Valuing Labor

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On a completely different note, I am not able to teach today and someone is substituting for me. I am very grateful for that assistance. The sub is someone I haven’t met and his email was for his own knitted goods web site, so I went to take a look.

I note that he sells hand knitted items, most of which are in super bulky yarn, meaning that the time to knit them is significantly less than with yarn of a more regular thickness. Still he charges quite a bit: $99 for a hat that I could knit in about an hour. $249 for a scarf.

Good for him. Crafters don’t value their time and they end up devaluing the work of everyone when they lower their prices because they are trying to compete with machine-made pieces or garments knit by people being underpaid in dangerous working conditions. In our “I should get everything I want as cheap as I can force other people to give it to me” culture, we devalue other people. We tell the people in Peru or Bangladesh that their time, their life – all a life is is a span of time – is only worth $1 per hour, when we would never accept that for ourselves. We don’t pay the true cost for what they produce. They pay that cost with great suffering and even their lives.

In my ideal world, we would all get what we need from each other. No one would worry about eating or having adequate shelter, clothing, health care and whatever education is needed for what they want to pursue in life. We would all know that human nature is social and that almost everyone would contribute as best they can and life would be good, with minimalized fear of not getting our needs met. Then artists, crafters, inventors, scientists and anyone who generates a new idea or product could share their work freely, feeling good to contribute to the pool of human creativity.

However, that’s not the world we live in. We live in an oppressive capitalist culture where money is revered over all else and those willing to use force against others – by influencing laws which serve them, ignoring the suffering of others, waging wars and genocide against those who don’t adopt their ways or give them control over their natural resources – do everything they can to extract all the resources into their control. Our labor, our water, everything.

So, if you need to participate in the capitalist system in order to survive, even though you find it ethically repulsive, the least you can do is extract as much of those resources back out of those imperialists hands and down into the lower classes. Charge the maximum you can for your labor and goods. You can then give away your work to those who don’t win in the capitalist game. You can distribute that extracted wealth however you see fit. So, knitters can knit 10 hats and sell 9 of them to those who are “winning” the capitalist game and give the 10th away. Use the funds from the 9 to feed those around you.

If you give your labor or product away cheap you are only furthering the extraction from the oppressed to the oppressor class. Don’t do it. I try to talk to crafters about this all the time. Let the upper middle class and upper class “patronize” your creativity. Don’t buy into the devaluation of yourself and all other laborers.

I also note that this knitting business with the correct valuation of labor is owned by a man. I have rarely seen women willing to put their work out there and fully value it. His pieces are simple. There is nothing original about them. I can look at them and knit exact copies without even thinking about it. Still, he’s got the self-assurance to value his time and get fully reimbursed for the materials. (super-bulky yarn is actually quite expensive) I wish that more women would have this self-assurance.

When people ask me if I would knit them a sweater I tell them, “Yes, for a basic sweater that will be $500 plus the cost of materials. And that’s still not valuing my time at a real cost of living.” Used to getting $20 sweaters from The Gap, which are made by people getting horribly abused in sweatshops, jaws often drop. But, it takes 25-40 hours of time to knit a sweater. At 25 hours, that’s only $20 per hour in a city where the cost of living is $60k per year, or $30 per hour. At 40 hours, it’s just $10.25 per hour. If the sweater has any special stitch patterns or unusual construction, it takes a lot more time.

I think of this every time someone tries to convince me that I could make money by selling knitted items. Could I? Would someone pay me $100 for a hat? $200 for a scarf? $500 for a sweater? If so, I’m there! If not, you are saying that I do not deserve enough income to live off of. That’s what you’re saying every time you buy something produced by someone who is not being paid a living wage in a safe environment with access to health care. You are saying, “I don’t think you deserve a sustainable life.”

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