Wage Hazing: How I Pulled Myself Up by My Bootstraps

by Derek Cook, Director of the Canadian Poverty Institute

I was raised in an old farm house on a few acres of land. For much of my childhood we got by with mom and dad working several jobs and our living supplemented by what we grew in the garden or the small barn out back. The primary source of heat in the winter was the woodstove, and if necessary, the old oil furnace in the basement. Neither provided a lot of heat to the upstairs where my bedroom was; most mornings in the winter I got dressed in bed under the covers as it was too cold to change clothes in the room where little snowdrifts would accumulate on the inside of the window.  

I took my first real job when I was 14, working at the turkey farm up the road on weekends with my brother and my dad. It was, of course, minimum wage. That was the only money we had for extras. As I went through high school I took on other minimum wage jobs to save for university which eventually I attended. While dad helped out with the cost as best he could, there was not a lot he could do so I financed my education largely by myself through student loans and summer labour jobs on farms and elsewhere, again at minimum wage. Once there was a conversation among a group of my college friends who were regaling and trying to outdo each other with tales of their worst job ever, which typically had to do with issues of boredom or stupid bosses. I recall taking the crown and silencing the crowd when I chimed in, “ever had maggots in your hair?”

I had hoped that once I graduated from university things would change, but that’s when the real poverty started. Once university was finished the student loans also ended, but there I was still working part-time for minimum wage. One of my first jobs after graduation was part-time in a deli near my apartment in Montreal. Rent in Montreal was cheap, and I had a roommate. The apartment itself was decent, but old and alternately too hot or cold. Perched beside the railyard, the passing or shunting trains would rattle the place through day and night. The job at the deli barely covered the rent, so often there was little left over for food. I remember the joy of baking in the early morning and the smell of the fresh bread and pastries, as well as the agony of preparing pastries and sandwiches while my stomach growled and I dared not snatch a bit from the counter.

The deli job was supplemented by other casual work setting up exhibits at trade shows. This work was infinitely interesting, but also minimum wage. Eventually I was offered full-time work at the factory that manufactured the exhibits which allowed me to quit the deli. But there was once again precious little left over for extras such as food. Usually while my co-workers gathered to eat in the lunch room I just sat with a book. One day an older worker, Andre, came up to me after lunch and said quietly “I see you never bring a lunch with you to work, so I’m thinking maybe you don’t have much money.” And he slipped me a twenty dollar bill.

Eventually I moved back to the farm with my parents and began looking for work closer to home. The next job on my litany of jobs was the parts factory. The factory was in an old part of town and occupied some of the first floor of what was a previously abandoned manufacturing enterprise, a remnant of the glory days of the industrial economy. Now, over 100 years old, it was decrepit and cold, with broken-paned windows and little light. We refurbished car parts all day long; my job was to replace o-rings on engine cylinders. Once a day the boss would walk through the shop with his vicious dog which he kept on a leash just short enough that it couldn’t actually grab us as they both passed by snarling.

The workforce was largely immigrant; there were engaging lunchtime conversations with a Namibian refugee who recounted in great detail the tortures to which he had been subjected there before he had managed to flee. One other member of that workforce was a fellow with a developmental disability who lived in the factory. He had a cot in the loft above the work area to which he would retire at the end of the day via a rickety ladder. He wasn’t paid, but the boss would send him up every night some food and a case of beer. He was still there when I left.

This was the minimum wage world as I knew it. What I remember most vividly is being cold, incessantly hungry, demeaned and angry. There was no union. There were no benefits. We had no rights; at least none we could expect to claim. These were the bootstraps by which I pulled myself up. As one thing led to another by grit, and a good dose of luck, I managed to pry the fingers of that grasping world from my ankles. It seems to me now, though, that such experiences leave a mark on your spirit even though you’ve left the body of them far behind.

What is the nature of that mark? Is it the value of hard work and thrift? Does it leave its mark as raw determination and spirit? Perhaps it is the mark of discipline and the strength of character one needs to survive. Or possibly its residue is the virtue of resilience and self-reliance that gives you the confidence to know you can succeed in the face of the snarling dog and his boss. Perhaps it is the pride in knowing that you’ve done so. Perhaps it is a rite of passage into adulthood and the “real world”.

There are many rites of passage. Some are religious, such as the sacraments of the church. Some have become detached from their religion, such as marriage and the entry into your own family world. And some are just plain nasty.

Hazing is the nasty kind. Wikipedia defines hazing as “the practice of rituals, challenges, and other activities involving harassmentabuse or humiliation used as a way of initiating a person into a group.” It often involves servitude and submission, with the objective being to create solidarity and bonding within the group. Having passed the hazing, the initiated become eager participants in the hazing of new members, recalling that they themselves had to endure it; which not only provides a justification for the continuation of the abuse, but also increases the eagerness of the abusers.

So when I have successfully “pulled myself up by my bootstraps”, the bootstraps of hunger, fear, anxiety, exhaustion and cold, I might justifiably ask why others should not yank on their very same bootstraps, as I had to, for the building of character. This is the rite of passage. It is the hazing ritual of the world of work, the entry into the workforce that we all passed through and why should this generation have it any easier than me, or mine?

Except that we didn’t all pass through it. Wage-hazing, the requirement to work for a pittance in order to “gain skills and experience” (while generating cheap profits), isn’t a universal rite of passage. In fact it is very selective. It is often visited upon those already on the margins of society, particularly women. Nor does it always involve a passage; many people end up stuck in the haze of low-paid work long past the period of ritual, attempting to maintain households and raise families, demeaned and angry in that fog of cold, incessant hunger.

Not only is wage-hazing selective in its application, the bootstraps offered to pull yourself through it are also not universally available. While I managed eventually to get through it reasonably unscarred, I am also conscious of the fact that I am a white, English-speaking male who benefitted from a relatively cheap education thanks to a tuition freeze. While unable to contribute significantly to my education monetarily, I did have a family who provided home and moral support and a sense of my place in the world. And then there were the people like Andre who simply slipped me twenty bucks along the way to help me get by. You see, none of us have done it by ourselves; many others helped yank on our bootstraps along the way.

For those of us who proudly tell ourselves we have “pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps”, one prime driving force is our desire for our children to have a better life than us. It is not my ambition for my daughter to be hungry, cold, demeaned and angry just for the sake of character. We work hard to ensure that our children do not have to experience this rite of passage.

So I maintain that no children should experience such a rite of passage. For in the end it is no such thing. If we truly believe in the value of work and the dignity of labour we will reward it accordingly. Work that is under-paid is by definition under-valued and there is no dignity to it; just one more way to generate profit justified by the myth of the bootstraps. We have worked hard to rid hazing from our sports teams, schools, military and fraternities. It’s time to rid it from the labour force as well.