Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Indentured Servitude

(Or “What’s been keeping me busy, part 2”)

A brown, bipedal, digitigrade house mouse stops in mid-step and looks in dismay at his right foot, which has a red thread tied around it. He is wearing a red sweater that reads "Librarian"

You may have noticed that, recurrently, the little box in the sidebar titled “My current situation,” not only displays the courses I’m taking, but also a cryptic “indentured to the library.” Today, I want to explain to you what on Earth that means.

When I originally started working for the library, I was given a contract that basically said “I agree to everything I have been told verbally.” I was told that I had to do 6 hours a week (for a dollar each) and that, if I didn’t do all of them, I could always do them next term. I was told that I would be paid per hour worked, and that, for the university’s accounting department, I would count as a TA.

They told me that, however long I worked, it had to be a multiple of 15 minutes or they wouldn’t quantify it, and asked me what days I could come. I checked my schedule and told them. Then they asked me if I knew the Library of Congress classification system. I told them I did. They immediately put me to reshelve books. That was it. That was all the instruction I received. Those four sentences were my contract.

It turns out I had more than 6 hours a week free that term, so I had a special meeting with the head of staff. They told me the university couldn’t pay me for the extra time I had put in as they had been allotted a stringent budget based on the number of TAs they had reported at the start of term. The only way they could pay me was if I took a new contract for the following term, and then worked less than what the contract specified, leaving out exactly the time I hadn’t worked in the current term. In short, I had to take a new contract so that they could take the money they couldn’t pay me from there. I had enjoyed my time there, so I said, “Okay”.

I kept careful tally that following term and made sure not to work a minute more, nor a minute less, than what I was supposed to. When I reached the limit, I stopped coming.

The term after that, I found myself low on money again, so I accepted a new contract. I hadn’t had to worry about money all the previous term, I could give reshelving preference to the books I needed to check-out if I wanted to, and I was practically allowed to recharge my copy-card for free. I knew I was unable to work six hours a week but I thought, “no problem, I’ll do that next term, just like they said, and that way, I’ll have a little extra money next term too!” If any of you have tried a stunt like that, you probably know what the flaw is already.

Halfway through the following term, I’m called in again by the head of staff, who says he’s worried about how much time I still have left to work at the library. “I know,” I told him. “But I didn’t have six hours a week free last term; I only had four.”
“Six?” he asked me skeptically. “You’re supposed to do eight hours a week.”
“No, it’s six. It’s in my contr–” I stopped myself. Of course, the “contract” didn’t physically exist.
“Which contract are you talking about?” he asked me back. “When did you sign it?”
“July,” I told him.
“Ah, but that contract was for the summer! In regular term, you’re expected to work eight hours a week.”
My jaw dropped. No one had told me about this. I knew I didn’t have enough time to fulfill what I was now supposed to do; not this term, at least.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. I’ll still get paid, won’t I?” I was thinking about the term after next.
“What? No. We don’t have to pay you anything. You owe us.”
“What?!? But If I only did 50 hours, or whatever, I should’ve been paid $50! That’s how per-hour payment works! If I’m expected to do another 30, I should calmly expect another $30 throughout the term.”
“No, no. You’re not getting this at all. We paid you, in full, as if you had done all your hours, because the accounting department doesn’t give us any other way to do it. The money was deposited into the bank account you gave us. There are now hours we’ve paid you for, but which you haven’t done.”
I was silent for a long while.
“When do I have to do them by?”
“Oh, you can take as long as you like. The catch is you can’t graduate until you’ve done them all. You have a debt with the university, just as if you had an unpaid library fine.”

So here I am, three summers later, still “paying” those “hours” off. They can call it what they want, but the ugly truth of the matter is that it only has one name: indentured servitude.

1 comment:

  1. A lot of businesses would love to hire workers on these terms if they could get away with it.