Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sleeping on the Cusp

Today's lesson on the world space-economy comes from Dear Abby (whom I've cited in previous blog entries). The gap between the rich and poor is widening even as the dependencies of the rich on the poor are increasing. No place is a middle-class North American more likely to encounter this gap than in a hotel room. The Strauss-Kahn case is an extreme example of the imbalance of wealth and power between guest and housekeeper, but even with more ordinary travelers the imbalance is greater than many people realize.

That some guests are oblivious to this gap is perfectly illustrated by a letter printed by Abby on April 16:
DEAR ABBY: My wife and I recently returned from a vacation where we had a disagreement regarding hotel service and towels. 
Regarding the towels, my wife thinks we should hang them to dry daily for reuse later. I say the cost of washing the towels is included in the price of the room, and I want a fresh towel daily. 
The other issue is my wife feels obligated to tip the housekeeping staff. I have never felt that obligation. Not a single housekeeper has been exceptional, regardless of the hotel we stayed in. 
We're hoping you could shed some light on hotel etiquette. 
-- WEST VIRGINIA TRAVELER
 Abby's original response was inadequate. She dismissed the writer's wife's commitment to conservation as a "preference" and then offered a bizarre suggestion that gratuities be offered up front to let housekeepers know they will be rewarded for good work.

These suggestions are not adequate to address the disconnect this writer is experiencing. The telling word is his use of "exceptional," suggesting that only exceptional work should be "rewarded" with a gratuity. This suggests that he both undervalues the work done by the housekeeper and overvalues his own work. Two things I have learned about work that this writer has not:

  1. Everyone's job is harder than it looks to other people.
  2. There is no such thing as unskilled labor.

Fortunately, Abby's readers wrote in with much more cogent and forceful responses than her original effort, and she was wise enough to print some of them today. The writers make clear the connection between tipping and justice.

The geography lesson is this: those who live a middle-class lifestyle in the wealthier countries rely on a vast network of workers -- near and far -- who make our relative comfort possible and affordable (even when we think we are struggling). Sometimes it is by selling their coffee for five cents a pound. Sometimes it is by assembling our latest electronic gadget at a cost far below what it should be.

When members of the global underclass make our lives easier at a low cost, there is often little we can do about it. But in some instances -- and hotel cleaning is one of them -- the connection between the lifestyle producer and the lifestyle consumer is so direct, so intimate really, that it is not reasonable to withhold the few bucks that stand between minimum (or sub-minimum) wage and something a bit more fair.

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