This Rigged Game

A locally-owned food-based business in my community found itself in hot water on social media this week after announcing it would be closing on Sundays because “nobody wants to work.”

The comments that followed were blistering. Even I was surprised. Apparently the working class in my community is fed up with being called “lazy.”

The response certainly surprised the original poster. “Why is everyone so negative?” they wrote, after wandering through hundreds of versions of “pay your people better!”

Why, indeed.

The “nobody wants to work” trope was tired before it even put on its shoes, especially in the food industry, where 18 months of pandemic upheaval has left restaurants and cafes unable to offer employees enough hours on a regular basis to make the jobs work for them. As long as the pandemic persists, customers cannot — and may not wish to, for myriad reasons — return to their former dining-out habits. And serving the ones who have returned is often fraught, with issues over mask-wearing and concerns over vax status adding to the emotional workload.

It’s an unfortunate feedback loop, and I see little reason for optimism in the near term. And no reason to blame workers, who are, after all, reacting to market forces beyond their control.

As someone who has spent many years owning and working in food-based businesses, I do commiserate. The foundational assumptions on which the industry was erected have always been flawed and exploitive, and individual restaurant owners are at the mercy of this exploitive system, even as they themselves become exploiters.

The only winning move is not to play the game.

We should ask ourselves, our communities, and our government: if a business can’t pay a living wage, should it be a business? If it’s too expensive for businesses to provide healthcare for their workers, maybe we need to decouple it from employment? If childcare is a market failure, but we need childcare for the economy to work, how can the government build that infrastructure? If the pay you provide workers doesn’t allow them to live in the community, what needs to change? Collectively, we should be thinking of different funding models, different ownership scenarios, and different growth imperatives. Failure to do so is simply resigning ourselves to another round of this rigged game.

– Anne Helen Petersen, The ‘Capitalism is Broken’ Economy

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