America’s Two-Tier Labor System is a Glaring Outlier Among Wealthy Nations

As we clean up our backyards and barbecues after celebrating America’s independence this week, it’s important to also remember the less-than-positive aspects of our nation’s exceptionalism. In fact, there are plenty of ways in which our country’s distinctive traits actually hurt us all — especially our workers.  

Policies that support and protect working families vary greatly by country. How is the U.S. doing compared to its peers? 

Not well, according to new Oxfam research. The U.S. is falling drastically behind similar countries in mandating adequate wages, protections and rights for millions of workers and their families.

On the one hand, this doesn’t make sense. The U.S. is among the wealthiest countries in the world, by many measures: per capita wealthper capita (after-tax) income and gross domestic product. And yet millions of workers are without access to paid leave, strong wages and protections in their workplace.  

This makes the U.S. a far outlier. Here, benefits like paid sick leave, paid parenting leave and employer-provided healthcare are viewed as privileges for the few. But in most of our peer nations, these privileges are rights, mandated by law to apply to all workers. 

U.S. Labor System is Tied to Economic Shortfalls

Oxfam’s recent research consistently found the U.S. at or near the bottom of an index of economic peer countries — those belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — when measuring labor laws on three dimensions: wages, worker protections and rights to organize.

For example, the U.S. is the only nation in the OECD not to mandate paid leave of any kind; all other countries do so. The amount of paid parenting leave goes up to 43 weeks in Greece. Several countries, including Japan, South Korea and Spain, mandate paid menstrual leave.  

While the U.S. economy is certainly thriving, it is also wildly unequal. Last year, Oxfam found that nearly a third of the workforce in the U.S. — 52 million people — earns less than $15 an hour. These workers are doing jobs that are foundational to our economy, but they are locked out of sharing in the prosperity.

Racist Roots are Impactful

How did our economy devolve to the point that millions of workers are denied basic rights that are guaranteed in other countries? 

One major factor behind this exceptional situation is the long history of racism in the U.S. 

This racism has deep roots, from slavery to Jim Crow laws to New Deal laws that bent to Southern members of Congress and excluded large swaths of workers who were primarily Black.

The Fair Labor Standards Act did not fully cover “exempt” agricultural workers and domestic workers and authorized a subminimum wage for tipped workers — workforces that are now disproportionately femaleBlackIndigenous and other people of color, as well as immigrants and refugeesOxfam found that while 32 percent of workers earn less than $15 an hour, half of all working women of color make less than $15; in some states, it’s nearly 70 percent. 

These workers continue to experience higher rates of poverty, more dangerous conditions and fewer opportunities and rights to organize and gain collective power. For just one example of how workers in low-wage jobs lack rights: Of earners in the top 10 percent, 96 percent have employer-provided paid sick leave; of earners in the bottom 10 percent, 38 percent have paid sick leave.

Naturally, those who can’t afford to miss a day’s wages are those earning the least; countless working families are struggling to care for households while working through illnesses and crises because they have been denied the privilege to prioritize taking care of themselves and each other.  

Our country has grown to accept that millions of working people are not worth protecting and supporting; we deny the basic humanity and dignity of people stuck in low-wage jobs. Even though these jobs, and the people doing them, are foundational to our economy and society. They are harvesting and cooking our food, caring for our children and elderly, stocking our shelves and cleaning our schools and offices.

We can and must do better if we hope to have a country that is decent, healthy and functioning for everyone. The current trajectory, which is condemning millions of people to poverty and frustration, is corroding our national well-being, and democratic institutions. 

This blog originally appeared at The Hill on July 6, 2023. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Mikhiela Sherrod, Ph.D., is Oxfam America’s director of U.S. domestic programs.

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