But the industry that was supposed to deliver many blue-collar workers and metropolitan regions into the 21st century has, instead, created a new class of low-wage worker. In southern California, port truck drivers and temporary warehouse workers, the very people who keep the flow of goods moving, often toil for low wages and under poor conditions. Many of these workers fly under the radar because they are employed by temporary staffing agencies that funnel the region’s emerging Latino and immigrant majority into a vicious cycle of dead-end, low-wage jobs. Most warehouse occupations in inland southern California pay less than a median hourly wage of $10.50, which, for those who can scrape together a 40-hour working week, amounts to less than $22,000 per year – a far cry from the $47,000 average middle-class wage touted by regional policy-makers.
Giant retailers such as Walmart also use subcontractors and temp agencies to shield themselves from taking legal responsibility for what happens inside the warehouses that distribute their goods. These hiring practices make it difficult for workers to exercise their collective bargaining rights, since existing labor law makes organizing independent contractors and temp workers a daunting task. Meanwhile, budget cuts to state regulatory agencies that are supposed to protect workers leave employees more vulnerable to occupational hazards and wage theft. In regions like inland southern California – where most warehouse workers are poor Latinos and immigrants – the region’s racialized conservative political establishment has been unresponsive, and sometimes hostile, to labor rights issues.
Why should we care about what happens to warehouse workers? We should care because improving their economic and social opportunities will have a positive effect on the rest of society. Every time we hand over our money to a local big-box retailer, each of us assumes some level of responsibility for what happens along the global supply chain. In 2011, consumers generated $419bn in annual sales for Walmart shareholders. It turns out that buying a cheap pair of socks not only earns Walmart a nice living; it also gives consumers a collective voice that we can use to demand that the people who deliver and make our goods don’t pay a heavy price for our right to buy inexpensive products.