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/ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT/ BOOKS-US: Taking the Shine Off the US Services Sector

NEW YORK, Jul 24 2001 (IPS) - Until the recent US economic downturn, pundits on both the left and right had claimed that job growth had picked up during the past decade. In a new book, one left-leaning journalist finds out the reality behind the service-sector boom by actually trying to work in it.

In ‘Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America’, published by Metropolitan Books, Barbara Ehrenreich takes on the myth of the Clinton-era “McJob” economy by working, for a month at a time, as a waitress, a cleaning woman, and a sales clerk at the Wal-Mart store chain. In an alternately hilarious and sobering book, she finds life on the other side of the class divide to be as challenging as ever.

Part of the humour of the book comes from Ehrenreich’s bitter awareness that, in the service sector, she has to spend a lot of time tending to the annoying needs of upper-class people like herself.

While working as a maid in Maine, she finds to her surprise that the owners of the houses she cleans sometimes will spy on their cleaning women, keeping video cameras or tape recorders in the house to catch them cursing or stealing. Ehrenreich also starts to resent some homeowners for the decorative pots or unread books they have that must be individually cleaned, as well as for the unsightly hairs they seem to shed everywhere.

Similarly, as a waitress at a fast-food restaurant in Florida, she grows impatient with families who take a long time to make complex orders, while she notes acerbically that customers at the Wal-Mart she works for in Minnesota get pleasure from leaving shirts on display in the sort of heap they would not tolerate in their homes.

Throughout these experiences, Ehrenreich notices how invisible she is as a service-sector worker – that is, unless her customers notice her failings. Between the low wages, the daily struggle to make ends meet – which often require her, like her new colleagues, to find a second job – and the grinding isolation of being seen only by her ability to serve, she comes to see the underside of the so-called economic boom.

Ehrenreich tries to hew to strict rules while doing her jobs – starting with only a small amount of cash, and finding her own apartments – but realises that, when the pressure of work leads to aches and pains, or when it is difficult to find affordable rent, the effort to make ends meet for just one month can be tough.

Yet through it all, she keeps her wit intact. At one point in Minnesota, she notices the increasing size of white Americans, who have “huge bulges in completely exotic locations, like the backs of the neck and the knees,” and realises that the expanded sizes of fast food they eat has resulted in “biggie-sized” people.

At other times, she is aware of an undercurrent of resistance among the mostly female workforce she has joined, from workers who know how to put abusive supervisors in their place to those who watch TV coverage of strikes and bounce up to yell, “Damn right!”

More often, however, beneath the humour is an undercurrent of anger about the plight of some of the women, who barely eat but talk dreamily of the meals they might have; or who wear themselves out with the rigours of their jobs; or who spend their nights in cars, or on the street.

There is considerable anger, too, directed at employers who force workers to take demeaning drug tests, which Ehrenreich argues persuasively is done simply to assert control over workers’ privacy rather than for any concerns about workplace efficiency.

Ultimately, as she reviews her life in the service sector, Ehrenreich comes to a basic point that many US economists have missed: “Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow.” The moral? “You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.”

Of course, other economists have warned perceptively against the illusions of the 1990s US economy, even before the “boom” started to sour. But Ehrenreich brings back the human element by focusing on the lives of the people who were allegedly benefiting from the economic good times – and in so doing, creates a study of US labour that is both modern and, in its jaundiced look at class, timeless.

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