Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing.net pointed to a Newsweek article about teenagers in Mexico working for tips as they bag groceries at Wal-Mart. She described the practice this way:

Wal-Mart pays Mexican teens $0 an hour
The young (14+) teenagers that Wal-Mart employs as after-school baggers at its Mexican stores earn nothing at all — paid only in tips. Technically, this complies with local labor laws, while violating the hell out of their spirit.

The Newsweek article that Cory points to starts off with the following paragraphs:

Wal-Mart prides itself on cutting costs at home and abroad, and its Mexican operations are no exception. That approach has helped the Arkansas-based retail giant set a track record of spectacular success in the 16 years since it entered Mexico as a partner of the country’s then-leading retail-store chain. But some of the company’s practices have aroused concern among some officials and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that Wal-Mart is taking advantage of local customs to pinch pennies at a time when its Mexican operations have never been more profitable.

Wal-Mart is Mexico’s largest private-sector employer in the nation today, with nearly 150,000 local residents on its payroll. An additional 19,000 youngsters between the ages of 14 and 16 work after school in hundreds of Wal-Mart stores, mostly as grocery baggers, throughout Mexicoand none of them receives a red cent in wages or fringe benefits. The company doesn’t try to conceal this practice: its 62 Superama supermarkets display blue signs with white letters that tell shoppers: OUR VOLUNTEER PACKERS COLLECT NO SALARY, ONLY THE GRATUITY THAT YOU GIVE THEM. SUPERAMA THANKS YOU FOR YOUR UNDERSTANDING. The use of unsalaried youths is legal in Mexico because the kids are said to be “volunteering” their services to Wal-Mart and are therefore not subject to the requirements and regulations that would otherwise apply under the country’s labor laws. But some officials south of the U.S. border nonetheless view the practice as regrettable, if not downright exploitative. “These kids should receive a salary,” says Labor Undersecretary Patricia Espinosa Torres. “If you ask me, I don’t think these kids should be working, but there are cultural and social circumstances [in Mexico] rooted in poverty and scarcity.”

“Exploitative”? “Regrettable”? Poppycock! For almost two years I worked as a bagger at a grocery store, and I was never paid one thin dime in salary. I worked only for tips, just as these Mexican teenagers are doing. I was living in Germany during the early ’80s, and the grocery store in question was the military commissary on the U.S. Army base of Hanau. We almost always worked in groups of three baggers at each check-out stand, and we divided the tips equally at the end of our shift. The minimum wage during that time was $3.35 an hour, but we easily surpassed that each day. On a very slow day we’d make at least $5 a hour, and on really good days we could make $10 or more an hour. We only bagged on school days, and at most we worked four hours out of any day.

Was I being exploited? Heck, no! Had I worked as an employee of the commissary, I would have been paid minimum wage since I was unskilled labor. If I’d been a paid employee of the commissary it might have made concerned busy-bodies happier, but it would have meant making less money than I did working for tips. So are their warm-fuzzies worth my lost money? Since it would have been my lost money, the answer is clearly no.

Do I regret my time as an “exploited” bagger? Heck, no! I learned some very helpful life lessons at that job. In an hourly-wage job, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to complete each task since the pay is based on how long you work, not how well or how fast. But since I was paid per job and not per hour, it was well worth my extra effort to hustle and get things done faster. Faster bagging meant more people through the line, and that meant more money for me. I also learned that being pleasant and cheerful resulted in more and better tips than being surly and glum. I learned how to bag groceries efficiently, and the best way to clump similar items on the conveyer belt for the checker. And I really developed my forearm muscles by bagging.

Labor Undersecretary Patricia Espinosa Torres says, “If you ask me, I don’t think these kids should be working.” Yeah, let’s not teach teenagers anything about responsibility, commitment, hard work, or social skills through work. That’s the ticket. Doing so would make them self-sufficient, and then they wouldn’t turn to the government to wipe their behinds for them. I prefer teaching teens how to be good adults, and learning how to work is part of the process of becoming an adult.

Here’s another thing I noticed: nowhere in the Newsweek article was there a discussion of how much money the teenagers make by working for tips. If they were making less than minimum wage, don’t you think that would be reported? The silence makes me suspect that the Mexican teenagers working as baggers at Wal-Mart are making more than the Mexican minimum wage. And if that is the case, how exactly are they being exploited?

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