Blog Archive

Blog Archive – March, 2017

The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On?

March 23, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The tall good looking New Yorker, about 25, stands out in the crowd around me. His black curly hair shines, his head raised expectantly, his smile so unlike the sleepy people around us peering anxiously into their handheld devices.

I’ll learn before my trip ends that this warm faced lad’s name is Dijon.

Our fleeting association begins there on the platform waiting for the uptown #6 train. Initially his smile attracts me; then my gaze rises beyond his face to a shimmering red and silver flag; it’s actually a balloon waving above us, and somehow I know this belongs to Dijon. Seeing “Happy Anniversary” scrolled clearly on the shimmering surface, I think ‘Nice. He’s returning from an office party celebrating his marriage’. That explains his smile too.

I’m distracted by a growl from the mouth of the tunnel, a welcome noise to commuters at the end of their workday. Here comes the #6 train. The platform, dense with thick-coated bodies, begins to stir, preparing to press into the car the second its doors slide open. Forget about a seat; I may not even find standing room.

At 4:30 p.m., the rush of workers heading uptown to their homes—one room, maybe two, three at the most, somewhere in the Upper East Side, Spanish Harlem or the Bronx-- has begun.

I am unconcerned how Dijon, with his unwieldy balloon and the large carton cradled in his arms, manages to maneuver himself into the train as thirty other commuters lurch through that single door. Then, doors safely closed behind us, there’s that same balloon. And, here beside me, our backs squashed side by side against the door, stands its bearer, with the same quiet smile.

As this isn’t my regular route so I must check: where should I disembark? Instinctively, I look up towards the anniversary flag: “Does the #6 stop at 84th Street?” His voice is soft, reassuring: “We stop at 86th-- good for you. You know you could have taken the #5 express across the platform; you’d reach in just two stops by the five.”

Never mind; with this friendly opener I proceed with my inevitable interview, probing my travel companion’s agenda and introducing me to another New York lifestyle experience. “Your anniversary?” I inquire. “How many years?” “Oh no”, Dijon casually rejoins and, glancing at the balloon above us, explains: “I’m delivering this: Edible Arrangements. We’re a party service (I’ll Google it later) Nodding to the package in his arms now, he explains this service for family celebrations; “They get the balloon and our fruit package -- chunks of fresh pineapple, melon, apple, stuff like that-- arranged on sticks all poking out of a big orange. It’s really pretty, done up like a bouquet.”

And do you sing as you present this gift? “No, no”, and pausing, adds “But I could sing”.

It occurs to me that Dijon may in fact be a talented vocalist-- a singer, an actor, a performer of some kind. He’s probably one of the tens of thousands of gifted young people drawn to the city in search of gigs on stage, hunting for an agent, waiting to be discovered. Yes, that explains his bearing. I miss that cue, and instead ask about his ‘edible’ services; it’s a lifestyle service, the pampering of well-to-dos and trend-obsessed young people who socialize with indulgences, like hand delivered balloons and fruit baskets. “For say $50?”, I guess. “Hmm”, replies Dijon; “Well, $50 and up.”

I think: what could he earn for one delivery (remembering he has to travel by subway)? Maybe $10. I can’t ask him directly,  so I follow up with “And tips? Do your happy anniversaries tip well?” Another “Hmmm” from Dijon. “No tips: not usually.”

(No point inquiring about health insurance or workman’s compensation.)

                These delivery gigs employ battalions of young and energetic do-anything-to-live-in-New Yorkers. Would-be actors, comedians and musicians traditionally wait tables and serve drinks in the city’s many bars. More and more, these jobs are augmented by these delivery services which employ jobless graduates and anyone else willing to serve those who can pay, however indulging and frivolous the service. What’s offered are sometimes routine and tedious (house-cleaning, dog walking), at other times exotic and terribly fashionable (you can’t imagine).

Subway advertisements abound with invitations to do something special for yourself, or a loved one—all by phone apps, and like Uber-- delivered personally by a young man or woman at your door. Handy.com, delivery.com, taskrabbit, upwork.com blueapron.com, redbucket.com, deliveroo.com are just a few examples of what’s available. 

It’s the gig economy; on one hand it’s emerging from excessive joblessness, a serious condition finally receiving attention from workers rights advocates.  On the other hand it’s created by people with abundant disposable incomes. Based on both desperation and trendyness, servitude is a growth industry in American cities. Ediblearrangements.com and bueapron.com are New York chic.

The fashion crowd—i.e. those with monthly salaries, health insurance, social security savings and a company pension fund--- chat in the bar or at office break about these trendy services, similar, one imagines, to how white ladies chatted about their domestic ‘help’.

The Sunday Lifestyle section of your newspaper features the merits of blueapron.com fashion. Meanwhile less noticed reviews expose the inbuilt exploitation and the hardships lived by these young workers.  

Doubtless some of the tens of thousands of wishful, handsome jobless graduates, having glimpsed inside those wealthy apartments to whom they delivered massages and fruit bouquets, gather after hours to invent their own startup service. Maybe they themselves can launch the next trend. 

No one is thinking about workers rights. In fact a new adjunct trend is umbrella recruitment companies. They locate, vet and sign up individuals who they then farm out for hour and day jobs. In the UK this service extends to school teachers—all to save someone else money.   END

 

[ The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On? ]

Letter to My Friend in Damascus

March 13, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I am afraid to ask you you’re feelings about the recently announced American invasion into your country. In our talks these past months, we’ve spoken only about hardships: the increasing scarcity of electricity, water and food shortages, an absence of home heating fuel. This in the capital, Damascus, where people can still go to school and to work, where some local buses can navigate through the mud and debris, where drivers can sometimes find petrol for their cars.

When we’re able to connect by phone, you talk about people I know: parents unable to pay for their child’s surgery, a family with no means of keeping warm in winter.

                You could easily leave to live abroad with your children. But you’re in charge of a children’s home, and you simply can’t abandon the staff—those few who remain. Before, donations were adequate and teachers sufficient. Now teachers are leaving to find work and safety abroad, following many hundreds of doctors who’ve emigrated. You spend more time searching for assistance from the few remaining families offering charity. Syrians have always been especially generous to the homeless (few though they were in the past), and to any charitable effort by any faith. How can able Syrians sustain this deeply embedded principle when they themselves are in need, dependent on their children abroad?

Do you have someone outside who supports you while you provide succor to others inside? I don’t know what sustains you, apart from your love of country, something few speak about these days, and hardly anyone outside Syria recognizes.

On international women’s day here, I broadcast some interviews from my audio archive, conversations with women in Damascus 6-7 years ago. Each spoke with such pleasure about her work, delighted too that their voices, Syrian voices, might be heard (and felt) in America. I don’t know where those patriotic souls are today. None would have chosen to leave, I know that. In 2010 their lives had been full and promising. Yours, too. And those of your office staff and everyone at the children’s center, and your youngest son, just graduated.

You and I witnessed many favorable changes under the new, young president. Tourists were arriving in large numbers. Shopping malls were lively and welcoming. Colleges were vibrant centers of learning and hope; new private universities were flourishing. “Why should our bright young people go to Lebanon or Europe to study?” you declared: “We can educate them here, providing more work for our professors, for contractors who build these colleges, and for staff who drive buses and manage college dorms and cafeterias.”

Nowadays, students who can’t find a way to leave, face military service. There are no figures about all the soldiers killed and wounded; it’s tens of thousands, for certain. Only a few families can manage to pay for their sons to avoid the draft. “We are losing all of our young people,” you sigh. That proclamation lies in the shadow of every one of our conversations.

                Five years ago, after I returned to New York from Syria, I followed news reports and forwarded you an occasional report from writers Joshua Landis, Robert Fisk or Patrick Cockburn which I thought might shed light on events; you asked me what I thought the U.S. administration was planning and what  American commentators were saying about Syria. Then we ended these exchanges. They were useless; they simply offered false hope.

In the months preceding the American election your interest and hope returned; a new U.S. administration might somehow bring the war to a close. Then however, you decided that whoever prevailed, Democrats or the Republicans, Syria could hardly expect relief, peace, a settlement:-- nothing but worsening conditions and the loss of youths, teachers and doctors.

We haven’t spoken about the new U.S. leadership. Nor did I ask you for your reaction to Israel’s bombing of Syria last month, an aggression that garnered almost no attention here. Was that attack more unsettling and ominous that earlier Israeli assaults?

I expect that Syrians can think about little except: “Can it get worse? And, “How can we find some heating fuel, more medicine, a pair of shoes?”  

On top of all this comes this major political development:-- the unconcealed arrival of American military presence on your soil. Marines and heavy armaments are moving into Syria as I write. According to U.S. generals, their troops are deployed to help Washington’s Syrian allies—not the Syrian army-- to dislodge and eradicate ISIS from Raqqa. This move comes in the wake of remarkable gains by the Syrian army backed by Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah forces.

While the U.S. troop arrival is (to the American public) optimistically presented as ISIS-motivated, you and I know that it’s likely a pretext; it’s really another step in The U.S.’s Syria ‘mission creep’. Has Washington ever limited military incursion to the announced goal? Has it left anything behind its wars on Arab soil except destruction and deprivation, chaos and animosity?

Five years ago, following initial uprisings in Syria, many there might have welcomed an American military presence. But in time, you and your compatriots understood America’s support for the cruelest, most extreme opposition (rebel) fighters; Washington’s endorsement of Saudi and Qatari plans to sow chaos in Syria was clear within a few months. As Syrians comprehended the real US agenda--to destroy and disrupt at any cost--their view changed.

So what now? This most nationalist of Arab states is still somehow intact, against all odds. All those Syrian boys martyred; those barefoot children, those empty colleges, those ghostly shopping malls wait.  

I could find no public response here to this week’s American surge in Syria, no indication that it’s a noteworthy U.S. policy change, no journalist asking for Syrians’ reactions. An unsettling silence engulfs the first hours of a new American invasion.

Barbara Nimri Aziz, a New York-based anthropologist and writer, hosted RadioTahrir on Pacifica-WBAI in New York City for 24 years. Her 2007 book Swimming Up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq is based on her 13 years covering Iraq. Aziz’ writings and radio productions can be accessed at www.RadioTahrir.org, Syrian stories at http://podcast.radiotahrir.org/?s=syria

[ Letter to My Friend in Damascus ]


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