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Two articles in the New York Times illustrate the impact of class differences and the vast economic inequities that exist both in the U.S. and globally. There is a continually growing divide between those who live richly and lavishly and those who barely make a living.

One article, Shop Stewards on Fantasy Island?, by Mimi Swartz in the June 10th New York Times Magazine discusses the vast economic disparities between the residents of Fisher Island (located near Miami) and their employees. Fisher Island residents are among some of the world’s wealthiest individuals with an average net worth estimated at around $10 million.

While the wealthy residents and their children spend their days on golf course, tennis courts and beautifully maintained beaches (with sand imported from the Bahamas), the island employees who maintain their paradise are paid at wages so low, many of them need to hold second jobs just to barely make ends meet.

As the article stated:

[Many residents are] happy to spend money on tanning butlers and poodle pedicures but unwilling to pay more to those who made their pampered lives possible those who almost invisibly cleaned up after them.

What is ironic is that when confronted with this reality, Mark James, the president of the Fisher Island Community Association (the governing body responsible for maintaining the island’s common areas, etc.), claims that the real villains are the contractors and subcontractors who employee many of the Island’s workers.

The contractors, on the other hand, hold Island management responsible because they are expected to come in with competitive prices. So, the workers are caught in the middle with no one claiming responsibility for setting their wages.

The second article, The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer, by Julian Dibbell in the June 17, 2007 issue of the New York Times Magazine, illustrates how economic inequity pervades all areas of life even online computer games.The article describes the lives of individuals known as Chinese Gold Farmers.

These are individuals in China who spend about 12 hours a night (seven days a week with only two or three nights off in a month) glued to computer monitors to play computer games and gather the virtual coins that are the currency to earn the tools necessary to reach and play the next level of the game.

These “Gold Farmers” earn approximately 30 cents an hour. Just as the residents of Fisher Island and other wealthy individuals pay others to perform physical grunt work (such as mowing their lawns and cleaning their pools), there are now individuals who pay others to do their virtual computer grunt work. In these computer warfare games, players need to engage in activities that generate the income to purchase gear that enable them to fight monsters.

These activities, which are repetitive and time-intensive are known as “the grind.” And, for individuals who do not want to spend the time necessary to collect these game coins, they can simply purchase coins from an online retailer. And, these online retailers, like Wal-Mart, Target and other major corporations, turn to China for cheap labor.

Like the Fisher Island workers who are caught in the middle between Island management and the contractors who hire the workers, the Gold Farmers are caught in the middle as well. They are caught in the middle of a fight between the retail companies that sell the coins and players who see the purchase of these coins as cheating and unfair.

Some players oppose the purchase of coins not only because individuals are able to use coins that they have not earned but also because the large number of individuals purchasing coins makes it difficult for beginning players to advance.In their anger against the practice of selling coins, however, it is the most economically vulnerable individuals the Gold Farmers who are caught in the cross-hairs.

Players who oppose the sale of coins systemically seek out Gold Farmers to kill their characters. For players, the death of their character may be a major inconvenience. For Gold Farmers, however, the death of their characters is a major economic setback to their already fragile economic condition.

The hostility targeted at the Gold Farmers is also disturbing because of the rhetoric they use:

Nick Yee, [a] scholar based at Stanford, has noted the unsettling parallels (the recurrence of words like vermin, rats and extermination) between contemporary anti-gold-farmer rhetoric and 19th-century U.S. literature on immigrant Chinese laundry workers.

The Gold Farmers face additional opposition from some of the game companies who have taken the side of the players who oppose the sale of coins. Many of them have identified and banned accounts that belong to Gold Farmers.

Just as it is prostitutes who are targeted for arrest rather than their customers, so too are the Gold Farmers targeted rather than their equally rule-breaking customers who purchase the coins they collect.

Some of the companies who employ the Gold Farmers, the gold farms, have found a way to avoid having their workers identified and banned. Rather than simply handing over money in exchange for points, customers hand over their account and password and pay to have a farmer play in their stead. They engage in what is called power leveling.

In power leveling, the Gold Farmer plays in place of the customer, doing the work necessary to raise their character from the lowest level to the highest, thus saving the clients time and energy. Once the character reaches the highest level, the farmers hand it back over to the client. Once again, the client wins and the Gold Farmers lose.

The client is able to avoid the grunt work necessary to raise the level of their character to a point where the play becomes challenging and more interesting. The Gold Farmer, on the other hand, is relegated to doing the tedious work of building the character. The quality of the work that the Gold Farmers are performing is thus changed from work that involves autonomy and intellectual challenge to work that is more menial in nature.

The stories of the Fisher Island employees and the Chinese Gold Farmers provide a stark illustration of the growing divide between those who live richly and lavishly and those who barely make a living.

The Quilt of Humanity ModelTM Approach to Fisher Island:If Mark James, the president of the Fisher Island Community Association approached me to ask for help in creating better relationships between Island residents and workers, this is what I would do using the Quilt of Humanity ModelTM: Any intervention in this situation would need to involve the Island residents, the employees and the contractors because they are sewn together as one section of the Quilt of Humanity.

Their interests and actions impact each other both positively and negatively, leaving the threads between them tangled, thus damaging this section of the quilt as a whole. I would start by asking James about the main interests of the Island residents and then find the threads that tie their interests in with those of the workers and the contractors.

And, it would be important to enable the residents and contractors to become directly aware of how the employees are living by hearing them speak about their lives. Witnessing a demonstration or reading facts on a flyer is completely different from hearing stories directly from the characters themselves. This would provide the residents and contractors with a sense of the employees as three-dimensional human beings, instead of merely workers.

Then, I would recommend that the Fisher Island Community Association make clear in its contract negotiations with the contractors their desire that the Island workers be paid and treated fairly, perhaps including a mechanism for workers to file grievances.

The Quilt of Humanity ModelTM Analysis of the Gold Farmer‘s Reality: The story of the Gold Farmers provides a vivid illustration of how differences in economic and societal power negatively impact those with the least of each. The Quilt of Humanity ModelTMprovides a framework for unpacking the complexities of the situation, separating out what takes place at the individual level (individual actions by angry players who target the Gold Farmers and the personal economic harm it causes), the group level (an examination of how cultural bigotry influences the manner of these individual attacks), and the systemic (an examination of how the large game companies and the Gold Farms benefit economically while the individuals who do the work benefit least).

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