Shaky Roots
/ Author: Geoff Dueck Thiessen
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Shaky Roots

Productivity science was honed in the cotton fields, and unfortunately continues today.

By Geoff Dueck Thiessen, CLAC Regional Director 

On a recent long drive, I listened to a podcast about slavery in the US, published by the New York Times. The podcast, called 1619 (the year the first slave ship landed on American soil), looks at the lingering impacts of slavery as a foundation piece of the American economy and culture. Two things in the second episode struck me.

First, I learned that plantation owners were able to take out mortgages on their slaves. These mortgages were then bundled by the banks and sold as bonds. Bond buyers included nations like the UK, which had already outlawed slavery. Even though there were many who saw the system as problematic on many levels, it was seen as “too big to fail,” which created a bubble that eventually (and thankfully) burst. In our complex and interconnected economy today, we know that bundled mortgages and investments in problematic resources continue to carry traps for us.

The second thing that struck me was when the podcast described the quota system, which was honed by plantation owners to maximize the productivity of slaves. Productivity targets were set and enforced by violence. When new, higher productivity levels were reached, those become the new targets. This productivity science was honed in the cotton fields, but continues today.

The host of the 1619 podcast, Nikole Hannah-Jones, reflected on her prior work experience in a call centre during college. New York Times writer Matt Desmond confirmed that the modern-day supervision techniques Nikole worked under in the call centre—designed to squeeze as much productivity out of workers as possible—were indeed honed in the cotton fields. Matt reflected on the unfortunate effectiveness of violence in improving productivity: in just over 60 years, a 400 percect increase in the picking output of slaves was accomplished.

The podcast demonstrates how, in many ways, we have been told a history of slavery in the US that forgets many important details and themes—and how the impacts of slavery still linger. It’s chilling to listen and reflect.

In a competitive low-margin marketplace, efficiency and productivity continue to be key concepts and buzzwords. How can consumers get the most competitive prices, while delivering maximum profits to the owners/shareholders? There are many factors, but reducing the amount of labour cost is a key component in many industries, and wages are not the only factor.

Getting the most out of the workforce is also a big part of corporate strategies, particularly in low-margin, high-volume industries like retail and manufacturing. Improving productivity seems like a rational and important goal: how do we know what the right targets are? Does one target work for every worker?

The level of part-time work, lack of job security, decreasing union density, and the pervasiveness of technology are some factors in workforce precariousness. Some estimates suggest that Canada will see a steady increase in the precariousness of work until 2025. There are many contributing factors, but the push to greater efficiency and the continued introduction of technologies seem to be key.

Are we comfortable with the underpinnings of slavery in our current system, and the ways in which it plays out today? In our role as consumers, are we willing to pay more to support fair wages, even if it means we buy fewer items?

It’s likely that some of the holders of slave mortgage-based bonds in the early nineteenth century felt uncomfortable with their investment, but helpless to do anything. If we’re uncomfortable with aspects of our economy today, are we also helpless?

We live in a time where the ground is shifting beneath our feet, and priorities are changing. We all hold influence with the dollars we spend, the votes we cast, and the ways we participate in the dialogue of a civil society. It’s one thing for us to look back and make judgments about those who came before us and participated in broken and corrupt industries; it’s another thing entirely for us to do different.  


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