Underpaid workers the real philanthropists


The wealthy, with more money than they need, are getting rich at the expense of those down below

MAGAZINES that deal with such things feel that it is their sacred duty, newspapers that revel in consumer goods feel as much, but every time the rich list is published (500 of the world's richest or of money jangling in your neighbourhood) I feel that sudden upward rush that makes over-indulgent people scramble for street corners on Saturday nights.

All of last week we were regaled with news of a Malaysian so rich as to have more slaves than Crassus, more diamonds than the Nizam of Hyderabad. In purchasing power of course. Here he was, a Malaysiannaire, a trillionnaire, a man of such fabulous wealth with even more fabulous stories to feed the fascination of newspapers.

We have other lives to live, dear friend. We are living in a time when the gap between the rich and poor throughout the world -- except perhaps in Turkey and Greece, to name but two from a short list -- is expanding by leaps and soon it will be by bounds. Ask your gardener how much he earns and then look at the bonus that people are raking in at the top.

In Britain they are debating furiously about how much top bankers are paying themselves in bonuses to pad already hefty salaries even as their banks are owing billions to taxpayers -- the gardeners and the factory workers and the street vendors -- who bailed them out from their own follies and reckless acts. In those United States, it is much worse.

It is there, in the US, where any talk of looking after the less privileged is instantly dismissed as back-door socialism, that this corporate greed was bred.

But socialism isn't where it's at just as you don't need Marx to tell us of the poverty of those living below stairs.

Chief executive officer (CEO) pay has exploded in the last quarter century, says microeconomist Dean Baker, rising more rapidly than the average pay of typical workers or the overall rate of productivity growth.

"The average pay of a corporate CEO was less than 40 times the pay of a typical worker in the late seventies. This ratio rose to 300 to 1 at the peak of the stock bubble in the late nineties, as the value of compensation packages heavily laden with stock options went through the roof.

Even when the stock market returned to more reasonable levels, CEO pay is still close to 200 times the pay of a typical worker," he wrote in his essay on the Conservative nanny state, to show that the rich are as dependent on the state as the poor that they despise.

The gist of it is that the fabulously rich, with more money than they will ever need, are getting rich at the expense of those down below.

It is the poor who are subsidising their wealth, in tax that they cannot avoid and in work for which they are being underpaid. What has been happening is that money trickles down very slowly down to the workers even when times are good, while at the top they can't find enough pockets to line with the stuff.

But there are philanthropists and do-good foundations that provide money to the needy. This is the argument used by the wealthy to stave off anything that smells of the welfare state.

Barbara Ehrenreich, a US journalist who spent a year working for low wages to see what it was like to be working there among the lowly paid, met one of them, a young graduate aspirant to the world of work in the financial, corporate world.

He chided her for going on and on about the underpaid.

"Philanthropy? Don't tell me about Philanthropy, Jack," was Ehrenreich's riposte.

"The real philanthropists in our society are the people who work for less than they can actually live on because they are giving of their time and their energy and their talents all the time so that people like you can be dressed well and fed very cheaply and so on."

Last week the BBC broadcast the reality TV experience of Wilbur Ramirez, a London garbage collector who went out to work for a short time with Imam, his counterpart in the teeming city of Jakarta.

Imam worked from dawn to dusk and for the best part of the night. He was paid a pittance for his labour, and lived in a shanty town which was used as a rubbish tip by people who have scarce regard for the plight of these folk.

He was given a raise only after pleadings by Ramirez on his behalf to the rich community that employed him to pull their rubbish away daily in his handcart. It made Wilbur, a tough Britisher of Caribbean descent, cry himself to sleep.

This is what's becoming to the world of work, worldwide, to the difference between corporate lifestyle and those who prop up the system from below, in a world obsessed with the stock market when in fact the stock market is not the economy. It is just a mirror to greed.


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