Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Land of the Free to Work Like a Slave

I moaned the other day about the more-than-two-month-long draught of holidays every year between Presidents' Day and Memorial Day in the United States. That was not merely the unmotivated laziness of a man lacking ambition. The paucity of holidays in the U.S. is seriously pretty outrageous and worth griping about.

As discussed, the U.S. government observes 10 federal holidays, but, since the government hasn't the constitutional authority to dictate when private businesses must officially close, there are only really about 6-7 holidays in the year for the majority of working Americans. Among developed nations, that is definitely on the low end of the spectrum.

Mexico lags all countries in number of federally recognized public holidays, with a mere 7, but those are all guaranteed paid holidays, when all workers, whether public or private, are entitled to take the day off with pay (or else employers must offer an enhanced rate of pay for their time worked that day). The U.S., meanwhile, has no such guaranteed holidays, so even if your employer does give you those 6-7 major U.S. holidays off from work, whether they'll pay you for those days off is another question. Paid holidays are a benefit or perk, and if you are one of the many temp or part-time workers in the U.S., the only money you're likely to make on a holiday is whatever you earn (at your regular rate) for working while others take the day off.

At the one job I've ever held where I had benefits, I received 8 paid holidays per year. That was an international company that had offices all over the world. With the exception of the UK office, which also observed 8 holidays, every other location enjoyed more. Most locations got ten or more paid holidays. The Hong Kong office led all with 17 paid holidays, including 3 days for Chinese New Year, 2 days for Good Friday, Easter Monday, the Birthday of the Buddha, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day, and the first weekday after Christmas. The Japan office had 16, including a bunch that, to an American, might sound totally random, like Children's Day, Greenery Day, Marine Day, Respect for the Aged Day, and Health-Sports Day. It wasn't just the Asian offices, either. Belgium got 10 days, and even South Africa got 13.

The UK has only 8 public holidays (with some additional in Scotland and Northern Ireland), which, like those in the U.S., are not legally guaranteed (paid or not) to private workers. But, making up for that, workers in the UK are legally entitled to a minimum of 28 days of paid leave per year—the most of any nation. The U.S., meanwhile, is the ONLY developed nation in the world that has no federally mandated minimum for paid time off.

To review, private workers in the U.S. have no guaranteed holidays (paid or otherwise), nor are they legally entitled to any paid vacation. Tell me that isn't disgraceful for a nation that would purport to lead the free world. And, for all our weary, wistful sighs on waking up that first day back to work after a holiday, most Americans have no idea how bad we really have it.

This perverse state of affairs is insidiously underscored in American car company GM's latest ad for its 2014 Cadillac ELR, which has been running constantly almost every commercial break during NBC's Olympics coverage:

The ad is not just obnoxious but downright Orwellian, and I'm disappointed in Neal McDonough (best known for his performance as Seamus McBison in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li) for starring in it and spewing forth such offensive bilge:
Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe. They take August off. OFF. Why aren't you like that? Why aren't we like that? Because we're crazy, driven, hard-working believers, that's why.

As those pulling the strings in this country have for generations, this sickening ad means to fool the American people into taking as a point of pride the slavish work ethic that they have effectively been impressed into by their phantom masters. McDonough, at best a stooge himself, here propagates the great American lie, that you get what you work for, or, perhaps worse yet, that believing something makes it so.

The notion that hard work is the key to success may well have been true in the hunter-gatherer days, but the reality is that the hunter-gatherers of yore probably put in fewer hours than you log each week. The problem is that, in today's society, you no longer own your hours, your labor, or your yield. They all belong to the machine, which then dispenses back to you an oftentimes arbitrary wage, calculated by inner workings inscrutable to the common man. And the machine has now been running for so much longer than any of us have been alive, most don't even think to question it. We assume that how it is is how it's always been and how it has to be, when, really, this isn't even how things operate today in other parts of the civilized world.

Core to the machine's operation is the foundational ethos of the American dream, which is also the greatest system of control perpetuated to manipulate the American people. You hear me complaining about not getting enough time off from work, and maybe I come across shiftless and selfish, not to mention whiny. But that remonstrative sensation one perhaps feels at one's own private wish that all weekends could be three-day weekends (at least) is not guilt but only shame. It is not natural but only conditioned, not your conscience but only the voice of Neal McDonough judging you by your allegiance to the American dream, as though he had the authority, and as though the dream were something worthy of your allegiance. Because shame and pride are but two sides of the same coin, and if you do not feel pride at GM's championing of your American work ethic (shared with the likes of Bill Gates, Les Paul, and Muhammad Ali (that last one a man whose luminous career spent taking blows to the head has now left him imprisoned in an inoperative shell of a body)), then implicitly you ought to feel shame that your personal drive falls short of your homeland's illustrious standard.

Thus, when you work your forty hours per week, you take your seven unpaid holidays, and, at the end of the year, you're still below middle-class, you don't cry foul and rise up to challenge the machine, because even thinking that the system is rigged would be un-American—shameful. No, instead, you let them convince you that Neal McDonough probably works three times as many hours, and if you really wanted that Cadillac so bad, you would work harder to earn it. Somehow, it's even easier to believe (and parrot back the belief) when it's your social lessers that are the ones whining.

At this time, it's fair perhaps to take another look at how paid time off works in practice in the U.S. Although the U.S. has no mandatory minimum for paid time off, my former employer, back when I had benefits, did provide 15 days (or 3 weeks) of paid vacation time, accrued monthly over the course of a year, while the average American, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, gets about 10 vacation days. Given 15 vacation days, and combined with 8 paid holidays (as I personally experienced), a private worker with good benefits might get about 23 paid days off in the U.S., which would still lag all the European nations' bare minimums but would be fairly in line with the Asian countries and with the rest of North America. But, again, that's above the U.S. average, which is closer to 16—dreadful. And about a quarter of Americans get no paid time off at all. Worse yet, it tends to be workers who make less to begin with—low-wage workers and part-timers without benefits—who receive less or no paid time off.

On that note, you might be inclined to put things in proper perspective and suggest, instead of griping about having fewer paid holidays than the rest of the world, that we give some consideration to our unemployed and our homeless, or even to those starving in Africa, and remind ourselves that we actually have it pretty good. But that's another system of control—the notion that there is some proper relativity to dissatisfactions, and that the comparatively greater hardships faced by others should somehow preclude us our own grievances. Again, it all comes back to shame, so often the instrument of choice among institutions that would presume to pull the strings of civilization. Well, I've never had a use for it, and I won't have it now. I am totally shameless, and I encourage you to be likewise!

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