During the class discussion on biopolitics, I couldn’t help but consider the ways in which my own life has been (and continues to be) impacted by various manifestations of this phenomenon. Granted, everyone’s experience has been colored in some way by biopolitical mechanisms, but the feeling of extreme discomfort doesn’t lessen simply because I’m not (for once) a minority in dealing with it. In fact, that probably makes things worse…
Anyway, I began to examine a situation that hits extremely close to home for me through the lens of biopolitics and categories of existence (i.e. Bios vs. Zoe). To make a long and complicated story short, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 mandates that a federal minimum wage be paid to all employed persons. Sounds great, right? Except for a small section that exempts workers with disabilities from this privilege. So, today (in 2012!) there are at least 300,000 American workers being paid on a piecework (what is this, the 1800’s?) basis, making as low as $00.16 per hour.
(We’re so worried about sweatshops in foreign countries, yet we’re blind to the ones thriving in our own back yard.)
The fact that the corporations taking advantage of this legislation are using the bodies of their employees as a means to their financial and political end is disturbing. On the surface, this is simple discrimination. But on a deeper level, it is a demonstration of an unfortunate move on the Bios/Zoe spectrum for all disabled individuals. By manipulating the bodies of workers with disabilities, these companies are facilitating their employees’ status as second-class citizens. Not to equate this practice with the concentration/labor camps discussed by Agamben, but I can’t help but find striking similarities. These employees are forced to work for less than minimum wage because they need a job and have no other choice. Of course, nobody has a free pick of any job they’d like, but at least every other American citizen has the guarantee of $7.40 an hour.
Some people worry that changing this practice will force companies operating under this exemption to close, and thus cause their employees to have no job at all. However, there are many companies that qualify for this exemption yet do not take advantage of their employees in this way. It turns out that these companies are thriving, even in the current economy. Further, regardless of the debate on the well-being of these businesses, even the rude, unsanitary, and incompetent guy at McDonald’s is guaranteed minimum wage! (not a stab at food service employees, just playing on stereotypes to make a point 🙂
So, I spent last week in Washington, D.C. meeting with congressmen and trying to get the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act (HR 3086) passed. And while I appreciate that I can do this, it is telling that I had to spend the week asking the government to grant me autonomy over my own body.