Currently, a few friends and I are facing a very complicated professional situation and I really need help from people with more thoughts on this kind of problem. I tried to be brief, but I ended up writing a lot in order to explain things better. However, for those unwilling to read everything, the main questions are: when it comes to a job in a small company, or a small section of a big company, from five to ten employees, is there any way of fighting for better wages and benefits? What to do when the company claims lack of money? Or what if it simply says: "If you're not happy here, go somewhere else" and decides to fire everybody? What are good ways of facing these risks? Are there good strategies for this kind of situation?
Two people I know were hired by the biggest news corporations of my city right after they finished their studies in graphic design at the university. One takes care of editing the buying/selling part of the print newspaper, and another one is responsible for the graphic material that is aired on television every day, like vignettes, animations, simulations and so on. Both of them earn the same amount, about two minimum wages (the Brazilian minimun wage is roughly equivalent to 300 euros), for a six-hour a day shift. The pay isn't high, but it seemed like a good place to start after graduation, and both these people planned to stay there for two years at most. However, they're there for many years already, as they can't find other places that pay more for their work, and they're already working for the biggest news companies in the city, so it's hard to grow. In fact, what makes things even worse is that there's no chance of getting higher wages in their area inside these companies. They are dead end jobs. They get a small percentage increase every year, and that's it. One of these friends talked about it with her boss and the answer she received was something like: "Yes, there's no way you can grow in your area if you stay here. When people in your position want more money, they usually get a second job or create their own companies. But there's no way to get a promotion for you or anything of the sort, I'm sorry". This friend of mine never ever questioned anything with the way things are in the world, but after realising her trap and after getting to know the fact that the company she worked for announced record profits last year, she got really mad.
Today I was talking to another friend who is working for just a little more than a minimum wage as a graphic designer at a small publishing bureau and her situation is even worse. Low pay, extra hours, a boss who keeps promising to improve things without ever keeping his word, and a constant "optmization" of costs on his part. Last year he used to pay about R$400 for a model to pose for a photoshoot in one afternoon for one of his magazines. This year he's paying R$150 with a big smile on his face. One of his magazines is going to have his page count increased considerably, and this friend of mine is going to be responsible for it. Each page renders and extra profit for the company (it's mostly based on advertisement), but my friend's wage is going to stay the same. My friend told me that all the other workers in this small company are unhappy about their situation, even the manager who supposedly should ease the other workers' demands. To me it seems like the perfect ground for some action!
Then there's my case. I've recently submitted my portfolio to the three most important offices in my area of interest: 3D visualization and video. All of them contacted me a few months later offering me a job, and I went to their interviews feeling very confident, as I wasn't competing with anybody; the jobs were already mine. The conversations were all very friendly and they even told me interesting things about their companies, but things changed when money came into play. When they asked me how much I expected to earn monthly, I joked: "If you ask me, I'd like to earn R$10,000 or more! However, as I know you won't pay me that much, tell me how much you think it's fair and then I tell you if it's fair or not". They gave me a yellow smile and told me, a little embarrased, that their offer was R$1,100 (less than two minimum wages). All three companies proposed me about the same. I didn't scorn their offer, of course, as I was really looking for a job, so I tried to understand their situation a little better: "Ok, that may be a wage for a person who's just starting on a new place. But do you have a career plan, or do you plan constant increases in pay, or give us any opportunities to improve our situation in here with time?" The answers were like "Oh, hm, sure... We always try to increase our employees' salaries when we can. There are people here earning more than what we offered you". I didn't know what to think. At the time I was earning more money doing some freelance projects, so I prefered to continue this way, even though it's being a very unstable life anyway.
All these little stories were mere illustrations of a big problem I see in the lives of people in my professional field. Of course we can get better pay if we go to big cities or have more decades of experience or whatever, but someone will have to perform these jobs, so this problem is real and must be faced. These friends I mention in here never had in their imaginary ideas such as talking straight with bosses, collective bargaining, strikes and the like. But now I see my friends getting mad at their situation in jobs that don't offer then any perspective of improvement, and when I talk to them about getting together with their workmates and demanding better work conditions, it's like a new world of ideas has opened in front of them, and they become quite excited about the prospect of acting for the improvement of their lives.
However, I'm not an organiser of anything, and I myself can't see any way of improving my own professional life, so there's only so much I can tell them about their possibilities. What I think is that first they must get together with their workmates and have a serious conversation with their bosses about what they want to be improved. But then, what if the boss says he can't raise their wages even if he wants to, because the company simply doesn't have money for it? How can we know when it's true or not, and if there's no way of finding a way of getting what we want? When it's the case of a big company, like the news corporations I talked about, I guess people could make tough demands like "Oh, you don't have any money? Show us this company's budget then and let us see it with our own eyes", which may also be hard to get, but what if it's a small business and the boss really can't afford any extra raise? I'd be tempted to say something in the lines of: "Instead of making R$8,000 a month, share a part of your wage with us, and if you think you deserve more because you work more, share your responsibilities with us and be happy", but I guess it'd be taken as a joke.