenes de salud, lo que les permite registrar cosas que no deberían interesarles a los patrones: el colesterol, el peso o hasta el ADN.

Un par de pulseras FitbitDerechos de autor de la imagenGETTY IMAGES
Image captionPulseras para monitorear la actividad física se han popularizado en los últimos años.

En la mayoría de los casos, es ilegal en Estados Unidos y Europa que las empresas discriminen a los trabajadores en función de sus datos de salud o de los resultados de pruebas genéticas, pero hay algunas áreas grises.

Los proveedores de programas de bienestar dicen que los empleadores solo ven datos agregados y con anonimato, por lo que no pueden dirigirse a empleados específicos en función de sus resultados de bienestar.

Además, los datos podrían ser robados en un ataque cibernético, por ejemplo, o podrían ser utilizados sin transparencia para los usuarios.

“Podrían venderse a cualquiera, para cualquier propósito, y recircularse de otras maneras”, dice Ifeoma Awunja, socióloga de la Universidad de Cornell que investiga el uso de los datos de salud en el lugar de trabajo.

Una mujer entrenándoseDerechos de autor de la imagenGETTY IMAGES
Image captionLos ‘hackers’ pueden hacerse de la información que los usuarios de dispositivos electrónicos comparten con terceros.

Pero incluso si todas las compañías hicieran lo correcto y actuaran solo para el mejor interés de sus clientes, las personas en algunos lugares solo están protegidas por la buena voluntad de su programa de bienestar.

La ley de Estados Unidos está “significativamente rezagada” de la Unión Europea y de otras partes del mundo en protección de usuarios, dice Awunja.

¿Qué ganan?

Estos programas están destinados a reducir las primas del seguro de salud, tanto para las empresas como para los empleados, ya que se supone que se reducen los riesgos de salud, las faltas por enfermedad y los costos hospitalarios.

Pero no está claro si esto realmente sucede.

Un hombre corriendoDerechos de autor de la imagenGETTY IMAGES
Image captionLa idea de invertir en el estado físico de los empleados es obtener de ellos unas mayor productividad y reducir los gastos por atención médica.

Un estudio de 2013 de Rand Corporation afirma que, si bien estos programas les ahorran a las empresas suficiente dinero para pagarse a sí mismos, “tienen poco o ningún efecto inmediato en la cantidad que los empleadores gastan en atención médica”.

Con todas estas herramientas, “los seres humanos son evaluados en términos del riesgo que representan para la empresa”, dice Awunja.

Cualquiera que sean los beneficios que puedan aportar estas tecnologías, tienen que equilibrarse con los derechos y las expectativas de privacidad de los trabajadores.


Hay un episodio de la serie Black Mirror que ofrece una advertencia escalofriante.

A cada persona se le asigna un puntaje basado en sus interacciones en una red social que se parece mucho a Instagram.

Este puntaje define casi todas las oportunidades que tienen en la vida: qué trabajos pueden obtener, dónde viven, qué boletos de avión pueden comprar o con quién pueden salir.

Una proyección de datos sobre una personaDerechos de autor de la imagenGETTY IMAGES
Image captionLas series de televisión han explorado cómo el mundo se está convirtiendo en un lugar cada vez más monitoreado mediante algoritmos.

De hecho, en 2020, China aplicará de forma obligatoria un puntaje ciudadanocalculado a partir de varias fuentes de datos, desde su historial de compras hasta los libros que haya leído.

Aunque no es tan siniestro, esto ilustra las limitaciones tecnológicas, legales y éticas de hacer algo similar en otros lugares.

En la mayoría de las partes del mundo, la ley impide que el área de recursos humanos comparta o solicite datos del empleado a su banco, su médico o su sitio de citas en línea, a menos que haya un consentimiento.

Entonces ¿cómo aprovechar los beneficios de los datos de una manera aceptable?

Un hombre mira varios monitores de una oficinaDerechos de autor de la imagenGETTY IMAGES
Image captionLos estándares éticos deben ser claros en este tipo de medición de desempeño y análisis de datos.

Hay una buena razón para encontrar este equilibrio: como dice Waber, los datos pueden brindar consejos basados ​​en la evidencia para que un empleado progrese en su trabajo.

Tener un espacio para cuidar su salud en el trabajo puede mejorar su satisfacción en él y algunos estudios sugieren que esto también se traduce en un impulso de productividad.

Parte de la respuesta parece ser aceptar ciertos estándares éticos.

En un documento, Awunja propone algunas prácticas como informar a los empleados sobre los riesgos potenciales de discriminación con los datos, no penalizar a aquellos que declinan participar y establecer una “fecha de caducidad” clara para los datos recopilados.

Esta es una conversación importante que deberías tener, incluso si eres de los que no tienen nada que esconder.

Al final, es muy probable que regalar nuestros datos sea parte de la experiencia cotidiana del trabajo en el futuro cercano, al menos en el mundo corporativo.

Puedes leer la nota original en inglés en BBC Capital.

Viaje al futuro: el mundo laboral en 2028

De cara a la cumbre del G-20, el Cippec convocó a un grupo de destacados especialistas para evaluar escenarios sobre qué puede pasar en el mercado laboral. Se coincidió que la adopción de tecnología siempre vino acompañada con el miedo al desempleo: El mundo va rápido. Esa es la tensión que vivimos.

El presidente Mauricio Macri(c) junto al presidente del BCRA, Federico Sturzenegger(i) y el ministro de Hacienda, Nicolás Dujovne en la última reunión del G-20 en Buenos Aires.
El presidente Mauricio Macri(c) junto al presidente del BCRA, Federico Sturzenegger(i) y el ministro de Hacienda, Nicolás Dujovne en la última reunión del G-20 en Buenos Aires.

Silvia Naishtat

Mundo laboral
¿Se anima a pensar cómo será el mundo del trabajo de acá a diez años? Es lo que propuso Cippec (Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento) a un conjunto de laureados especialistas que imaginaron distintos escenarios.

Hubo sorpresa: el 42% de esas mentes críticas apostó a que Argentina tiene futuro. Esto es, una fuerza laboral capacitada y con habilidades para enfrentar el tsunami tecnológico que ya estamos viviendo.

¿Y el otro 58%? Apenas 11% se inclinó por un país estancado y en decadencia y el resto imaginó alternativas para seguir en el juego.

No es menor para una Argentina que, según el Banco Mundial, es el segundo país que enfrentó la mayor cantidad de crisis económicas a lo largo de su historia. Al primer puesto de ese ranking lo ocupa el Congo.

El debate que propone Cippec es crucial y sus conclusiones formarán parte de las recomendaciones a la presidencia argentina del G-20. Junto al CARI (Consejo Argentino para las Relaciones Internacionales), Cippec coordina las actividades del Think20. Se trata de los centros de pensamiento donde se generarán propuestas. El mismo ejercicio acerca del futuro del trabajo se está llevando a cabo en India y en Sudáfrica.

MartínRapetti, director de Desarrollo Económico de Cippec, junto a Ramiro Albrieu, otro economista de la institución, señalaron que si se mira con perspectiva histórica el futuro del trabajo no es una preocupación nueva en las economías en desarrollo.

Subrayaron que esas economías se distinguen por una dualidad en la que conviven sectores y actividades modernas de alta productividad y próximos a estándares internacionales junto a otros rezagados y de muy baja productividad.

En las mesas, el experto en Relaciones Internacionales Roberto Rusell, el historiador económico Pablo Gerchunoff, los economistas Daniel Heymann, Jorge Katz, Roxana Maurizio, y Fernanda Peirano intercambiaban ideas con Rafael Rofman (Banco Mundial) y Marta Pujadas (UOCRA).

Una de las preocupaciones consiste en cómo preparar las nuevas generaciones para lo que se ha dado en llamar la cuarta revolución industrial que se extiende como una llamarada.

Para algunos, Argentina permanecerá en una especie de transición sin cambiar demasiado. Otros prevén tiempos confusos con gente trabajando hasta la extenuación por sueldos miserables. La buena noticia es que quienes pintaban ese negro panorama fueron minoría.

Se coincidió que la tecnología siempre vino acompañada con el miedo al desempleo. “El mundo va muy rápido y esa es la tensión que vivimos”, soltaron. Así, se advirtió que peligra la demanda de puestos de calificaciones intermedias que es preponderante en la Argentina. Pero se hizo hincapié en las oportunidades que genera la industria del cuidado, la del software y el turismo que pueden ocupar a trabajadores de baja preparación que podrán profesionalizarse.

En paralelo al encuentro de Cippec hubo otro del B-20, el brazo del G-20 para el sector privado. Analizaron los déficits del sistema educativo. “El 65% de los chicos que van al colegio tendrán oficios que hoy no existen y deberán estar listos para el aprendizaje continúo durante toda su vida”, contó Sergio Kaufman (Accenture). Para Kaufman, la tecnología destruye determinados tipos de empleo y crea nuevos puestos de trabajo. Citó lo que sucedió con Uber en Nueva York. Antes de su llegada se realizaban 13 millones de viajes de taxi, ahora alcanzan a los 25 millones de viajes. “La revolución tecnológica debe generar empleo inclusivo”, señaló. Ese parece ser el verdadero desafío.

¿Qué es el monopsonio y cómo impacta al mercado de trabajo?

Varias décadas (y kilos y canas) después de haber estudiado por primera vez el concepto de un mercado laboral con competencia perfecta, su belleza me sigue maravillando. En este tipo de mercado no hay necesidad de que el gobierno intervenga, puesto que (de forma casi mágica) se da un equilibrio entre las empresas que buscan trabajadores y los trabajadores que buscan empleo. Si el gobierno fijara un salario mínimo muy alto, se generaría desempleo, puesto que los empleadores no estarían dispuestos a contratar a tantos trabajadores si les tienen que pagar un salario más alto. Por el contrario, si el gobierno estableciera un tope salarial, el número de trabajadores demandados por las empresas superaría el número de personas dispuestas a trabajar por ese salario. Más allá de su estética académica, sigo convencido de que las lecciones de este modelo deben estar siempre presentes en el diseño de políticas públicas. Pero, como dice el economista Dani Rodrik, “es un modelo, no el modelo”, y hay muchas posibles fallas de mercado que también deberían considerarse. Entre ellas, el monopsonio, que cada vez genera más atención.

No tan conocido como el monopolio, el monopsonio se genera cuando hay muchas personas buscando trabajo y solo hay pocos empleadores, quienes pueden darse el lujo de ofrecer un salario menor al que tuvieran que ofrecer si hubiera más competencia por los trabajadores. Además de ser malo para el trabajador, este modelo genera un resultado que es ineficiente en el sentido económico. Es decir, hay potenciales contrataciones que beneficiarían tanto a las empresas como a los trabajadores, pero estas contrataciones de beneficio mutuo no se llevan a cabo. Por muchos años, la posibilidad teórica de monopsonio no se consideraba importante para el análisis práctico ni para el diseño de políticas públicas, pero varios estudios recientes sugieren que el problema de monopsonio es relevante y creciente en el tiempo (véanse, por ejemplo, este estudio con base en la información del sitio web y este estudio con base en una plataforma en línea de crowdsourcing).

El monopsonio se genera cuando hay muchas personas buscando trabajo y solo hay pocos empleadores, quienes pueden darse el lujo de ofrecer un salario menor al que tuvieran que ofrecer si hubiera más competencia por los trabajadores.

El rol de las políticas públicas

El problema del monopsonio tiene al menos tres implicaciones para las políticas públicas del mercado laboral. La primera tiene que ver con el salario mínimo. En un modelo de monopsonio, un pequeño incremento del salario mínimo puede aumentar el empleo, lo cual podría explicar los estudios empíricos que no encuentran los efectos negativos de los aumentos del salario mínimo que el modelo de competencia perfecta predice. No obstante, cuando el salario mínimo llega a un nivel crítico, seguir incrementándolo tendría el mismo efecto dañino que expliqué anteriormente para la competencia perfecta: aumentar el desempleo (o la informalidad). En este sentido, la existencia del poder monopsónicopuede justificar el uso del salario mínimo para mejorar el funcionamiento del mercado laboral, pero no su uso desmesurado.

La existencia del poder monopsónico puede justificar el uso del salario mínimo para mejorar el funcionamiento del mercado laboral, pero no su uso desmesurado.

La segunda implicación tiene que ver con la importancia de los sindicatos. Según el Consejo de Asesores Económicos de Estados Unidos, los sindicatos pueden proveer un contrapeso al poder de negociación y el ejercicio unilateral del poder monopsónico, promoviendo mayores salarios, mejores condiciones de trabajo y hasta un nivel más eficiente del empleo. En otras palabras, la existencia del poder monopsónico podría justificar un intento de revertir una tendencia de largo plazo hacia menores niveles de sindicalismo. De hecho, un estudio reciente encontró que el impacto negativo del monopsonio en los salarios es menor cuando hay un mayor porcentaje de trabajadores representados por un sindicato. Este estudio también demostró que el vínculo entre productividad y salarios es más fuerte cuando los sindicatos tienen mayor representación.

La existencia del poder monopsónico podría justificar un intento de revertir una tendencia de largo plazo hacia menores niveles de sindicalismo.

La tercera implicación es tal vez la más obvia. Igual que existen esfuerzos orientados a combatir y regular los monopolios, los expertos están empezando a analizar cómo regular los monopsonios. Por ejemplo, Alan Krueger y Eric Posner proponen reforzar el escrutinio de las fusiones entre empresas para detectar efectos adversos en el mercado laboral. Igualmente, Krueger y Posner sugieren prohibir los convenios que impiden a trabajadores de salarios bajos buscar empleo en empresas que compiten con su empleador actual. También proponen prohibir los acuerdos entre sucursales de una sola empresa a no competir por los mismos trabajadores.

Monopsonio versus competencia perfecta

Mi impresión es que el debate sobre las mejores políticas públicas ante la existencia de los monopsonios está apenas comenzando. Las políticas orientadas a fortalecer el poder de negociación de los trabajadores o limitar el poder de los empleadores tienen mayor justificación ante la evidencia del poder monopsónico, pero no debemos olvidar por completo las advertencias del modelo “clásico” de competencia perfecta sobre un exceso de intervención del Estado. En mi opinión, los errores de “alabar demasiado las virtudes del mercado laboral libre” e “ignorar las consecuencias no anticipadas de intervenir demasiado en un mercado” son igualmente comunes y peligrosos.

El Consejo de Administración de la OIT decide nombrar una Comisión de Encuesta para Venezuela

Una Comisión de Encuesta – el procedimiento de investigación de más alto nivel de la OIT – examinará las quejas relativas a la violación de las normas internacionales del trabajo por parte de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela.

Comunicado de prensa | 21 de marzo de 2018
GINEBRA (OIT Noticias) – El Consejo de Administración  de la Organización Internacional del Trabajo ha decidido nombrar una Comisión de Encuesta para examinar las quejas relativas al incumplimiento por parte del Gobierno de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela de los Convenios sobre la libertad sindical, la consulta tripartita y la fijación de salarios mínimos.

La queja, presentada en junio del 2015 por 33 delegados de los empleadores a la Conferencia Internacional del Trabajo, se refiere al incumplimiento del Convenio de la OIT núm. 26 sobre los métodos para la fijación de los salarios mínimos, 1928 ; el Convenio núm. 87 sobre la libertad sindical y la protección del derecho de sindicación, 1948 ; y el Convenio núm. 144 sobre la consulta tripartita (normas internacionales del trabajo), 1976 . Así mismo alega ataques, acoso, agresiones y una campaña para descreditar a la organización de empleadores FEDECAMARAS y sus dirigentes y afiliados.

Alega además la ausencia de consulta con FEDECAMARAS sobre leyes que afectan los intereses económicos y laborales de los empleadores, y la adopción de numerosos aumentos del salario mínimo sin consultas con los representantes de los empleadores y de los trabajadores.

El Consejo de Administración ha discutido esta queja seis veces desde 2015 y ha solicitado en diversas ocasiones al Gobierno de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela que adopte medidas para poner fin a la supuesta injerencia, agresión y estigmatización en contra de FEDECAMARAS, sus organizaciones afiliadas y sus dirigentes.

Al tomar la decisión de establecer la Comisión de Encuesta, el Consejo de Administración expresó la profunda preocupación sobre la falta de progreso alguno en relación a sus decisiones y recomendaciones anteriores relativas a la queja. En particular, se refirió al fracaso de institucionalizar una mesa redonda tripartita que reuniera a representantes del gobierno, de los empleadores, de los trabajadores así como de la OIT para fomentar el diálogo social a fin de resolver todas las cuestiones pendientes. El Consejo de Administración también lamentó que no hubiese sido posible llevar a cabo la misión de alto nivel recomendada en su reunión de noviembre 2017 , debido a las objeciones planteadas por el Gobierno respecto a la agenda de la misión.

Una Comisión de Encuesta por lo general se nombra cuando un Estado miembro es acusado de cometer violaciones persistentes y graves de los Convenios Internacionales del Trabajo ratificados, que son tratados internacionales vinculantes, y se niega reiteradamente a ocuparse de ello.

Tras haber recibido la queja en virtud del artículo 26 de la Constitución de la OIT, el Consejo de Administración puede decidir nombrar la Comisión de Encuesta, compuesta por tres miembros independientes, para llevar a cabo una investigación profunda de la queja, determinar todos los hechos del caso y formular recomendaciones sobre las medidas que deben tomarse para tratar los problemas planteados por la queja.

Hasta la fecha, se han establecido 12 comisiones de encuesta  por la OIT desde su fundación en 1919. La más reciente fue establecida como consecuencia de una queja depositada contra el Gobierno de Zimbabue en noviembre de 2008.

Para más información, por favor póngase en contacto con la Redacción de la OIT: .

How the most vulnerable workers are targeted for sexual abuse

Isolated, unprotected and scared to speak out – some workers are particularly vulnerable to harassment. Who finds the cases of sexual assault no one else is looking for?


The southern California sky dims as Vicky Márquez zooms south along Interstate 5 in her Honda SUV, with syrupy Spanish-language love songs blasting from her stereo. The satnav on her phone is directing her through a monotonous landscape of Orange County office parks, and Márquez is racing against rush hour, dodging between lanes and swerving with inches to spare. “I’m kind of a crazy driver,” she admits.

Márquez works for a little-known non-profit organisation with the pressing goal of fighting labour exploitation among night-shift janitors – an industry that operates in obscurity, with workers sent to anonymous buildings rarely visited by government regulators. With her glasses, curled-under fringe and pastel sweater, Márquez looks more like a retired librarian than a labour rights activist. On tiptoe, she stands under 5ft tall. On this particular late winter evening, Márquez is on the road to the first of half a dozen office parks where she will make surprise visits, making sure that cleaners are being treated fairly by their bosses.

After 40 frenetic minutes on the road, Márquez arrives at her first destination, near the city of San Clemente. She climbs out of the car carrying a bulging black bag stuffed with papers and tests the front door of the office. Tonight, she has arrived early enough that the door swings open. Márquez has other strategies for when they are locked: she might station herself near the service exits or the dumpsters, where she knows the night-shift cleaners will eventually present themselves. In supermarkets or guarded high-rises, she will sweetly ask for the janitor. If the person she is talking to assumes that she’s looking for a job, so be it.

Tonight her first move is to look for bathrooms or supply closets – two places she knows she is likely to find a janitor. She moves past the elevators to a rear hallway, where she finds María García, a cleaner, holding a mop next to a bucket of murky, citrus-smelling water. Márquez greets her in Spanish. García is on the clock and responds brusquely, almost warily. Márquez doesn’t waste time on small talk. Setting her large bag on top of a drinking fountain, she extracts a packet of papers and passes them to the cleaner. Márquez explains that she works for an organisation called the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund (MCTF), which helps janitors make sure they get paid what they are owed, and helps them solve problems with issues such as immigration.

When she has García’s attention, Márquez asks a few more questions: does García get paid in cash, or with a cheque on a regular basis? A cheque every two weeks, García says. Márquez nods. Is she given regular breaks? Yes. Does she have to pay for her own cleaning supplies? García says that sometimes what the company gives her is not enough, so she has to buy a few more bottles of bleach. Márquez tells her it is the company’s responsibility to provide her with the supplies she needs.

Then Márquez goes in to close the deal. “Tu teléfono, mija?” Márquez asks. Márquez scribbles the number into a black notebook. “Y tu dirección?” Márquez then takes down García’s address.

Gathering workers’ contact information is Márquez’s ultimate aim. The MCTF is one of only a handful of organisations in the US keeping careful tabs on the practices of non-union cleaning firms – some of which operate entirely in the black market. Through these impromptu meetings, the organisation has generated a database of workers who can give first-hand testimony about whether these companies are following labour laws. Since 1999, the MCTF has helped collect more than $26m (£19m) for janitors who were being abused at work.

García doesn’t know it yet, but Márquez will later call or visit her at home in the early afternoon, when most night janitors have not yet left for work. At these follow-up meetings, Márquez will remind García that she is there to help her solve any problems she may be facing at work. If García doesn’t pick up or answer the door, Márquez will keep trying until she makes contact with her a second and then a third time. This process can take months, but such is the long, slow dance necessary to build trust among workers in low-paying and invisible industries – people who are unlikely to ever make formal complaints.

A protest in Sacramento, California, in support of a bill to protect female workers from sexual harassment.
 A 2016 protest in Sacramento, California, in support of a bill to protect female workers from sexual harassment. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

As a reporter who has investigated these industries for several years, I have been forced to conclude that low-wage immigrants labouring in isolation are at unique risk of sexual assault and harassment. It is an open secret in these industries that immigrant women in financially precarious jobs – many of whom are undocumented – are targeted for sexual abuse by their superiors. While it is not possible to know how often these abuses happen, they are not anomalies. Federal government figures estimate that about 50 workers are sexually assaulted each day, and in the industries that hire newcomers to the country in exchange for meagre paycheques, such assault is a familiar workplace hazard. And yet there have been few meaningful efforts to prevent it before it starts. Instead, we expect women with the most to lose to seek recourse by reporting the problem after the fact – but the reality is that if these workers face abuse from a superior, the combination of uncertain immigration status, financial constraint and shame often conspires to keep them silent.

The same unfortunate pattern plays out among farm workers and domestic workers – those who cook, clean and care for families behind the locked doors of private homes. Their vulnerability to sexual violence echoed what I had heard from janitors: in their isolated workplaces, it was often their direct employers who groped them or propositioned them for sex.

In her work as an advocate for cleaners, Vicky Márquez has discovered that a lot can happen in places no one is looking – but she didn’t realise the full extent of it until she met a young cleaner named Georgina Hernández.

Many low-paid jobs share similar risk factors. Every day vast numbers of women – often hired via a complex web of barely accountable subcontractors – find themselves working in isolated locations across the US. With few other people around – and those that are often battling poverty and eager to keep their jobs – they can become the perfect target for predators.

Hernández was working at a cinema sweeping up popcorn when Márquez first met her. For the first month and a half on the job, Hernández never received a pay cheque, and worked more hours than she was being paid for. She hadn’t complained because she thought that, as someone without immigration papers, she was easy to replace. She still recalls the way Márquez spoke to her – gently, like an understanding aunt. Before Márquez left, she took down Hernández’s phone number and told her she would check in with her again.

On her next visit, Márquez looked at Hernández’s pay stubs and compared them to the working hours she had written down in a notebook. They didn’t match up. When Márquez asked why Hernández hadn’t written down any time for breaks, she said it was because she wasn’t given any. Márquez and the MCTF eventually helped Hernández and some of her co-workers file a complaint with California’s labour commissioner, which led to a $1m fine from the state of California against the two cleaning companies that had employed Hernández: for failing to pay minimum wage and overtime, and for not giving their workers rest or meal breaks.

But when Hernández moved to a new, higher-paying job as a hotel cleaner, there were even bigger problems. Early on, she says, her supervisor flirted with her and tried to convince her to have sex with him. She rebuffed him, and he retaliated by giving her more work. When his advances didn’t stop, she tried to hide from him, but he would follow her or call her on her cellphone to find out where she was.

His demands quickly became violent. Less than a week into the new job, Hernández says he told her that he needed to talk to her privately about her work in his car. This made her uncomfortable, but he said: “You need this job, don’t you?” He instructed Hernández to meet him in the parking garage. Worried about losing her job, she went. When she got there, he told her to get into the vehicle. She hesitated, but he was the boss. She did what she was told. The supervisor drove them to a higher, darker floor of the garage. After he parked, he began to touch her legs. She told him she didn’t want to continue, and he replied that he would give her more days off and better pay. Hernández told him she didn’t want more days off – she had taken the job because she wanted to work. When he began touching her breasts, she became afraid. Then he took off her trousers. As he forced himself on her, she panicked and froze.

Afterwards, the supervisor asked her to put in a request for an extra shift that week, so he could take her to a hotel. Hernández told him she couldn’t. He assured her there would be perks: he would pay her for the shift, and make sure she received seven shifts that week. “You’re delicious,” he told her before driving her to a lower level of the parking garage. He told her to go into the building first. He followed a while later.

Hernández never requested an extra shift. She didn’t immediately tell anyone what her supervisor had done. The shame of it was too much, and she knew it would not be easy to find a new job as an undocumented worker who couldn’t read or write.

About a week later, Hernández’s supervisor told her to meet him again. When she said no and tried to quit, he threatened to hurt her and her daughter. He added that if she wanted to stay in the country, she needed to keep him happy. This time he drove them to a motel.

On one of her nights off, Hernández’s supervisor called her incessantly until she picked up the phone. He said he needed her to work that night and that he was on his way to pick her up. Hernández hurried to get herself ready for work, but once she was in his car, he drove to the motel. Hernández cried and tried to climb out of the car, but he pulled her into a room by her hair, where she says he forced her to have sex with him again. He later warned her not to tell anyone what had happened – but she would have stayed silent anyway. She thought her family and friends would never believe her, or would think she had brought it on herself.

Hernández says that, at the time, she didn’t think there was a way out of her supervisor’s trap. “There’s no way to defend yourself,” she says. “There’s no way to say no. When you need the job, you become the victim. That’s why you deal with all the harassment, the discrimination, everything – because you need the job.”

For the next few weeks, she reported to work at the hotel as usual, making a point to avoid her supervisor. But he managed to find her, either to remind her how much she needed the job, or to chastise her for being so cold during their encounters. Finally, he came to her with an ultimatum: she had to decide whether she wanted to keep her job or not. If she did, he would continue to have certain expectations of her.

Hernández felt hopeless. She was having migraines and panic attacks. She dreaded his next demand. When he confronted her again, she told him she would not have sex with him to keep her job. Then began his revenge. He yelled at her in front of co-workers and disciplined her for supposedly leaving used tissues in the lobby. Then, she says, he started to sabotage her work, making a mess of places she had cleaned and disciplining her for it.

The rapes had been horrific violations, but they had happened in private. Now her supervisor was publicly impugning her work, and her job was still at risk. She felt lost and compromised, but she swallowed how she felt and continued to drag herself to work.

She later decided to speak to the cleaning company about the assaults. She had seen her supervisor try to hug and flirt with another cleaner, so together the two women called human resources to make a complaint, but nothing changed. Almost two months into the job, Hernández called in sick one evening. The next day, the supervisor fired her.

Hernández didn’t leave the house for days. She had headaches and couldn’t sleep. Her nausea continued to intensify. The truth was hard to face: she was pregnant. Depleted and sobbing, she sought out the only person she could trust. Vicky Márquez remembers how Hernández sounded that day. She was crying and her voice was anguished. Márquez had rushed to Hernández’s apartment, but the cleaner said they could not talk there. “I don’t want anyone to hear me,” she said.

They talked in Márquez’s car. “Something has happened that I don’t want to have to tell you, Vicky,” Hernández began. “Something terrible.” She was inconsolable. Márquez told her: “We can find a lot of help for this. Don’t be scared.” But in truth, Márquez had no idea what she could do. She called Anel Flores, a colleague who was an attorney, to ask for help. Flores suggested Márquez bring Hernández to their office. For the next two hours, Hernández shared fragments of her experience, until Flores was able to piece the whole story together, from the rape in the parking lot to being forced into sex at the motel. Finally, Hernández told Flores that she was pregnant from one of the rapes, and that she had already made an appointment for an abortion. “I cannot have this baby,” she said.

She added that she was worried people would find out she was pregnant, and that she would be judged and blamed for everything. Flores tried to reassure her: “It’s not your fault. You did not do anything wrong. You’re not a bad person.” Hernández eventually agreed to let Flores share some of what had happened with Márquez, and with Lilia García, the executive director of the MCTF. They told Hernández they would help her address the problem step by step, and would become her confidants and support network.

When Hernández terminated the pregnancy a few days later, Flores picked her up from the clinic and took her home. After an attorney specialising in sexual harassment suggested that Hernández file a police report, Flores and Márquez drove Hernández to the police station, and Flores sat with her as she was interviewed.

Reassured by the support of the women from the MCTF, Hernández became determined to push back against what had happened. With the help of the lawyer she had met through the organisation, Hernández filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the cleaning company. In the legal filing, Hernández accused the company of failure to prevent sexual harassment, wrongful termination and retaliation, negligent supervision, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and assault and battery. Within months, the company paid a financial settlement to close the case, though it did not admit any liability in the process. It also fired the supervisor.

Hernández says the outcome of the case can never make up for the rapes, but she is proud that she set aside her fears to challenge what had happened to her. She had tolerated too much for too long because she didn’t know how to get help, and she might have been stuck with the same problems if Márquez hadn’t found her. “I would have guarded all of this pain,” she says. “I wouldn’t have known how to speak out about what happened.”

Márquez says the isolation of the job and the demographic of the workers makes night-shift cleaners such as Hernández easy targets for abuse. “It is because the supervisors always think the worker needs work and they have work to give,” Márquez says. “So they commit these abuses. And there are many – who knows how many hundreds or thousands of cases – that remain in the shadows because no one knows. Many women don’t say anything out of fear. They’re afraid that society will realise that they have been forced to sleep with someone. They are afraid that they will lose their job.”

Márquez knows that it is rare to uncover cases such as Hernández’s. For each janitor the MCTF reaches, it can take months of calls and visits before a worker will begin to think about speaking up about their problems. In matters of sexual assault, it takes even more work and time. “How many cases are there in this country that we don’t know about?” Márquez says.

Across the US, immigration status and poverty are used as leverage against female workers to hold them hostage in jobs where they are being sexually abused. Labour enforcement is predicated on the idea that workers already know their rights, and thus it is logical to expect them to make a complaint to bosses or the government if problems arise. These laws do not take into consideration the experiences of low-wage immigrant workers and what their options really are if they have been sexually assaulted at work.

The legal system – through filing a civil lawsuit or a criminal case – is often viewed as the clearest way to demand accountability. Workers can also go to their employers or unions to demand redress. Making a formal complaint helps emphasise that there can be consequences for this type of abusive conduct. But these approaches are only part of the solution, and are inherently reactive, requiring the confrontation of systemic roadblocks – such as deeply flawed notions of credibility – that often get in the way of satisfactory outcomes. Meanwhile, we know that prevention is possible. Decades of empirical research offers clear direction. While there are some heartening efforts to incorporate this research into worker training and advocacy programs, employers and policy makers have largely chosen not to use it.

A protest in Sacramento, California, in support of a bill to protect female workers from sexual harassment.
 Supporters of the Justice for Janitors campaign at the Sacramento protest. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

In addition, advocates for female workers have tried for decades to make the case that sexual assault at work should not be dismissed or marginalised by employers and the government because it has historically been perceived as a “women’s issue”. Instead, they argue, gender-based violence should be viewed in the same way as other forms of on-the-job physical violence, so that prevention plans are implemented, the government takes a proactive role in enforcement and workers have an avenue for demanding accountability.

Sexual assault can happen to anyone, anywhere, but if there is a perfect storm of factors that put workers at risk, night-shift janitorial work is its epicentre. Nearly every office building relies on after-hours cleaners, but we rarely see the people who do the vacuuming and mopping. The work is scheduled to happen at night or during the early morning, when few people are around. They are expected to be invisible.

This is also emblematic of a wider trend. Before the 1980s, most businesses had their own cleaning staff. Then, as institutional investors purchased high-rises and retailers grew into chains with premises all over the country, it became more efficient and cost-effective to outsource such work to independent companies. A wide range of low-paid, unskilled industries have followed suit.

This business model has become even more opaque with the rise in subcontracting. While one contractor might land the official cleaning contract for a large retail chain or high-rise office block, it might then hire a subcontractor to do the actual cleaning. Some of those subcontractors might then subcontract some or all of the work to a third business. Building owners, retailers and businesses award contracts to the lowest bidder, so cleaning companies – both big corporations and small subcontractors – have to keep costs as low as possible. Human labour is the largest expense in this business, and where the firms look first to trim costs.

“The way you make money in this industry is to cheat, because the profit margin is so thin,” says Stephen Lerner, who led the Justice for Janitors campaign with the Service Employees International Union in the 1980s. Larger companies are not without their problems, but they are easier to track, and most provide regular pay cheques and benefits to workers. But at the other end of the spectrum are an unknown number of black-market subcontractors, where misconduct largely stays hidden.

In many ways, the MCTF is doing for cleaners what the state could be doing for all vulnerable workers. “The reality is that there are very few or no enforcement agencies who do this work,” says Lilia García, underlining the fact that the many of the cases her organisation brings would probably go unreported if the job were left solely to the government.

In some states, including California, there is a push to create regulations regarding workplace violence that would address everything from physical attacks to sexual assault. At the federal level, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) acknowledges that it has a responsibility to address sexual assault on the job. In reality, though, the OSHA doesn’t do much to tackle the issue. It took on its first case of workplace sexual assault in 2016.

For now, it is up to organisations such as the MCTF to do the tough work of finding the cases that no one else is looking for. “There is not [much information] in these work sites of where to call if you’re in trouble, of what you can do if a right is violated or if you’re attacked,” says García. “They were almost like these lost islands, just operating in the middle of the night, for years and years and years. We’re actually connecting them with society, and letting them know that their working conditions are wrong or that an attack on their person was wrong and there’s something that they can do about it.”

Sexual assault in the workplace is a crime and an extreme form of sexual harassment. It is outlawed by the US Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nevertheless, companies do not have to disclose how many sexual harassment complaints they receive internally, whether the claims were physical and violent, or how they handled them.

Complaints made to government agencies are often kept confidential until one party decides to file a lawsuit. Most sexual harassment complaints received by the federal government never result in litigation. They are processed and then stored in filing cabinets or databases.

Even lawsuits don’t always reveal much about what is really happening. If a worker threatens to file a sexual harassment suit, the company can buy the person’s silence by offering a confidential settlement before the case is filed and becomes public information. Cases that do make it to court can be kept under wraps through quick settlement agreements, which include confidentiality clauses that silence the worker and sometimes their attorneys.

Of course, some workers don’t want their personal business known to everyone. Meanwhile, companies argue that keeping these claims out of the public eye is necessary. They say they settle cases as a way to end an embarrassing complaint, even when they don’t truly believe the harassment happened. As a result, they worry that these lawsuits can sometimes become a kind of extortion by disgruntled or dishonest employees.

Advocates such as García, however, argue that it is difficult enough to convince women to come forward about far less sensitive problems – being paid less than the minimum wage, for example. On the dozens of occasions when her organisation has unearthed cases involving sexual violence, the abused workers, for the most part, haven’t wanted to move forward with formal complaints because they didn’t want anyone to know what had happened to them.

“They internalise the shame and the wrongdoing, and the embarrassment is just overpowering,” García says. “They choose not to talk about it to any of their relatives. They really have no other support outside of whatever our organisation can provide.”

When sexual assault happens among invisible workers in industries that few are monitoring, it becomes a crime that can be denied, a problem that never receives accountability or prevention. The repercussions of ignoring the realities of vulnerable workers are clear: if on-the-job sexual violence rarely comes to light, then the problem goes unaddressed and the perpetrator is free to abuse again.

This is an adapted extract from In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers by Bernice Yeung, published by The New Press. Buy it at

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