Travel and Worker Rights
When I was young, I dreamed of traveling the world. In high school, I was nominated to be part of a People to People exchange, once to Ireland and another time to Russia. However, it was far too expensive for my family to afford. I went to an information session and my mother very honestly told me that we couldn’t afford it. During my first year of college, I met many students who traveled. They went all over the world, spending their summers in Greece or service trips to Central America. I didn’t have any class consciousness. Somehow I figured that they were simply lucky or even better than I was to have such marvelous adventures. My limited experiences were framed as personal failure, rather than the outcome of growing up in a town of 250 people to a teen parent and working class family. In any event, hearing about these adventures made me hunger for travel even more. It was an obsession. I did travel. When I was 19, I went to Paris and London on my own with money I saved from the three jobs I was working at the time (housekeeper, waitress, Headstart classroom helper). I also went to Mexico that same summer. That was the first time on an airplane. It was my first passport and first times outside of the country (aside from Canada). And, I did it entirely alone (at least the London and Paris trip). The airport in London was far larger than the cities and towns I grew up around. I am proud of my 19 year old self (a small town girl with many anxieties) for the bravery.
I have traveled a lot since then. There was a great deal of longing and desperation for travel. There was saving and creative financing (such as donating eggs to help pay for a trip to Cuba). I’ve seen some amazing things. I saw Hugo Chavez (the deceased former president of Venezuela) speak to crowds of socialist youth. I’ve seen Lenin’s embalmed body. I visited schools and universities in Cuba, even learning about the Cuban approach to sex education. I spent a semester in Ireland living in a cottage on the sea. I’ve been to Chernobyl and Hiroshima. Ukraine. Belarus. North Korea. The Great Wall. The Acropolis. Mayan Ruins. The Colosseum. Auschwitz and Baba Yar. Bosnia and Serbia. Albanian bunkers and Jeju Island. I love lists. Let me tell you, I make lists all the time. Not to brag or bring others down, but I love to remember and organize those experiences.
Despite the travel, it wasn’t until about a year ago that I began to think of travel in relation to the rights of workers. In my mind, it was always a precious luxury. I think this is how most people from the U.S. view travel. For most Americans, this is true. Most people don’t travel unless they are college students or retirees. In my observation, this is not the case elsewhere. For instance, last year I spent a month travelling around eastern Europe and the Balkans. During my travels, I met many Australians. The majority of the Australian men I met worked in construction, mining, carpentry, engineering, or generally speaking, in areas connected to trades. Not only were they working in largely blue collared jobs, they were taking extensive vacations. My month off was enormous by American standards, but many were traveling for two or three months. Some for more. I thought it was quite astonishing that these Australian men could partake in such fabulous vacations, vacations that would seem impossible to the average American worker. In the United States, many blue collar jobs still pay rather well, at least compared to many other jobs. So, monetarily, it would be possible for U.S. workers to do the same. The big difference though is vacation time.
1 in 4 Americans get ZERO days of paid vacation time each year. The federal government does not required to provide even paid holidays! So, many workers do not even get paid extra for working Christmas or Thanksgiving. In contrast, EU nations receive a minimum of 20 paid vacation days. Austrians receive 38 paid vacation/holidays. Brazil provides 30 paid vacation days with 11 paid holidays. France 30 days. What would you do if you had a month off of work and it was paid? Even a lower income worker might be able to travel around the United States, go to Mexico or the Caribbean, do camping trips, or spend more time with their family in their community. (This data is based upon 2014 Mercer’s Worldwide Benefit And Employment Guidelines and the Center for Economic and Policy Research)
This summer, I traveled again and this time, I observed the same trend of blue collar Australian men travelling, but also observed some people from the service industry traveling. For instance, I met two cashiers while traveling. In the U.S., those are minimum wage jobs. Rent can barely be paid at those wages, yet, elsewhere, even service industry workers can expect to travel. Both individuals traveled extensively, though on a budget. I thought that was wonderful. Even without the paid vacation, perhaps if our service industry employees made $15 an hour, the dream of travelling would be realized. And yes, I do idealize travel. I do understand that it can be wasteful and damaging to the planet (in terms of green house gas emissions from planes and the commodification of nature). But, I don’t know that travel must be inevitably damaging and that some of the negative consequences could be remedied by greener, mass transportation systems.
I think of the Bread and Roses song. The labor movement typically demands bread, or at least bread crumbs. Of course, this is the most basic thing- safety, security, wages, benefits. But, maybe those things that make us more human and alive get forgotten. It is hard to imagine travel or extensive paid vacation as a legitimate demand when there are so many other demands to be made. At the same time, those who have it are so much better able to live full lives outside of work. Travel also, in a way, helps people to see how things can be different. For me, it helps me see myself as a part of a wider world, rather than just an American.
I feel guilty for my travels- as many people are strapped down by poverty (well, I have endured poverty as well for most of my life), children, responsibilities, jobs without benefits, part time work, a patchwork of full time work consisting of various part time jobs, etc. I am privileged in many ways. But, why can’t we all enjoy these things? What would need to change? The countries that offer paid time off differ in some ways. It seems that they have Labor Parties and more aggressive labor movements. My own job does offer several paid holidays and some rather flexible vacation time (I had three weeks off this summer for my vacation). We also have a union. I think then, that while the demand for more vacation time seems trivial compared to the more pressing demands of living wages, any expansion of unions, labor movements, and alternatives to capitalist political parties could potentially work towards this cause. There is also no reason why workers couldn’t start organizations that make legislative demands for more vacation time or raise awareness of this issue. I am not aware of any such organizations or movements, except Take Back Your Time, which seems to be driven by the tourist industry rather than workers themselves. Since workers of the tourist industry (hotels, cruise ships, shops, resorts) are highly exploited, I am suspect of this industry’s self-serving promotion of vacation (without accompanying worker rights).
In the Republican debates the other night, Jeb Bush accused Marc Rubio of his “French work week” senate attendance. It made me laugh inside. If only we were so lucky. But, there are so many myths that prevail. Somehow economies with vacation are inferior or less productive, as if productivity is the sum of human existence. 8 of the 10 highest GDP countries have fairly generous paid vacations (well, Japan only offers 10 days). Only Chinese workers on this list have fewer paid vacation days than us. Of course, GDP isn’t everything. If 40% of the food we grow is wasted- the GDP would appear high, but would not account for wasteful economic activity. If there was a natural disaster, again the GDP might grow as more resources must be used to fix the problem- but again, this doesn’t mean that society would be better off. Anyway, productivity and growth are not necessarily good things. Even if a person accepted this as truth, vacation doesn’t necessarily get in the way of productivity. I would like to work like the French, the Australians, the British, or the two dozen or so economically developed countries that offer paid vacations. I only regret that it took me so long to connect my love of travel to a larger issue of social class and worker rights.