Science Fiction work sweatshop labor corporations

Labor Costs

By Tim McDaniel
Aug 30, 2018 · 4,592 words · 17 minutes

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From the author: International corporations shift from country to country, looking for the cheapest labor. And then, they start seeking out labor in the past, when costs were low and regulations thin.


            Moll Forey pushed back the strand of hair that kept falling into her eyes, smearing the sweat along her cheek.  Better to just cut it, the way Ruth had.  But somehow that new fashion just didn't seem proper. She bent her head to her work.

            Her sure hands kept the pieces of cloth moving along as the machine's insistently jabbing needle united them.  Her eyes were locked on the point the two pieces came together.  At the end of the fourteen-hour day her eyes would hurt almost as much as her back, but the foreman hadn't called her down in weeks, and every little bit extra over her quota earned her a few pennies more.  She was getting about $4.50 a week now, as much as any other woman in the factory.

            She worked, pushing the cloth through, folding the finished pieces into the basket for the Willem boy to collect later, taking new pieces of cloth and doing it all over again. There were times when Moll lost hours at a stretch, with no memory afterward of what she had done.

            On Moll's right was Ruth, no older than fifteen, one of six sisters and two brothers.  Their mother seemed perpetually ill, and their father drank, so what little Ruth had left over went to them.

            "And the hats were on sale at Mothbay's," Ruth was saying.  "Forty cents.  Winnie told me that before she could get one, they was all snatched away by the strangers. They all come in, and bought the whole store lot, just like that."

            "Why, Ruth, the city is full of strangers."

            "Not that kind.  You know, the ones coming in here, buying all those factories and taking people off.  They’re buying up everything, and have as much money as they can carry, I guess. Winnie used some words her Pa's not like to hear from her."

            "Why would people of that quality be shopping at Mothbay's?" Moll asked.

            "I don't know.  They don't care.  And if they're 'quality,' well, I guess I don't know what's what.  Winnie says the women act just like whores, just a'kissing away in public and such.  And they don't even wear the things they buy!  They're 'collecting.'  Like the Red Indians collect scalps, I guess."

            Sarah was on her left, an older woman with gray in her hair, now squinting to see her work. She'd torn a piece yesterday, and they'd charged her for the whole yard of material.  Moll wondered what would happen when Sarah could no longer make her quota.  The woman had no family to fall back on; her husband had died ten years before, pale and coughing blood at the end, and she had not heard from their only son in at least six years, as far as Moll knew.  But at least Sarah had a worktable in the row nearest the windows, the only row that got sunshine in the afternoons.

            "You talking about those strange folk in town?" said Sarah, loud over the clatter and whir of the machines.

            "No one talks about anything else these past weeks and months," said Moll.  She looked up from her machine.  Mr. Straws had just got some rubber heels, so you could never hear him coming, and he never understood that you could talk and work at the same time.

            "They're trouble," said Sarah.  "Taking people away."  She was almost shouting, to be heard over the clatter. "Like poor Jane Pitser.  One day, a job here on the floor, and the next day -- gone!  To who knows where."

            "Nobody that doesn't want to be taken.  I guess wouldn't mind being taken myself," Ruth called back.

            Moll said, "But we don't even know where they end up."

            "Their families know."  Ruth spared her a glance.  "They take care of their kin.  I know I wouldn't mind leaving all this glory.  Jane was a lucky one.  They got everything up there you could want, up there where they go."

            Moll could hardly imagine the possibility -- that, like fairy godmothers from a tale, strangers would appear, kinfolk she didn't even know about, and take her away to a magic land of luxury.

            "Be thankful," advised Sarah. "Plenty don't have any work at all."

            "Ah, so many have gone, New York's going to get all cleaned out," said Ruth.  "Plenty of work.  And I hear -- " her voice dropped a little, even though no supervisor was nearby -- "there's lots of factories been making changes.  Higher wages, shorter days, and coffee -- coffee! -- and for free.  They want to keep their workers in New York.  They got to compete with the strangers somehow."

            "And when the people's been taken all come back, things won't be so easy," said Sarah, "and all the factories will change back quick enough."

            "What do you think, Moll?" asked Ruth.

            "Makes no difference what I think," said Moll. "I got no descendants to take me. And Mr. Shelby's not making any wonderful changes here, neither."

            Ruth and Sarah both looked to their work, embarrassed for Moll.  Sarah had a son in Albany, and Ruth had plenty of time ahead of her, but for Moll it was really too late; she was almost thirty, and unmarried.  And without descendants, who could come back to rescue her?

            But when their shift finally ended and the women collected their coats and hats from the pegs on the wall, Ruth whispered into Moll's ear.  "You better do some talking to that Joe Haddlunde of yours," she said quietly. "You still got time."

            Moll nodded.  She glanced over at Joe, carrying a bin of shirtwaists to the Children's Corner so the little ones could trim the hanging threads off in the morning. Her eyes filled with unwilled tears. Joe wouldn't marry her.

                                                                            

            "So what do you think, Joe?"

            Joe ducked his head and frowned, looking at the cracked pavement upon which they were walking.  "You know my trouble, Moll.  I'm already married."

            Moll clutched his arm.  "Joe, no one knows about her.  No one!  And she's in Pennsylvania. And even if she was right here, she wouldn't say anything against it."

            "Likely you're right," said Joe.  "But it don't seem right somehow."  He disentangled himself from her grip, but stayed close.

            "There's right and then there's right."  They walked in silence for a while, under the occasional lampposts, past the other workers hurrying home to their dinners.  "I'm getting to be an old woman, Joe."

            "Oh, don't go talking like that, Moll." He bumped against her as they walked, gently, and not because he was clumsy.  Moll walked faster.

                                                                            

            "Jane?  It is! Jane Pitser!  And lord -- she's wearing pants!"

            Moll stopped working and looked.  At the far end of the factory floor there was a knot of excited people, a tall red-haired woman in the center.

            "Can't be, Ruth!  That woman -- she's just too oldto be Jane."

            "I'd know her anywhere!"  Ruth stilled her machine and hurried over to join the growing cluster.  Moll followed, but more slowly.  She couldn't believe the supervisor wasn't ordering the girls back to work.  In fact, she didn't even see him around.

            ItwasJane, but she wasolder -- or at least, looked it.  Her fine red hair, now worn in a curly style Moll had never seen before, was now streaked with gray, and there were new lines on her brow and around her mouth. She looked more plump, though, and healthy.  Moll reached the edge of the crowd.

            Jane was indeed wearing pants, and a blouse that could have been made of silk.  She was holding a little black box of some kind in her left hand, but with her right she was reaching out, touching her former co-workers.

            "Jane!  Jane! Miss the old days, do you?" Moll couldn't see the questioner.

            Jane smiled.  "Oh, Gert, that'll be the day!  But it isso good to see you all again!"

            Even her voice sounded different, the rough edges sanded off.

            "Still living in New York, then, Jane?"

            "Oh, not for years.  I'm in San Francisco now.  But I fly out here every year or two."

            "Fly!"

            Another question came out of the crowd, this one hard and petulant.  "Come to laugh at us, show off your finery?"

            Jane stopped, and the smile dropped from her face. "No, oh, please no.  It took a lot of my savings to pay for this trip, and I just wanted ..."  She took a deep breath.  He voice shook. "I just wanted to see you all again, and to say -- to tell you -- things willget better, years from now things will be so much better.."  Tears began flowing down Jane's lined face, and her eyes wandered over the factory floor as if lost.

            "A lot of good that does us," said the voice again, more quietly, and this time Moll saw it was Sarah.  "None of ourchildren's children have come back to rescue us."

            Moll didn't think Jane even heard.

                                                                            

            That night, after her late dinner with Joe at the public house, Moll said, "My landlady, Mrs. Wheeler, will already be asleep.”  She pushed her voice out of her tight throat.  “If you'd like to.." she couldn't get the rest of the words out. She picked his hat off the table and toyed with it with trembling fingers.

            "What?"  Joe concentrated on balancing the last bit of green apple pie on his fork.

            "You can come up, if you like."  Moll looked down, red-faced and trembling, but her mouth was set in a determined line.  With a fingernail she picked at a tear in the faded yellow tablecloth.

            "Well, if you think--"

            "Let's go."  Before she had second thoughts.  There would be talk, Moll knew, if there was a baby.  The girls at the factory would gossip, and the foremen would smirk and pinch.

            But Moll wouldhave descendants.  And just let the girls talk.

                                                                            

            "Moll, you heard the news?"  Ruth was trembling with the need to tell her.

            Moll shook her head dumbly.  The thought struck her that Ruth was going to tell all about how Moll and Joe had been sleeping together.  But how would Ruth know?  And it wouldn’t make any sense for her to tell Moll, of all people, anyway! She brought her attention back to Ruth.

            "They're coming!  They bought the whole place, and they're coming!  They say there's to be changes, changes all over the place, too."

            "Who's coming?"  Moll had some trouble focusing.  She'd woken up long before first light, and at first thought she might finally be coming down with morning sickness.  She'd lain awake, thinking, until it was time to get up and have her breakfast of coffee and a roll.

            She decided it wasn't morning sickness after all.

            It would have been nice to go back to sleep for another hour, but she'd been afraid she would oversleep.  She'd heard that there was a sort of clock that called you at the very time you wanted to get up, but she couldn’t believe that.  How could a clock know when you wanted to wake up?

            "The people from the future!  Their company has come to buy out the shop, and they're going to be setting shorter hours, and higher pay, and they'll be helping with our doctoring and all manner of things!  The foreman, he'll be calling us together today to talk to us."

            And at lunch, Mr. Straws, the foreman, ordered the machines to stop.  In the odd stillness, in the stray sunlight that slanted down through the narrow, dirty glass windows in the west wall, he spoke to the girls.

            "Might as well get this over with," he said. "Not much work getting done this morning anyway, with all the gossiping going on.  Some of you already heard."  He paused for some breath, and coughed wetly into a stained handkerchief. "Yes, the company has been bought by one of those future businesses -- they're called Fusion Textiles, and don't ask me what that means.  But they have some new machines, which we will train you to use.  And some new rules."

            As the girls murmured among themselves, Mr. Straws took a piece of paper out of his coat pocket and read from it. "New hours: from nine to seven. Coffee breaks, three a day.  Half hour for lunch, and your trips in to the toilet will no longer be timed ..."

            As each boon was revealed, there were excited twitterings among the girls.  But when he'd finished, Moll just sat quietly.  Better, yes, but no paradise.  No free hospitals for the sick or pensions for the old or places to leave your children when you were at work, as Jane Pitser had told them of.  Nobody could fly.  A little more time to sleep, a little more time to eat, a little more money. Just enough to keep the girls from running off to better situations in the city.  But no more than that.

                                                                            

            Then came the day that she was sure -- it was morning sickness.

            That was it.  Soon everyone would know.  They would gossip and point and fall quiet when she was nearby.  They would misunderstand and scorn her, or they would understand and pity her.

            She wanted to tell Joe.  He would comfort her.  But after they'd spent a couple of weeks sharing a bed he'd stopped visiting. When Moll had gone to see "A Mad Marriage" the week before, she'd seen him with a black-haired girl during the intermission, laughing in the theater lobby.  His cheeks were ruddy in the lamplight, and he didn't turn to look at her.  It had been a good show before that, about a poor woman who married a duke.

                                                                            

            There was less gossip at work than she had feared. In some ways, that was worse; people seemed to know why she had done it, and just averted their eyes.  Her desperation was written on her face and, after a while, on her belly, for anyone to see.

            Mrs. Wheeler, however, let it be known that she was no longer welcome in her house.  Moll found another place, smaller, a bit farther from work but cheaper, and not so particular about the tenants.

            But when the time had come, and a boy was born in her little room, and pronounced healthy enough by the midwife, she felt in her bones that the sacrifice had been worth it.  Her boy would grow, would have sons of his own, and they would have sons, a tree branching out with Moll at its base.  And someday some far descendant, off there in the bright future, would return to rescue her.

            The people in the future would accept her, even if she had done what she had done.  They didn’t care about things liked that.    That’s what people said.  The sorrow would be hers alone.

            She watched over the boy with a vigilant eye, lest he sicken and die.  Nearly all her wages went to his food and clothing.  Seven cents a pound for spring chicken, ten cents for pork or veal --she would get him the best food as he grew, no matter the cost.  She didn't care.  She loved him, and he was her salvation.  Mr. Straws glared at her when she first brought him to work, to suckle as she sewed, and Moll feared he would cough near the baby.  But he said nothing.  Probably afraid of losing her.  Labor was not so easy to come by as it had once been, and Moll was a good worker.

            Or maybe he was thinking of the time when the boy could come to work, too, trimming thread and getting a slice of apple pie instead of overtime pay.

            Moll thought she was nearly happy.

                                                                            

            It wasn't often the uptime managers visited the shop, but when they did every girl was aware of it.  Suddenly boys appeared to sweep up, the girls were given new blouses, and there was bacon in the soup at lunch.

            Mr. Straws, a bit older now but his cough long gone, and wearing a new suit with very short tails, brought a new face to the floor.  The new man was in his fifties, or so Moll guessed, and glowed with prosperity and fat.

            "Girls?"  Mr. Straws waited until he had everyone's attention.  "Girls, this is Mr. Rustin Forey.  Mr. Forey is here to see if he can improve productivity.  He'll be observing you this afternoon, and may talk to some of you.  And you must feel free in discussing with him your own, ah, ideas, concerning how the firm might increase productivity.

            "Very well.  Back to work, then!"

            Moll just sat, staring at the visitor.  RustinForey.  Surely her name was not that usual?  She'd never known anyone else with it, besides family.

            She forced herself to return to work, but cast furtive glances, checking on Mr. Forey's progress around the floor. Finally he neared her, and she stopped work and looked at him until she caught his eye.  He came towards her.

            "Hello.  Might you have some suggestions for the firm, miss?"

            Moll's mouth was dry, and she could feel her heart throbbing in her throat so hard she could hardly get her words out.

            "Mr. ... Forey?"

            "That's right."

            "I'm Moll.  Molly Forey."

            "Really!  Another Forey?  That's quite a coincidence."

            Moll's gaze flickered down, then back up to his eyes. "Sir, might we, might we be related?  I have a son. James Forey.  He's three now."

            "I guess it's possible."  Mr. Forey pulled something black and glistening out of a pocket, and pressed it here and there.  "Well, what do you know?  We are!  It seems you're a great-great-grandaunt, on my father's side.  Now, isn't that something?  So nice to meet you!"

            Moll felt tears running down her face, but saw nothing.

            “Not… not a grandmother?”

            “Mr. Forey looked at his small black thing again and pushed some buttons.  “According to this, you never had children.”

            “I do!  I have a son!”

            “Then I guess – Mrs. Forey, you must have had that child because of our interference, somehow, something you did after we came. Maybe our expansion here set into motion the events that allowed you to meet the child’s father, or something like that.  In any case, in having that baby you’ve created a whole new timeline.  You may have descendants in the future, but that’s not the future I’m from.”

            “But we arerelated.”

            “Oh, yes, we sure are.  Foreys forever, eh?”  Mr. Forey’s cheer died out as he noticed Moll bending her head down.

            "Is something the matter, er, Mrs. Forey?"

            Moll shook her head.  "No, sir.  It's just that -- for such a long time I've prayed for this -- for so long!" She laid a sweaty hand on his sleeve.

            "'Prayed for this,' Mrs. Forey?  I'm not sure what you mean."  The man took a half-step back, but bent a little at the waist as if to confer privacy on their talk.

            Moll looked up at him.  "To be taken forward, like Jane Pitser.  To go and be comfortable and relax and see the wonders."  Moll began to giggle in painful hiccups.  "Maybe wear pants, and fly!  Oh, sir, if you knew, how hard it's been --"

            "Well, we all know that working conditions here aren't the best, but surely they've improved under our management?"

            Moll nodded.  "Yes, oh yes.  But to go with you, when you return--"

            "Go with me?  Mrs. Forey, I didn't mean to give the impression--"

            Moll swallowed. "But I'm your grandmother--"

            "Well, yes, or great-great-grandaunt, but do you have any idea of how many of my ancestors are alive at this moment?  Do you think I can take them all back?" Mr. Forey attempted a smile. "That's impossible!  I’m just a midlevel manager, after all.”

            “You won’t take me back with you?”

            “Mrs. Forey, I wish I could help, I really do. But I’ve got two kids and a cat in a little apartment, and with my salary – I mean, I just can’t.  I just can’t.”

            Moll bent her head again.  Her shoulders shook.

            “Oh, Mrs. Forey, please.  Like I told you, I just can’t.  I’m not in a position to do things like that.”  He reached out a tentative hand on tapped her shoulder. “And, well, this is your time, isn't it? Nothing personal, but you do belong here.  What would you do in my time, after all?"

            "But Jane Pitser--"

            "Yeah, I have colleagues who bring back a conversation piece or an illustrious ancestor.  And some genuinely want to save their ancestors from whatever.  But, really, Mrs. Forey, we can't bring you allback, now can we?"  He looked at her kindly.  "You do understand, don't you?  It's not that I'm insensitive.  Perhaps next time I visit I could bring you something..?"

            Moll, her head swimming, clutched her hands tightly together.

            Mr. Forey cleared his throat, shuffled his feet. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Forey.  And I do wish you the best of luck."  He turned away.

            Moll stood up, knocking over her chair.

            "How dare you!" she hissed.  Everyone around her stopped working, a circle of widening silence as the machines stopped humming.

            Mr. Forey looked back.  "Mrs. Forey…"

            "How dare you!  How dare you come here, bringing up and then dashing away our hopes! How dare you!  Why did you come to our time, anyway?  Why didn't you just stay home?"

            Mr. Forey paused before answering. "Labor costs," he finally said.  "They're so much lower here.  It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and we have to do whatever we have to do to remain competitive.  If it wasn't you, it'd be someone else, somewhere else, somewhen else.  That's just the way business is.  We have to do it to survive.  And I'm sorry."

            He shrugged and walked away.

                                                                            

            It was two years later.  Moll had just put James to bed when there was a light knock at the door.  She went to the door, one hand at her throat – who would be calling on her?  The rent wasn’t due until Wednesday, and she didn’t owe the grocer too much, this early in the month.

            She opened it.  “Ruth!” Behind her was a young man in a warm coat.

            “Moll.  Hi. Can we come in?  There’s someone I want you to meet.”

            “Why, yes, of course,” Moll said, thinking of the mess a five-year-old created daily.  “Come in. I’ll just pick up—“ she began gathering James’ little wooden toys, moving them to a corner.

            “Please, Ms Forey, don’t go to any trouble,” the man said, and something – his tone of voice, his clothes, the way he held himself – warned Moll that this man was another one of the people from the future.  “My name is Vanden Berge.  I’m what they call an organizer.”  He reached out a hand for her to shake.

            She mechanically gestured them to sit.  The chair creaked under the strange weight of an adult man.  “I met Ruth here several weeks ago, and she has been telling me about you.  About how you feel about conditions at the factory.”

            “I didn’t say nothing bad,” Ruth said.  “Just that all of us girls look to you to say when something’s going on that shouldn’t.”

            “I just – I just don’t like it when they treat us bad,” said Moll.  “Lord knows we work hard enough as it is.” Since it had become clear that she wasn’t going to be rescued, Moll had felt, in a strange way, that she had nothing less to lose – no future disappointments could match what she had gone through.

            “I understand, Ms Forey.”

            “You said you was an organizer.  I don’t know what that is.”

            “I work for a union, Ms Forey.  In my own timeling – I’m from the same future your bosses come from – we found that the bosses, they’ll do whatever they can to maximize their profits, to make as much money as they can.  That usually means paying their workers as little as they can.”

            “Sure,” said Moll.  “I got to say the pay isn’t so bad, nowadays, though.  And they give us those coffee breaks.”

            “They threw you a few bones, I know,” Berge said.  “But do you have enough money to pay doctor’s bills?  Have your own house?  And what happens when you get too old, your eyesight starts to go – are they going to let you keep working there?”

            “You know they won’t,” Ruth said.  “We seen it over and over.  So I saw a flyer, and I went to a meeting, and I met Mr. Berge.”

            “And so now you’re going to help us, Mr. Berge?”  Moll decided that she wouldn’t be fooled again into expecting help from above.

            “I can’t solve all your problems for you, Ms Forey, no.  But I want to let you know that you do have the power to make things better yourself.  The bosses won’t give you anything more than what they have to, until you start grouping together to insist on better.  It can be done.  It has been done before.”

            “They won’t let us have more.”

            “I won’t be easy.”

            “They’ll fire us if we make trouble.”

            “That’s a risk.  Is the risk worth it?  That’s for you to decide.”

            Moll bowed her head and was silent.

            “Moll?”  Ruth said. “Mr. Berge can show us how.  But we need someone to lead us, and you know my brain’s too soft for that kind of thing.”

            Moll raised her head and looked at Mr. Berge.  “My little boy is starting school soon, and I can’t pay for his books and things.  I’ll have to borrow—“ she stopped, then continued.  “I want my boy to live in a better world than I do.  I tried to save myself, once, that’s how James—I mean--”

            “Yes.  Ruth explained to me your earlier situation.”

            “I didn’t say nothing bad,” Ruth said.  “We all understood – well, some of us.”  Moll patted the younger woman’s hand.

            “That’s not enough, now,” Moll said.  “To save just myself.  I want my boy to have a better life.”

            “Of course you do,” said Mr. Berge.  “You waited for someone to save you, and it didn’t happen.  So tell me now: are you willing to fightfor what you want?  It’s more dangerous than waiting for someone to save you.  You could lose your job, even get hurt or killed – and I won’t promise you rides on airplanes, but what you win, you can keep, and know that you did it for yourself.”

            Ruth leaned forward.  “Moll? What do you think?”

            Moll swallowed.  “How do I start?” she said.  “And I warn you, Mr. Berge – I haven’t given up on those airplane rides yet!”

 

This story originally appeared in Outposts of Beyond.