How Abusive Employers Combined With Job Insecurity Lead to Suicides

Yves here. It’s hardly a secret that employers have become more abusive towards employees because they can get away with it. The difficulty of finding new employment, particularly for mid and senior level jobs, combined with the fact that most workers (even comparatively well paid ones) are only a paycheck or two away from financial desperation, means bosses have tremendous leverage over workers. And more and more firms embrace coerciveness as a virtue. In the past, it’s more often taken the form of cultishness, which is a very effective business model, as Goldman and Bain attest, but more recently, outright mistreatment is becoming common. For instance, Amazon has so successfully cultivated a “culture of fear” that the overwhelming majority of employees cry at work.

Note the claim in the article about elevated suicide rates at Apple supplier Foxconn is contested; some contend that statistically, its rate of suicides is no higher than for other employers. However, many of the dorms apparently had mesh canopies to prevent suicides, so one wonders if direct comparisons are apt.

By Sarah Waters, a Senior Lecturer in French Studies, University of Leeds and Jenny Chan, a Departmental Lecturer in Sociology and China Studies, University of Oxford. Originally published at The Conversation

A Paris prosecutor recently called for the former CEO and six senior managers of telecoms provider, France Télécom, to face criminal charges for workplace harassment. The recommendation followed a lengthy inquiry into the suicides of a number of employees at the company between 2005 and 2009. The prosecutor accused management of deliberately “destabilising” employees and creating a “stressful professional climate” through a company-wide strategy of “harcèlement moral” – psychological bullying.

All deny any wrongdoing and it is now up to a judge to decide whether to follow the prosecutor’s advice or dismiss the case. If it goes ahead, it would be a landmark criminal trial, with implications far beyond just one company.

Workplace suicides are sharply on the rise internationally, with increasing numbers of employees choosing to take their own lives in the face of extreme pressures at work. Recent studies in the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea, China, India and Taiwan all point to a steep rise in suicides in the context of a generalised deterioration in working conditions.

Rising suicides are part of the profound transformations in the workplace that have taken place over the past 30 years. These transformations are arguably rooted in the political and economic shift to globalisationthat has radically altered the way we work.

In the post-war Fordist era of industry (pioneered by US car manufacturer Henry Ford), jobs generally provided stability and a clear career trajectory for many, allowing people to define their collective identity and their place in the world. Strong trade unions in major industrial sectors meant that employees could negotiate their working rights and conditions.

But today’s globalised workplace is characterised by job insecurity, intense work, forced redeployments, flexible contracts, worker surveillance, and limited social protection and representation. Zero-hour contracts are the new norm for many in the hospitality and healthcare industries, for example.

Now, it is not enough simply to work hard. In the words of Marxist theorist Franco Berardi, “the soul is put to work” and workers must devote their whole selves to the needs of the company.

For the economist Guy Standing, the precariat is the new social class of the 21st century, characterised by the lack of job security and even basic stability. Workers move in and out of jobs which give little meaning to their lives. This shift has had deleterious effects on many people’s experience of work, with rising cases of acute stress, anxiety, sleep disorders, burnout, hopelessness and, in some cases, suicide.

Holding Companies to Account

Yet, company bosses are rarely held to account for inflicting such misery on their employees. The suicides at France Télécom preceded another well-publicised case in a large multinational company – Foxconn Technology Group in China – where 18 young migrant workers aged between 17 and 25 attempted suicide at one of Foxconn’s main factories in 2010 (14 of whom died).

The victims all worked on the assembly line making electronic gadgets for some of the world’s richest corporations, including Samsung, Sony and Dell. But it was Apple that received the most criticism, as Foxconn was its main supplier at the time.

Labour rights activists argue that corporations such as Apple and their contracted suppliers should be jointly responsible for creating the working conditions and management pressure that might have triggered workplace suicides. Extensive interviews with one of the Foxconn survivors, a woman called Tian Yu who was 17-years-old when she attempted suicide, detailed a harsh production regime. She said she had to work 12-hour shifts, skipped meals to work overtime and often only had one day off every second week.

Apple published a set of standards for how workers should be treated in the aftermath, but its suppliers continued to be dogged by accusations that these were breached. In December 2014, for example, the BBC ran a documentary called “Apple’s Broken Promises” which showed how the company had failed to improve working conditions four years after the crisis. Undercover filming showed exhausted workers falling asleep on 12-hour shifts and workers being yelled at repeatedly by managers at new supplier, Pegatron Shanghai, where the latest iPhones are assembled.

Pegatron said in response to the BBC investigation that it would investigate the reports and take necessary action if any deficiencies were found in their factories. Apple maintains that it does do all it can to monitor its supplier’s practices with its annual supplier responsibility reports. Meanwhile, labour rights activists and researchers continue to allege abuse of workers in the company’s supply chains.

Writing at the end of the 19th century, French sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested that suicide was a kind of mirror to society that revealed the fundamental nature of the social order at a given historical juncture. France Télécom and Foxconn are at different ends of the globalisation spectrum – one employs white-collar workers in high-tech service occupations and the other recruits young rural migrants to work on the assembly line. Yet suicides in these two places reveal the common face of a global economic order that too often allows profit to take precedence over all else.

Meanwhile it continues to be business as usual for many of the richest multinational corporations in the world. But it’s high time that all corporations across the spectrum took responsibility for their own abuses.

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  1. upstater

    One of our son’s best friends from high school was a funny, bright kid that got a BS/MS in Computer Science from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) a few years ago. He did his first coop at a software firm in Boston that dealt with electricity demand management.

    Then he went to work for Apple, first as a coop then as an employee.

    Last April the poor kid killed himself in a conference room at Apple’s HQ.

    By the time his name was announced to the media, everything about him on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc had disappeared. They scrubbed him off the internet. We don’t know if he posted anything before his death, but our son said his pages were pretty generic for a 25 year old.

    Let it suffice to say something went terribly wrong in the libertarian paradise of Silicon Valley, really just a ritzier version of FoxConn. Having known him through high school and occasional visits thereafter, one never would have thought such an end would have been possible.

    RIP, Ed.

    1. PhilU

      Excellent piece. I’ve been doing some basic research into how Generational Scarring has caused an uptick in suicide especially in the class of 2008/9. But every time I start doing more I feel like joining them.

      Here is my research if anyone feels like putting it together. I’m not up to it.

    2. Swendr

      It’s happening on the job, at school, and damn near any other social institution where the stakes can be ratcheted up in intensity. Suicide is one end of the spectrum of dysfunction. Going postal is another. Our elites don’t like wet work much, so they find other ways to get rid of the undesirables. I doubt they planned it this way, but isn’t it sweet that all you have to do is stop being fake-nice as a boss and the problem takes care of itself?

  2. nobody

    It’s not only corporations, of course, that have problems with endemic abuse and need to be taking responsibility, nor is the issue restricted to institutions where profits take precedence über alles. Here is the link for the site “Academia Is Killing My Friends,” which is described in the “About” section like this:

    I am a final year PhD student in the Social Sciences. Last year a fellow PhD student committed suicide after being harassed by a lecturer. I got angry and made this site. This site is a response to the cultures of violence, fear and silence I have witnessed and experienced in my academic community. Sexual harassment, mental illness and unpaid labor are the accepted and expected norms. Abusive academics are well known and yet remain in the community. We are powerless and afraid of backlash, unemployment and failure. All of this gets worse as public spending is cut and universities become increasingly neoliberal institutions. This site is a ‘fuck you’ to the silence and fear. It is, I hope, a space where we can share our stories of abuse, exploitation and suffering in academia.

    There are now 104 stories and counting. An excerpt from a recent post (#103):

    I started out an idealistic and hopeful student. Worked to pay for college, good grades, got into a good PhD program. Worked hard, had a good mentor, published, moved on to postdoc. I thought that I could keep working hard, publish and move into some reasonable career trajectory. Right?

    Well, we all know why we’re here. I can’t even go into the details. It’s a familiar story – sexism, racism. Abuse by an advisor, with nowhere to turn. Rampant discrimination and harassment. When I looked for help (from the wrong people, apparently), I was told to suck it up, work harder. Constant financial worries. Every little setback used up my savings. I got sick and never really recovered… stress and overwork guaranteed that. I was good at living modestly, but that wasn’t enough to sustain me. Now, I’m just trying to pick up the pieces. I feel floored by the lack of opportunities and support through most of my career. I had no idea how much a career in academia would rely on having money to begin with. I feel like this work has stolen my life away. And I’m not the only one – I know plenty of people who have had a similar experience. The best people leave early.

    Worst of all, I don’t even feel that I can tell my story. Nobody wants to hear it. Nobody would lift a finger to protect me from retribution. Nobody wants to address problems like this. I feel so much grief for the good I might have done in another profession, the life I could have lived. I don’t know what to do with this grief.

      1. PhilU

        Thats some heavy stuff. When I graduated in 2008 and couldn’t find a job for 4 years I had fits of depression, self harm, and suicidal ideation. Part of that was blaming myself for not going on to grad school, this makes me feel less bad about that.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Some of the worst abuse I ever experienced was in academia. Here’s an example:

      During the mid-1980s, I was on the staff of a journal at the University of Pittsburgh. My boss, the departmental librarian, must have come from the Attila the Hun School of Management, because that’s how she treated people.

      Shortly after I started my job, I got on her bad side. I have no idea why this happened. Thirty years late, I still can’t figure it out.

      It may have had something to do with the introductory meeting we were supposed to have with the journal’s publisher.

      Well, being the good little employee that I thought I was, I had my office clock set to the correct time. I didn’t know it at the time, but the library clock was 10 minutes fast. Yep, the same trick that bars pull on their customers. Getting them out the door before the official closing time.

      So, I got to the library a few minutes before 9 a.m. Plenty of time to for the boss and me to walk over to the publisher’s office. Bossola was SEETHING. I was LATE! Just look at that CLOCK! It was already after nine!

      Over to the publisher’s office we walked, and guess what. They weren’t even ready for us. So we sat in the waiting area for a while.

      The publisher and his staff couldn’t have been nicer. The polar opposite of my boss.

      During the 15 months that I worked at Pitt, I felt the brunt of this lady’s abuse. She’d call me into the office, launch into a blistering tirade, and I would sit there, stunned. And, to her, that was another cause for anger. Why was I just sitting there and not reacting?

      During her final tirade, when she told me to start looking for another job, I’d had enough. I told her that I was going to start looking for another city.

      Well, guess who sat there, stunned.

      She insisted that I didn’t have to do anything THAT drastic. But my mind was made up. I was done with her, done with Pitt, and done with Pittsburgh.

      Three and a half months and several wonderful bicycling miles later, I landed in Tucson, and I’m still here. Without that nasty boss, I probably wouldn’t be in this wonderful city.

      As for Ms. Nasty, she left Pitt and went on to become the head librarian at Chatham College, which was nearby. Small women’s college. Known for its caring, friendly, and supportive environment. Ms. Nasty didn’t last very long there.

      And she didn’t last very long at St. Michael’s College in northern Vermont. I think that she was fired from that institution, but I’m not sure. Let’s just say that I hope she was, because she deserved a taste of her own medicine.

    2. Softie

      Here is a story that scared shit of Academia’s organized crime ring for a little while in the early 90s.

      “The University of Iowa shooting took place at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa on November 1, 1991. The gunman was Gang Lu, a 28-year-old former graduate student at the university. He killed four members of the university faculty and one student, and seriously wounded another student, before taking his own life.”

    3. Nelson Lowhim

      Damn. Thing is I’ve heard this from Actuarials and docs. It’s everywhere the “well, just work harder”. But some of it is on the employees. None have the frame of mind to kick back, to unionize, and hard (when was unionizing ever easy?). None. All have the neoliberal view that: work hard and you’ll be fine. And so when that button is pushed, they go for broke until burned out. It’s that or be labeled lazy. Well, being unemployed is also an issue, but there’s also the matter of having the language to fight back, to not feel guilty for working less than 100 hours a week etc.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I think an important point about Unions which people forget is that they provide an opportunity for people to vent and let off frustration. I’ve been a Union rep at various places and many times I would have people come in to have a rant about a certain manager or policy. At the end I would say ‘do you want to make a formal complaint?’ and the answer would be no – the person just wanted to get it off their chest in a confidential manner. And to know that if they needed it, there was back up. Non-union places I’ve worked in, even good ones, lack that safety valve.

    4. FluffytheObeseCat

      The last post on this tumblr is from February of 2016. It’s been inactive for half a year. The links may be valuable however.

    1. flora

      yes. Everything is bolded from the end of the “The Conversation ‘<' " link. The leading "off-strong 'carrot' " is attached to the embedded link instead of to the html tag.

    2. abynormal

      i thought it purposeful…

      “mirror to society that revealed the fundamental nature of the social order at a given historical juncture”

  3. JeffC

    My memory of the FoxConn jumper-catching nets is that they were added after and in response to the newspapers pushing the suicide stories, in an attempt to resurrect their unfortunately splattered image.

  4. inode_buddha

    I’m in the process of paying a personal price for this BS as I type this, having walked off the job a few months ago. I’m not gonna drive 30 miles each way for 1/2 of what I should be making only to be treated like shit by management brown-nosers. Bad news is, I’m mid-career and not a spring chicken. Considering leaving the field altogether or doing my own startup. But if I had known then what I know now, I would have had the voice recorder app on my phone, recording everything….

    1. Pete

      I also have no idea what to do, graduated from college in 08. Could get anything to work now I drive a truck. Sometimes I think about going back to college.

        1. Pete

          I saw your post above and started to take a look. I am glad at least that you were at least able to move on.

          1. PhilU

            It didn’t last long. The extra $ I had to put on credit cards during that 4 years to make student loan payments left me with about $125k of debt. I was paying 65% of my income to make minimum payments, staying in a friends basement, and never spending money on anything. The depression I got every time I thought about my future or finances finally started showing up as poor performance at work. I cashed out a retirement plan and I’m deciding if I should just shoot myself or if there is any shot of finding a much better paying job. So glad I went with an engineering degree…. smh. I wish I just OD’ed in high school.

            1. ambrit

              /sarc alert/ Before you shoot yourself, remember, practice first. A few very verifiable CEOs or Members of the Board will do. Once you’ve “perfected your technique,’ you might feel good enough about your successful acquisition of a new skill set that you would consider waiting a while yet to do yourself in. /sarc off/
              Whatever happened to the ideal of “Education for Educations Sake?”
              The Financialization of the Mind is a pernicious doctrine.
              Since you have Engineering skills, how about looking into working on something like “Build For America?” (FEMA camps don’t just spring up like mushrooms after the spring rains you know.)
              Seriously, work hard on yourself. Despair is it’s own anti reward.
              I won’t say good luck because you make your own life out of what’s given you. Be strong.

              1. Pete

                I dont know what to say other than, I am just finally learning how to relax and when I get in that frustration cycle it just keeps getting worse and worse and I cant calm down. Maybe some psychedelics would help. I am coming to the mind set of I just have to try because I cant get any lower than here and stop worrying about what happens.

            2. kareninca

              PhilU, I will not try to be witty. I will just implore you not to kill yourself. Things will look very different down the road. Perhaps you are just being snarky, but perhaps not. Life is interesting even when it is hard. You will be very, very, very glad in the future if you do not kill yourself, I promise. What you are going through is a big cultural and economic shift and you are not alone in your situation (as you know); people like you will be needed and valued (albeit in a very different world) if you can just hang on.

            3. Katharine

              I hope you do try to get out and do something. I knew someone who discovered volunteer construction during a work crisis and when learning to drive nails had a name in mind for every blow–highly therapeutic mentally as well as good exercise!

              1. PhilU

                The problem is that the mix of public and private loans means that the income based repayment for my federal loans would mean paying more then my current extended graduated plan. Private loans won’t change anything. I consolidated as much of my credit card debt as I could, but still just doing minimum payments is $2,275 a month. Making less then $60k means staying with a friend, never eating out, never doing much of anything. Bankruptcy is pointless with student loans. That is what I get for picking one of the highest paid majors after 4 years of school, going to the #2 ranked school in the country for my major because it was a state school. All I did wrong was graduate in the the wrong year and think that my knowledge would be more important than building a contact network, which I hate doing because it is so shallow. I decide to do engineering because aI don’t like small talk.
                I would just expatriate but then they would go after my dad, who is just starting to get back on his feet after Sandy totaled the house.

                1. ambrit

                  Anybody. Could rolling over some of the student loan debt into a “private” debt work? As in, using credit card debt to pay off nondischargeable debt? I’m in the dark here. I don’t use debt much.

                    1. PhilU

                      My credit isn’t good enough to get a new card to cover the $70K in loans or even just the $40k of private ones left.

  5. Paid Minion

    Foxconn/apple = Another “Chicken/egg” question.

    Foxconn (and most overseas) companies do what Apple would like to do, but can’t (because of US laws, publicity, etc.)

    A big part of the reason that US employers like legals/illegals is that they are easier to intimidate than US-born people. Employers prefer slaves. If they can’t have slaves, they will hire the closest thing they can get to them

    Who is more likely to create problems for management? An illegal that you can call the INS if he becomes too much of a problem, or a citizen that can push back, if you become too much of an a-hole?

    Managers will choose “no growth”, if it means they can keep control of employee costs. You can see that they will turn away the business, if it means they need to raise pay to poach “Skilled employees” from their competitors.

  6. larry

    Durkheim had four types of suicide, not three, as the link to the relevant article contends. And his theory of suicide is more complex than the authors indicate.

  7. larry

    The authors fail to get to the real fundamentals of this phenomenon. The two ends of the spectrum that they delineate can be housed under a single umbrella, that of neoliberalism. And it is obvious that neoliberalism can kill. And Durkheim would have agreed readily that ideas can kill, and not just via suicide.

  8. PQS

    Ugh. After twenty years in commercial construction, I thought our industry was an outlier for abuse, psychotic management, and general HR mayhem. Apparently not. Arizona Slim, I could have profiled Mrs. Nasty at any number of firms I worked for…she’s not unusual.

    I stay at smaller companies with good people for less money because I just can’t handle the high pressure and abusive environment of Big Time Construction Firms. I also have zero interest in big projects anymore – too many psycho Owners who appear to delight in torturing the contractor as a hobby. The men I work with think I’m nuts to turn down some work. I tell them, there’s no reward for it. No pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, no big promotion – just health problems and more commuting for the same old, same old.

    1. inode_buddha

      You too? Abuse, and psycho management is why I’m considering leaving the trade altogether, too bad I’ve invested 30 years and a few schools into it…. but of course, nobody *made* me invest in myself and believe in the american dream /sarc

      1. ambrit

        Give yourself a break inode_buddha. Thirty years ago, you, and myself as well, made a rational decision as to what direction to take. At the time, construction and the associated trades were honourable and respectable. A decent living could be made, and a future was in sight. Neo-Liberalism has, since then, destroyed most things that benefited anyone other than the criminal management classes. Humanity has had to stand up and fight for decency and equality throughout history. These last thirty years, if anything else, have proven Fukayamas “End of History” a failed hypothesis.

        1. redleg

          The decent living in the construction trades, for me anyways, has started and (so far) ended as a contract employee. I’m at the cusp of 50 and am looking at disaster if I can’t find something permanent. My spouse has her dream job (that unfortunately comes with mediocre pay) so moving the fam for a job is our of the question. I’m one dropped contract away from my professional expiration date – too old for entry level, not experienced enough for management, unable to move to a better job market if such a thing existed.
          But at least I paid off my student loans, so that’s not hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles.

    2. ambrit

      Living on the road, out of town, at the jobsite, etc. etc.
      There’s a reason why so many of the Superintendents and Foremen I’ve encountered on big jobs drink to excess.
      I’ve had my share of Mz/Mr Nasty bosses. The worst thing one can do to one of these persons, as I learned one afternoon, is to laugh at them when they “put you in your place.” The program is going south anyway. If the wherewithall is available for a drive home, go ahead and let ‘them’ know you’re not going to put up with abuse anymore. (Easier said than done, I’ll agree, but, as long as you and yours aren’t starving, why not? You’ll sleep better at night. Take my word for it.)
      Smaller outfits are, from my experience, easier to get along with because the manager is often the owner or family and not divorced from the ground floor experience. Reason is used instead of formula.
      I used to hold the same belief about construction being the bilge of the work world. Then I worked for the USPS for almost three years. Then the dreaded Lowes Home Improvement set its avernal brand sizzling on my soul.
      Ah my, what a picaresque novel all this would make.

      1. PQS

        Picaresque novel or hilarious TV show. I’ve written the scripts in my head a thousand times….clueless architects, raging Owners, ridiculous Inspectors, overfed upper management/sales staff, etc. etc.

        I agree that laughter is truly the best medicine in this business. As a friend once told me, “Sometimes you gotta let the crazy people be crazy.”

      2. Jim Haygood

        ‘what a picaresque novel all this would make”

        Charles Bukowski [lowbrow NC spell checker don’t know him] has covered the USPS bit.

        Over to ambrit for the Lowe’s sequel. :-)

        1. ambrit

          Some titles: “Faking, Inc.,” “Department of Imaginary Tools,” “Bargain Employee of the Month,” and the annual winner, “Going Out of Business Sale: Season Three.”
          Since I’ll need to go back to work for a few years, until my miniscule SS kicks in, I might do a Home Depot Equal Opportunity for Exploitation Edition.
          (When I grow up I want to be a Day Trader! Maybe I’ll take a flutter in pork bellies on the Chicago Exchange.)

    3. SpringTexan

      This is making me happy about my own, very decent workplace . . . but sure wish there were more of them.

    4. Arizona Slim

      In her own strange way, Ms. Nasty had quite a positive effect on my life. As our relationship deteriorated, I started piling up the savings. I was planning my escape, even before that final tirade.

      My last six weeks at Pitt were amazing. After I tended my resignation (on Friday, February 13, 1987), the whole department was impressed with how relaxed and happy I was. It was as if a different Slim had moved into my body.

      Yes, there was that farewell luncheon where Ms. Nasty refused to raise her glass in a toast, but you know what? I was going to be out the door in a few hours, so I no longer cared. In fact, I found her refusal rather amusing.

      What came next was even better.

      That pile of savings was deployed for something I really enjoyed. Long-distance bike touring! Rode thousands of miles in a little over three months! And then I settled here in Tucson!

      Where I found a job similar to my Pitt job, but with a nice boss. That was my last FT job. I’ve been a freelancer since 1994.

      So, Ms. Nasty, thanks for the motivation. And I do hope that you learned how to be nice to people who are, ahem, beneath you.

      1. Jim Haygood

        ‘To her, that was another cause for anger. Why was I just sitting there and not reacting?’

        It takes a special kind of sociopath to be angered by a centered person who refuses to take the bait and lash out in kind.

        You done good.

  9. Synoia

    That’s what Labor (or socialist) political parties used to do, and Corbyn’s trying to re-institute in the UK.

    One cannot be pro-trade (as currently defined) and pro democratic not pro citizen, not pro-labor.

    The US has never permitted socialism, and prefers crony capitalism, which is actually close to fascism.

    The whole defense Military Industry Complex of Government and Industry is a definition of fascism in the US. I place no regard on Ike’s warning about the MIC as he did noting until the end of his reign, and then made a speech.

  10. Roquentin

    At long last I’ve finally managed to get out of a job I couldn’t stand after working there for nearly a decade. The pay was ridiculously low, even relative to the industry standard. Management routinely promoted narcissistic, ignorant cronies who never told them the word “no.” I couldn’t be happier it’s finally over. They’ve had so much turnover in the past couple of years entire departments are composed of entirely new people. The CEO cares about nothing except looking good to the shareholders and owners, and that’s pretty much the attitude from the top on down. Look good to the people with power and to hell with the rest.

    I’d be surprised if the company still existed 5-10 years from now.

  11. DarkMatters

    Soooo glad I’m retired. I was starting to see more and more of this over the last couple of decades, and it escalated as times worsened. I wish libertarians and free-marketers would contemplate the situations described here, and consider what kind of a world it would be if financial oligarchs held even more power. What hope would there be to counter this sort of abuse?

    1. Nelson Lowhim

      This works perfectly into their view of “weaker” elements being discarded. Pretty fascist at the end of the day.

    2. kareninca

      I wouldn’t exactly call myself a libertarian (I’m not sure what I am), but I think that the libertarian response would be that if there were fewer pointless regulations people would be much more readily able to work for themselves, and not for an abusive boss. It is unbelievably hard to start a business now, even a solo one, due to regs. And I’m not talking about reasonable regs (don’t dump toxins in waterways). I’m talking about regs that have been invented by big existing businesses to keep upstarts from starting.

      A number of years ago there was an article about someone who tried to start a storage company in the CT/RI area and how they eventually gave up because the regs made the process insane; there’s not much that’s simpler than a storage company. Most small business owners I know tell me they could not start now because it has all gotten too complicated; they have been able to cobble together responses to the new regs as they go, but starting at this point would be impossible for them.

      Picture what it would be like if you could look at your skill set, and go out and work for yourself without a huge amount of extremely complex taxes and paperwork. A strange thought, isn’t it?

      I’m not saying this would be an option for most people (not at all), but it does not now even exist as an escape valve. Now you have to have millions in start-up funds to start some BS company (e.g. one more stupid company that delivers food to patron’s homes) that isn’t actually meant to make money (it just exists to get money from investors), and you need that much to deal with the paperwork.

      And, if someone wants to pop up and say “the paperwork is not so bad and complicated,” please remember that you are a NC poster and are in the top ten percent of the population for ability to deal with paperwork.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        I have to tell you, as a small business owner myself, this “regulations are burdensome” argument is a crock. Lobbyists in DC learned decades ago that the best way to put a sympathetic face on their efforts to get waivers for big businesses is to have small business owners act as their mouthpieces. And there are enough extreme libertarians everywhere that it’s not hard to find someone to screech that the regulations he is subject to are horrible irrespective of how much a burden they really are.

        Specifically, regarding a storage business, I can’t fathom your view that storage companies should not be regulated. If I am putting my valuable stuff in the hands of someone else, I sure as hell want protection that they won’t cut all the locks and run off with everything, or find more legitimate ways of stealing, like create excuses to jack up my storage costs by 10X and hold my goods hostage. And what about requiring them to have adequate fire protection and security? Even if they aren’t crooks, cheap and reckless will also result in my property being stolen or damaged.

        In general, entrepreneurship is way oversold in America to legitimate the bad treatment of workers: “If things are as bad as you say, why put up with it? Go start your own business!” That’s ridiculous since staring your own business requires that you be both a good salesman and a good general manager, and good salesmen are almost without exception terrible managers, as anyone in Corporate America will tell you. And it’s extremely hard to make partnerships work unless the principals worked together in the same company for years (ie, they grew up with the same training and rules, and so will default to the same assumptions as to how things are done). Even in consulting, I’ve seldom seen people who come of of different large firms work well together absent a strong organization around them.

        The proof that pretty much no one should go into business for themselves is 9 out of every 10 businesses fail within three years. The percentabe is no doubt higher if you extend the time frame to five years. I’ve started two successful businesses in the US and one that didn’t work out in Oz, but an overseas launch is much harder and it seemed too dodgy to go beyond the two years I’d invested (as in I might have made it a go had I kept on, but I decided it was more prudent to cut my losses).

        And I don’t know where you get your information about new business from. It’s pretty clear you aren’t in that world. You don’t need millions in funds. The overwhelming majority of new ventures are funded from savings, credit cards, and loans from friends and family.

        And if you aren’t able to handle regulatory filings (or find a lawyer or accountant who can help) you aren’t competent to be in business for yourself. Running a business means you run into obstacles all the time and need to find ways around them. Do you not think that private firms also require paperwork, like vendor approval processes and documenting your invoices? If you can’t handle paperwork, you need to stay on a payroll.

        1. Skippy


          Disheveled Marsupial… the crazy pants part is Corporations are legion for creating their own regulatory hell…

        2. cyclist

          While I agree with Yves that there is too much libertarian bitching about regulations, there are a lot of really stupid laws on the books that we could easily do without. As an example, I was recently looking at an RFP from a public agency in the state of MI. One of the requirements for bidders responding was to provide a notarized affidavit that the company was not controlled by the Republic of Iran! Apparently this is Michigan Public Act 517 of 2012. BTW, the winning bidder, a large US corporation, certified they are not secretly controlled by the evil Ayatollahs.

    3. redleg

      What is this “retired”?
      I’m going to have to work until I’m dead, and that won’t be counted as suicide.

      1. jrs

        yes but most people won’t be able to work until they are dead, because they aren’t able to or because noone is going to hire them (it’s why people collect social security at 62, it’s not because this is the smartest financial plan, it’s clearly not) and I hope most don’t take the “therefore middle aged or senior aged suicide” route.

        If you are able to work until you die a natural death good for you I guess (even better to be able to choose to retire of course), but it’s not going to be an option for many people even if they want it to be, health or the job market WILL force them out.

  12. Softie

    “Perhaps this world is another planet’s hell.” – Aldous Huxley

    Yes, it is definitely.

    Perhaps pretty soon they will start strip search employees when they come to work.

  13. Chauncey Gardiner

    Excellent and timely article. As the writers observe, the problem is global in nature. If you work in or have worked in corporate America, you likely have personally experienced or seen the results of the deliberate creation of a stressful professional climate and workplace environment, abusive psychological bullying, and intentional destabilization of employees.

    Increasing numbers of suicides are one outcome of these environments. But as the writers point out, there are a number of other symptoms associated with these toxic workplaces, none good. They range from physical and mental health issues, to various forms of addiction, burnout, and secondary effects on employees’ personal lives and those of their family members or partners.

    Although it seems that individuals with psychopathic characteristics often rise in management in many of these organizations, I believe the roots of the problem lie in a broader and deeper systemic failure. I agree that neoliberal ideology, globalization, and the basic structures of our debt-based economy all play a key role in enabling the intentional development of these organizational environments.

    1. nobody

      It may be a global problem, but it seems particularly acute in the US. Ian Welsh’s observations ring true to me:

      One of the most striking things about much of American culture is the simple meanness of it. The cruelty… There is also a culture of punching down… America has a high-violence, high-bullying society… [Y]ou can have a high-violence society in which it is considered unacceptable to attack the weak (doing so is viewed as cowardice), but that’s not the case in America. In American culture, the weak are the preferred target. Failure is punishable by homelessness, suffering, and death… You’d better get down on your knees and do whatever your boss wants, because if you’re fired or let go you may never work again, and if you do hang on at a bottom-wage job, well, your life will suck… Having learned that the right way to treat anyone who is weaker than them is with demands for acquiescence and dominance displays, to many Americans, to interpret any sign of weakness as requiring them, as a moral duty, to dominate and hurt the weak person. People become what is required of them. They learn from authority figures how to behave… The entire process makes America a far more unpleasant place to live or visit than is necessary. The structure of dominance, meanness and cruelty is palpable to the visitor, and distressing; even as it warps the best inhabitant.

    2. James Kroeger

      I believe the roots of the problem lie in a broader and deeper systemic failure.

      Yes, a systemic failure, but to be more precise, it is ultimately a particular kind of market failure that gives employers an incentive to abuse their employees.

      The best way to understand what I mean is to imagine a labor market where there are always more jobs available than there are people to fill them. In an economy that is experiencing a chronic labor shortage, employers would have a market incentive to actually start treating their employees with respect.

      In markets where labor surpluses are carefully maintained (virtually every market you’ve ever known), business owners/managers feel free to express anger at any employee shehe feels a ‘power advantage’ over. They sense they have this advantage when/if they believe the employee fears losing hiser job more than the employer fears losing the employee.

      It really would force a profound change in employer-employee relations, generally. Employers would be compelled by the marketplace to not only find ways to motivate their employees to work hard, but also to find ways to make them feel content, psychologically.

      In an economy that is experiencing a sustained labor shortage, the crudest and least sympathetic methods of motivating employees would be gradually phased out.

      ‘Bottom feeders’ in the competition for scarce labor would have a constant incentive to try to retain employees, and to ‘go the extra mile’ to work with people who are having problems. Individuals who are having personal problems would not be simply cast aside, as they are now.

      The national government could do something to help those businesses that are struggling within very [price-] competitive markets, providing counseling services, etc., to help those employees who are struggling with various problems outside of the job environment.

      In our current labor surplus economy, lawsuits may give some employers an incentive to treat their people with respect, but it won’t get anywhere close to providing THE solution to the problem that we would experience if we were to create and indefinitely maintain a labor shortage in the economy.

  14. redleg

    I could work
    1000 years and then 1000 more
    and never break free of the debt that binds me.
    It was a trap
    Just sign the papers and you’ve sold your soul
    Simple deadly and conniving.

    I climb but the hole keeps getting deeper
    And there’s no ladder
    I’ve got to find a way to put it all behind me

    Running the race
    The red queen’s race, never gaining ground
    Forced to take the very first thing that comes around
    Low end, dead end, godsend, pretend
    it doesn’t matter anyway
    The consequences of this will never go away

    When the sad eyed look of frustration
    Turns to desperation
    When the face that looks back from the mirror
    Shows desperate choices nearer
    I’ve got to find a way to put it all behind me.

    ^ That’s mine- published last February. I’d trade the decent but sad art that is inspired by conditions like this for better conditions in a heartbeat.

    1. Jim Haygood

      Low end, dead end, godsend, pretend
      it don’t matter anyway

      Perfect chorus of a country song.

      1. redleg

        Instead it’s in the verse of a rock song.
        I’ll share it if anyone out there is a country singer or writer.

        1. veganjules

          I liked your poem/lyrics. Never heard a debt poem or song before. Very, very original. I’d make a tune of it, but had to give the guitar up due to ALL MY SOUL BEING DEVOTED TO SCRAPING $!

          1. redleg

            Done, with lots of happy sounding maj7 chords and electric 12string.
            There’s also a song about the office (Cube), economics (Trickle Down), and financial derivatives (All The Same).

    1. ambrit

      And to think that Pink Floyd recorded the verse; “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” Back in 1968.
      Quiet desperation is a characteristic of a declining society.

    2. redleg

      As far as I can tell quiet desperation is the life of most people.
      This article highlights suicide, but drug and alcohol abuse are just as much a result of poor employment outcomes as suicide and for the same reasons.
      When people stop being quietly desperate is when change happens.
      I refer to CCR’s Effigy although as a Gen-X -er I Prefer the Uncle Tupelo version

  15. veganjules

    Guys. You’re also forgetting that if the U.S. took in the Nazi Scientists and Death Specialists and used them and their techniques to crush real democratic, fair, egalitarian societies in Latin America (Chomsky) and then learned to transmute overt war (+nazi techniques) and colonialism into Finance (Hudson)–then we are currently dealing with something ‘worse than Nazi Germany’ (my 90 year old neighbor).

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