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I’m going to say something that will probably offend many of my viewers. Let me preface this by saying I, as an American, include myself in the following statement. Americans are quite possibly the most willfully ignorant people on the face of the planet. We have access to the sum total of all of human knowledge, yet our understanding of the world rarely extends beyond our own country, and even then, the majority of Americans believe in a vision of America that does not actually exist. It’s not that we’re stupid, we just tend to blindly accept that the US is the greatest place on earth and therefore don’t see any reason to educate ourselves about the realities of the rest of the world. In this episode, we’re going to pull back the curtain on how America actually compares to other countries, and consider why the richest country on earth fails to treat its people with dignity and fairness.
I’m going to provide a list of important topics, then for each item we’ll compare the American experience with that of citizens from other nations. Hopefully by providing a side-by-side comparison, you’ll be able to see the stark contrast between how most Americans see their country, and how it really stacks up against the competition. Let’s start with a pretty shocking one to give you an idea of how skewed American perception of our country really is. Item number one: compensation for what are considered “low skill jobs.” We’ll take the quintessential American company – McDonalds. McDonalds is the world’s largest restaurant chain by revenue. It operates in over a hundred countries, and serves over 69 million customers every day. As of 2018, McDonalds was the second largest private employer, with 1.7 million employees, behind Walmart’s 2.3 million. How many times have you heard someone refer to McDonalds jobs or workers in a derogatory manner? For some reason, people who work at Mcdonalds are seen as inferior, or lazy, or have any number of other unfair and unkind assessments leveled at them. This probably stems from the old notion of flipping burgers being a job anyone can perform, but the animosity towards low wage workers has grown significantly in the past few decades. And in America, McDonalds workers really do suffer a low-wage. As of 2020, the average crew member at McDonalds makes 9 dollars per hour. The average McDonalds cashier makes 8 dollars per hour. The federal minimum wage in the United States is seven dollars and 25 cents, a rate which has not been raised in over a decade, and which should not be considered a reasonable wage for any position, considering the fact that a full-time minimum wage worker cannot afford to rent a two bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States, and cannot afford a one bedroom apartment in over 95 percent of US counties. Now, the all too common response to data like this is something like, “well yeah it’s not a hard job, you should just find a better one.” Here’s a simple question. Should any job, regardless of technical skill required, pay workers so little that they cannot afford to rent even the smallest place to live? Not to mention other necessities like utilities, food, and medicine. Absolutely not. That’s cruel and inhumane, especially coming from the second largest employer in the richest country on the planet. Other notable objections include, “McDonalds has to make a profit. If they pay their workers more they might go out of business.” First of all, if you can’t pay your workers a fair wage, your company should not be in business, end of story. But again, McDonalds is not struggling to make ends meet. In 2019, McDonalds raked in 21 billion dollars in revenue. But no matter how obvious the exploitation of low-wage workers, Americans are hellbent on praising the very companies doing the exploiting. Take this page on Reader’s Digest, for example. It’s titled “this is what mcdonalds workers really get paid.” You see that and think, oh, nice, finally some news showing how poorly these workers are compensated. Then you scroll down and, nope, they’re actually praising McDonalds, saying things like, “the food chain is also great for paying their workers fairly,” and “McDonalds is one of the highest paying fast food chains in the united states.” This level of sycophancy is insane. If 8 or 9 dollars an hour is some of the highest pay in the industry, that doesn’t indicate that mcdonalds is paying fairly, it indicates that a massive chunk of the population is being paid poverty wages. This is where taking an international perspective is so critical. If all you see is feel-good stories about how well mcdonalds workers are paid, you’ll never know how badly American workers are actually being treated. Let’s take the same company, the same position, but in a different country. Here’s a McDonalds in Denmark. The average mcdonald’s worker in Denmark – for doing the same, “low skill” job – makes 22 dollars per hour. Well hold on, you hear reader’s digest scream from across the Atlantic, McDonalds workers in America get paid vacation days after just a year of work. Wow. enticing. In Denmark, when you’re hired at Mcdonalds, not only are you making nearly three times what you would in an American Micky D’s, you also instantly have access to a full year of paid family leave and a pension. No slaving away for a year to prove your value to the company, you’re hired, and you’re treated fairly, simple as that. McDonalds can afford compensate all their workers like this, but they won’t, because US labor laws allow them to exploit American workers to the point where they’re basically slaves, earning the bare minimum to survive, paying all of their income and often going into debt just to pay rent, and having no way to escape this vicious cycle because they’re working such long hours. This is the case across all of America’s low-wage jobs, of which there are many. The plight of the low-wage worker is incredibly dire, and all you have to do to understand that is look at how those same workers are treated in other wealthy countries.
Let’s move on to another topic – work/life balance. Fair wages are definitely a part of this equation. If you’re paid fairly, you don’t need to work a second job, which will free up your time to be spent elsewhere. But we’re going to focus on other metrics, specifically, the length of the work week, vacation time, and parental leave. Let’s start with the US. Most Americans would say that 40 hours per week is full time. That’s the general consensus. But, in keeping with the country’s exploitative labor practices, the hilariously named Fair Labor Standards Act does not actually define what qualifies as full time. That’s left up to the employer. Why does this matter? Well, think of your past part-time jobs. Did you get any benefits? Healthcare, 401K? Probably not. Most benefits, when they’re offered at all, are reserved for full-time employees. Companies don’t want to provide benefits because they affect their bottom line. America is all about cutting costs, and providing workers fair compensation is a cost. So, imagine you apply for a full time job at Best Buy. You’re offered the job, but they tell you they only have part time positions, but that they can give you almost full time. They make it sound like they’re doing you a favor, offering you more hours than normal part time, but this is just another example of employers exploiting their workers. If you work 37 hours per week, you’re essentially a full time employee, but they don’t have to provide you any sort of benefits. No healthcare, no vacation, nothing. This is a common practice. Companies will hire people, but keep them just below the threshold for full-time to avoid providing fair compensation. I’ve seen it happen. I used to work at Best Buy and they would do it all the time. And that’s just the companies who are still trying to appear generous. Others will simply not offer benefits at all, or set their full-time positions at 50 or 60 hours per week. Sales positions are notorious for this. They’ll often say, well, we expect you to work 40 hours, but all the top sellers are working 60 to 70 hours per week. This is coercion. They’re trying to pressure you into working more hours to benefit them, and the compensation is never what they claim it will be. By allowing employers to define full-time work, American workers are held captive by corporations, forced to either work absurd hours to qualify for full-time benefits, or find a second job to help cover the cost of things like health insurance. Both of these options lead to a terrible work/life balance, and, as real wages have decreased and benefits have been offered less and less over the years, huge numbers of American workers have developed a terrible work/life balance. For example, in 1960, when workers had bargaining power, only 20% of American women worked. Today, 70 percent of children live in households where both parents are working full time. Where does all this lead? As of 2020, over 85 percent of American men and 66 percent of women work more than 40 hours per week. We work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more than the British, and 499 more hours per year than the French. Why do other countries fare so much better? Because many of them have laws that cap the length of the full time work week. Companies are required to pay their workers fairly and allow enough time off for employees to maintain a healthy work/life balance. That’s not the case in the US. Vacation time is a similar story. Whereas many other countries mandate that employers provide paid vacation and sick days, the US does not. In every industrialized nation, workers get more paid vacation days and holidays than in the United States. Here’s a depressing graph to illustrate just how poorly we treat our workers. France 31, Spain 34, Austria 38, America…zero paid vacation days, zero paid holidays. And remember, these are the mandated figures. Every Austrian worker gets a minimum of 38 paid days off per year. Even in the worst possible employment situation, they’d still get 38 paid days off. In the US, many workers are lucky to get christmas or thanksgiving off at all, and the odds that it’s a paid holiday? Next to zero.
Let’s move on to the final comparison. Paid parental leave. Many Americans aren’t even aware this is a thing, so let me explain. When an employee of a company has a child, sometimes they’re offered parental leave – a period of time where they can stay home from work to bond with and take care of their new baby. This greatly benefits the employee, the child, and, in the long run, the company, because the employee will be happier, less stressed, and more loyal to the company. Of course, offering parental leave doesn’t benefit corporations in the short term, and if there’s one thing that encapsulates the American business philosophy, it’s short term gains over all else. So, it won’t surprise you to learn that the US is the only industrialized nation on the planet that does not mandate some amount of paid parental leave. This may be shocking to my American viewers because being able to get paid to spend time with your newborn child sounds like an impossible dream in our dystopian labor market, and honestly, it probably is impossible in America. We’re so invested in self-destructive capitalism that even suggesting the possibility of paid parental leave would put US politicians out of a job. That’s not the case in the rest of the industrialized world. In fact, in every other OECD nation, and even many third world countries, new parents are guaranteed at least several weeks of leave. Let’s take a look at a few of them. Ethiopia – a country with an annual gross national income of under 900 dollars per person – offers 90 days of leave with 100% pay. Madagascar, 14 weeks at 100%. Afghanistan, 90 days. Denmark, 52 weeks. Norway, 56 weeks. France, 16 weeks at 100% pay for your first child, up to 26 weeks for your third, on top of 104 unpaid weeks. Lithuania, 52 weeks at 100%, plus an additional 52 weeks at 80%. Again, the United States does not mandate a single day of parental leave even for the mother, and the father is never considered. This means that workers in America have to choose to either pay the exorbitant cost of childcare, or have one parent quit their job in order to take care of the child. These are both terrible options which often lead to economic precarity, but that doesn’t matter to the companies employing American workers. The bottom line is the only thing that matters.
Hopefully seeing these labor practices compared like this has made it clear that not only is the US not living up to its claim to being the greatest place on earth, but also that it consistently ranks poorly and often dead last in terms of labor metrics. Why is it that the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth can’t pay their workers a fair wage, or provide healthcare, vacation time, or paid parental leave? You should realize by now that it’s not that they can’t, it’s that they won’t. Everything in America is beholden to the almighty dollar. Profit is the only motivator. If an action does not produce a greater profit, it will not be considered. Over the last few decades, Americans have watched as our livelihoods, our quality of life, and our dignity have been stripped away by those who already make obscene amounts of money. Those in power say we’re all in this together, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The ultra wealthy and the world’s largest corporations rely on Americans remaining ignorant. They rely on us accepting the lie that America is the greatest nation on earth, that it couldn’t possibly get any better. All you have to do to shatter that lie is to take a look around the world. Other nations take care of their citizens. Even impoverished nations, or nations that we’ve bombed into oblivion take better care of their people than the US does. American workers need to relearn the language of class struggle, and work together to break the wheel of the capitalist machine. If we want to claim the United States is the greatest place on earth, we need to make it that way.
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