Leaves almost nothing to live on
In the song Sixteen Tons by Merle Travis (and made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford), the idea of the ‘company store’ referred to a system of debt bondage that effectively trapped workers within an unfair system designed to harvest all of their labor at very low cost.
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
Sixteen Tons – Merle Travis
How exactly did the company store system operate?
Under a scrip system, workers were not paid cash; rather they were paid with non-transferable credit vouchers that could be exchanged only for goods sold at the company store. This made it impossible for workers to store up cash savings.
Workers also usually lived in company-owned dormitories or houses, the rent for which was automatically deducted from their pay.
This model was simple enough to understand. “Pay” your workers with scrip vouchers, then sell them your marked up goods at the company store, pocketing a nice profit. On top of that, force your employees to live in company housing, too, also at terms very favorable to the company.
Add it all up and the workers found themselves in perpetual service to their employer. No matter how hard and long they toiled, there was nothing left for their own private benefit after all was said and done. The company succeeded in skimming off any and all ‘excess’ for itself.
This vast unfairness eventually led to the formation of unions as well as to regulations providing protection to the workers.
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