When someone calls and leaves voice mail at work, the message is sent to us in email rather than appearing on the phone. The message is attached to the email as a sound file so we may listen to it, and somewhere along the way, the voice mail is processed and added to the email as text so the message may also be read. It has worked well each time I’ve gotten voice mails in the past.

But then my niece left me a message. It was perfectly clear when I listened to it, but her message brought the machine to its knees as it completely failed to accurately convert her message into text:

Ring if you please bring me see you on a minute. Anyway — coming and going into now that they cast — and not not — not preferring to spell it anyway we’re going to there’s going to be going there we were gonna go shopping — there — entered into doing some stuff there anyway so while we’re there we were in my there they were in today is there any way anyway so will be there for a while and — fiasco probably be home late always get bigger from day and then if you’ll offline that I don’t think your offline maybe homemade is that it’s best — that I don’t know. About that bye.

Cutting-edge technology taken down by a 13-year-old girl. Tragic.

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?

I am afraid for the rising generation. I don’t know if they will have the intellectual wattage to handle what life may will throw at them.

Case in point: I dropped by Taco Bell for a quick lunch away from work. While I was there finishing up my current read, I overheard a conversation next to me between two people I would guess to be in their late teens, and the Taco Bell assistant manager. The two teens had been given the food they had ordered, but it wasn’t what the girl wanted. I know it was what they ordered because they checked the order ticket against the actual food, but the girl complained that it wasn’t what she thought it would be. The assistant manager offered to make a quick order of Nachos BellGrande for her, since that was what the girl really wanted.

Now I can understand saying one thing while meaning to say another, since it is very easy to get your tongue tangled up in spoonerisms and malaprops. I have problems with thinking one thing but saying another, sometimes because I’m looking at the wrong thing, and I know that I can’t type one word while saying another. Either I’ll type what I’m saying or start saying what I’m typing. So I don’t fault her on not ordering exactly what she wanted. But here’s why I’m concerned for the rising generation — she couldn’t understand the simple words the assistant manager was using to explain.

The assistant manager said she would get the Nachos BellGrande that the girl originally wanted, but she needed to know if the two still wanted the food they ordered, or would rather have it tossed. The girl said that the manager could just take it back behind the counter for the next customer since they hadn’t touched it. The manager replied that she couldn’t do that, because once food was handed to the customer, it couldn’t be brought back behind the counter because of health rules. The couple’s options were to keep their original order and eat the nachos that were coming, or toss the order and eat the coming nachos. Again and again the girl said that there was no need to toss the order since the manager could just take it back for another customer, and again and again the manager told her that she couldn’t do that. This conversation went around and around five times. The guy finally told the manager to bring the nachos when they were done, and that they’d keep the current order. Hearing this, the manager left to start making the nachos. I heard the girl complaining to the boy that she still didn’t understand what was going on.

At this point I decided my brain was in danger of exploding, so I headed out, shaking my head at the inability of this girl to understand a simple concept even when it was explained to her multiple times. I have to wonder whether her demonstrated intelligence — or lack thereof — is indicative of the general intelligence in our rising generation.

Heaven help us if it is.