Justice and Advocacy

This isn’t a gig economy, it’s a scam economy

This is part of a series on economic injustice. Click here to read from the beginning.

Stop, wait, this ain’t right!
This is fraudulent
This is counterfeit
You’re a hoodwinker, sir! –Enter Shikari, Hoodwinker

The building is overly futuristic in its design, as if these people want us to think they are richer than they are. I’m led into a stately office for the interview, this job will be the only $40k/yr with benefits full-time job I land an interview for in my life so far and since.

I’m a bit overqualified, and have to coax the introverted startup nerds to talk to me about what they’re working on. It’s something to do with a new way to index the internet, and they have no revenue. My jaw dropped. You expect me to believe I’ll have job security, and your investors haven’t seen any revenue?

Conflicted and knowing that I needed to get away from this whole situation and any affiliation with it, I pried: who was doing the research that I would be organizing, editing, and managing?

They confessed that it was a team of 10-20 people in the Philippines. “Are they paid well?” I asked.

There was some nervous fumbling about, but they recovered quickly. “We compensate them at competitive rates.”

I took to Facebook and asked my dwindling number of Facebook friends if they’d be willing to take such a position. Many people said yes. The company ended up being uncommunicative about wanting me to join their team, but I always wondered if this was due to my skepticism about their business practices.

Another interview, this one in an equally prestigious office in a big building. The interviewer explained that we’d be meeting here every morning, then pay for our own gas to drive to a variety of stores like Sam’s Club and Costco, and get commissions for how many people we could get to sign up for a TV service. Literally convince people to buy something they don’t need, or not have enough to take care of yourself. This is the double bind of scam artists in need of recruits.

My introduction to scam artists was when I was my dad’s secretary as a high schooler. Someone called me trying to sell ad space, and they said it was free. I was confused and my dad wasn’t there to take the phone, so I agreed. They later sent us a bill, and I got in trouble for signing us up for something. I later tracked down and kept a file of over 15 scam sites – all of them some clever spinoff domain name of The Yellow Pages. They put your name on a list, they provide no service whatsoever, and your money disappears into the abyss.

Just a couple of months ago, I was invited to interview at a small office, conveniently a few minutes from home. I wasn’t far into the interview before I realized I wouldn’t be accepting an offer here to avoid getting myself in a lawsuit. I pried about the practices, which seemed to be that people were calling with self-described “power of attorney” and applying for sizeable loans in the names of other people. I tried to politely ask why they don’t just tell people they’re using POA instead of calling and saying they are the person in question. They explained that they needed a female so that it would be more believable to sound like a woman when using a woman’s name for female applicants. Their words, not mine. Again, it seemed that I knew too much about how POA works to receive a follow-up phone call, but who’s guessing?

“Just get a job” tells me it’s okay to have taken any one of these jobs. Tell me, what tugs at your conscience enough to walk away?

Every day, employees are serving angry customers who have more money going into their luxury car payments than the employees make per month, and the corporation is so loaded that they don’t even tell their overworked herd of desperate-to-get-food-and-shelter workers how to serve their customers. These guys are reading letters across a screen to address their thousands of new hires,[1] and we expect them to treat us fairly? Why does a modern prison orientation[2] seem so eerily similar to a job orientation?[3]

It’s everywhere. It’s how every cell phone company I know of runs their network of employees. It’s in the hospitality business as well, but they use the term “tips.” It’s why nurses in hospitals can have you sign to pay massive bills out of pocket, but they’re not making anywhere near that amount from their own paychecks.

Never mind who’s benefitting from the direct sales, the monthly payments, the cost of goods sold and services provided. The rest of us can hope for the charity of those who might have a few more dollars to spare than we do, enough to subscribe and buy our commission item, or tip us for our service.

Pyramid schemes and scams suck in friends on a regular basis. My decision to buy makeup at Dollar Tree is no better than paying twenty times as much to support my friend who sells makeup for points. They’re both scams, I just can’t afford to buy from my friend’s pyramid scheme catalogue. Dollar Tree is a Fortune 150 company[4] because they know their entire market can’t afford better. As for college, due to my isolation from the community that was supposed to educate and raise me, I can no longer apply for Pell grants. I am totally incapable of paying off my student loans, which prevent me from reapplication.

The undermined education, the high cost of living, the low quality of life, the constant threat upon survival and livelihood, makes for an entire population – 99.9% of us – with low morale. Low morale helps justify low wages and low quality of life in the minds of the workforce (and nonworking Americans who can’t work). This was eloquently, albeit painfully, explored in Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 bestseller Nickel and Dimed. She writes,

“If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you’re actually worth…Americans of the newspaper-reading professional middle class are used to thinking of poverty as a consequence of unemployment…I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that ‘hard work’ was the secret of success: ‘Work hard and you’ll get ahead’ or ‘It’s hard work that got us where we are.’ No one ever said that you could work hard – harder than you ever thought possible – and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.”

Yet I’m told there are easy fixes. I got the following comment on my most recent blog post:

Why not go back to school? You’ll qualify for Pell grants and low-income scholarships and you can move on campus? Or, you can develop an employable trade or skill. Hair stylists can make $40,000 and set their own hours and it only takes 9 months to receive a certification. Plumbers can make $80,000-90,000+ and it doesn’t take college. They learn with a paid apprenticeship. I don’t know your whole story, but you’re young and have tons of choices. Writing isn’t paying the bills so why not get to work and treat writing as a hobby until it can sustain you? There are people that have had it much tougher than you and have made something of their lives. Take responsibility for your choices.

Except I can’t. My lack of education and responsibilities in my parents’ house meant I was spread much too thin. I was working four jobs, one for my dad, one part-time that actually paid, one that I loved as an editor for the school newspaper, and one babysitting at our homeschool co-op that I couldn’t get out of no matter how much I told my mother how exhausted I was. I had no idea how to take tests and get good grades, and with no help whatsoever, I was expected to take 15 credits and work those jobs and study with half a dozen kids literally climbing all over me in my study space. My at-home duties didn’t decrease whatsoever.

My Pell grants got me through two and a half years of college. But my parents failed to file their taxes twice, and that landed me in debt I never should have been in.

Never mind my own situation, no amount of explanation is going to convince these types of people. They are simply frightened by the idea that perhaps the system is broken and getting to a stable place is harder than they think.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zJtTCpAPnQ

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xoP3jEj4Crc

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oNxI__m_JM

[4] http://fortune.com/fortune500/dollar-tree/