Category Archives: globalization

Speak Up to Stop Unfair Trade

Leo W. Gerard, the president of the United Steelworkers International has a piece on the HuffPo:

In this struggle, it is crucial to understand that so-called free trade isn’t some lofty capitalist ideal. The U.S. engages in “free trade” with the Chinese because they hold $1 trillion in debt over our heads, an obligation they know we can’t pay. We shrink in fear of them. They’re world class bullies. They can do whatever they please. And they do. They violate international trade laws by which we abide. That’s why their stuff is so cheap. The one factor on which the price difference always is blamed — labor costs — is only the tiniest fraction of it.

Labor violations are part of the cheating. The National Labor Committee and others, including reporters from the New York Times, have documented exploitation of Chinese workers that can only be described as modern slavery. We stand in solidarity with these workers and condemn these atrocities that include very young teenagers kept in locked buildings with caged windows where they are forced to labor 14-hour shifts under grueling conditions, but find it impossible to make money or to amass the “exit fee” required to leave. They include children, women, and occasionally men kidnapped and forced to work in brick kilns, coal mines, and sweatshops in the Chinese hinterlands, with no payment other than gruel and a sleeping mat. When Chinese companies treat humans this way, they realize a competitive advantage over American firms that routinely obey humanitarian laws.

China is also one of the most dangerous places in the world to work and live because corporations fail to provide safety equipment for workers, such as dust control devices, and refuse to protect the environment with pollution control equipment. Both practices are profitable for Chinese corporations, particularly when competing with U.S. firms, which must abide by environmental and worker health and safety regulations.

Much more significant, however, are other deliberate Chinese interventions in the market, such as the undervaluation of its currency, subsidization of its manufacturing, counterfeiting, forced transfer of American technology, and refusal to give American companies access to Chinese markets with licensing restrictions, complex regulations and local content rules.

China gives breaks to manufacturers on land, rent, energy and water. Manufacturers may receive bank “loans” they know they’re not required to repay. China also exempts certain industries from income taxes and gives tax rebates on exports.

China’s deliberate currency undervaluation works as a subsidy as well. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission explains it this way: “China’s undervalued currency encourages undervalued Chinese exports to the U.S. and discourages U.S. exports because U.S. exports are artificially overvalued. As a result, undervalued Chinese exports have been highly disruptive to the U.S.”

China cheats. Free trade is a myth. The American worker doesn’t need special treatment. We’re the most productive in the world. We just seek fair competition. We want fair trade. The USW wants trade rules enforced.

Recruitment Firms Abroad Urged To Help Fight Trafficking

Kimberly Jane Tan at GMANews.TV has a piece about Manpower Philippines, an international manpower agency that is taking a stand against human trafficking.

Richard Evans, the manager of the agency in the Philippines, said that help is needed from every company in light of the number of victims of forced labor or servitude—about 12.3 million worldwide.

“Every company has the potential to contribute to the elimination of human trafficking,” Evans said in a presentation during the recently concluded International Conference on Gender, Migration, and Development at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza in Manila.

“This is our world, our people, it is our responsibility to protect it,” he said.

Read the whole piece here.

Dirt Cheap Fashion

Elisabeth Wynhausen, author of Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the Job Market had a piece earlier this month about how she went around sleuthing down the supply chains of items in her wardrobe.

“Perhaps knowing more about the garments would help defuse the minefield of ethical dilemmas shopping has become,” she writes.

Does the chief executive of Simona, an Australian clothing company, have any idea of the wages of workers in mainland China where Wynhausen’s shirt was made?

“I don’t ask,” John Recek responds. “They wouldn’t tell you anyway. It’s actually not my problem. But what I can tell you about the companies I deal with–after being in their offices–is that I would be 100 percent certain they’re all doing the right thing as far as Simona is concerned.”

When Kerrie Yelland, national sales manager for Simone Turpin, another label popular with Wynhausen, is asked whether it’s possible that some of Simone Turpin’s small factories are subcontracting their work to factories that may not be as fair, Yelland replies, “The girl in production can tell you definitely, but as far as I’m aware this was done by the guy in Marrickville and he has his in-house machinists. Whether he’s got an outside source of workers, I don’t know.”

Unfortunately, the production manager will be busy all month, Yelland adds.

In 2006 [Anita] Chan and Kaxton Siu, a colleague now at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, interviewed garment workers from four factories in Shenzhen City that supplied Wal-Mart in the US. Despite widespread reports of labor shortages in China, they found that in driving down the prices of goods, Wal-Mart is driving down migrant wages in the export sector.

The same thing is happening in the remotest pockets of the globe, as big retailers exert downward pressure on the wages of migrant workers. There could hardly be a better example than Saipan, in the western Pacific, one of the 14 islands of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a far-flung territory of the US where US labor laws do not apply. A reference to a court case there prompts me to dive into my cupboard to check the labels on the black Anne Klein blouse, Jones New York high-necked T-shirt and gray Ralph Lauren pants suit I bought in Macy’s in 2006. All say “made in the Northern Marianas Islands USA.”

I have unknowingly bought clothing made in a place that has become a byword for sweated labor.

The Saipan garment factories opened in the ’80s to circumvent the quota system that set limits on the amount of clothing entering the US from any other country. That rule didn’t apply to Saipan and soon recruiters were bringing in temporary migrant workers from Asia, charging them thousands of dollars in recruiting fees for the privilege of earning a wage that last year reached $US3.55 an hour.

In Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, author John Bowe reports on the 1999 class action suit 30,000 present and former migrant workers from Saipan filed against 25 American retailers, among them Polo Ralph Lauren and the Jones Apparel Group (which includes the Anne Klein brand), the Gap, Target, Liz Claiborne and Calvin Klein. The case was eventually settled for US$ 20 million in unpaid back wages and over time.

Since then, the quota system has been changed, the garment factories on Saipan are closing and big retailers are combing the world for other sources of cheap labor.

I emailed the customer relations department for Polo Ralph Lauren to ask if they could help me map the supply chain of my pants suit. They wrote back: “Polo Ralph Lauren requires all licensees, vendors, contractors, and subcontractors to adhere to strict operating guidelines, which cover the following: health and safety, wages and benefits, working hours and overtime, freedom of association, child labor, customs compliance, environmental regulations, as well as forced labor, prison labor and discrimination.”

They didn’t mention Saipan, though.

Read the whole piece at The Australian

We Can Afford to Stop Slave Labor. We Must Afford To.

Remarks by Mark P. Lagon, Director, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, from a conference earlier this year entitled “Engaging Business: Addressing Forced Labor”:

Human trafficking is a dehumanizing crime which turns people into mere commodities. Globalization fuels not only sex trafficking but also slave labor. Goods enter the global market place while consumers have little or no knowledge of the supply chains and work conditions that resulted in their production. This is problematic for both the consumer and businesses which are increasingly faced with the challenge of ensuring that complex supply chains are untainted by forced labor. But American businesses are steadily moving to address this challenge in their quest to be socially responsible corporate citizens.

This Fall the Gap withdrew a line of embroidered blouses and ordered an internal investigation after news reports revealed apparent child labor in a Delhi sweatshop. One child, Jivaj, from West Bengal described his experience this way, “Our hours are hard and violence is used against us if we don’t work hard enough. This is a big order for abroad, they keep telling us that… I was so tired I felt sick.”

Gap has publicly reiterated their unequivocal opposition to child labor. In a public private partnership, Gap is now partnering with the Global March Against Child Labor to establish an independent monitoring system for future production of its products, and to examine industry-wide solutions to child labor issues. While Gap’s response was swift, the frenzied media attention presents a nightmare scenario for even the best public relations specialist. But more importantly it gives us a glimpse of a nightmare scenario of a different sort—that of child and forced labor.

As more labor is outsourced to developing country markets, there is a greater likelihood that human rights violations will occur with corporate headquarters possessing little to no knowledge before it is too late. Multiple layers of contractors and subcontractors in a production chain present major challenges for accountability. Gap for example reportedly has 90 people located around the world whose job is to ensure compliance with their Code of Vendor Conduct.

The reality, which many of you know well, is that most major companies—whether they are part of the apparel industry or food production or other sectors—could find themselves in Gap’s shoes overnight. Is this the natural product of globalization? Is it the fruit of capitalism run amok? I think not. Many of you have dedicated your time and professional energy to advancing the field of corporate social responsibility—a field which seeks to take steps to better the lives of employees and the communities where your companies operate. You recognize what our nation’s founders recognized—namely that liberty, and I would argue capitalism, must be tempered by virtue and with it the common pursuit of human dignity. You acknowledge that any challenge to public image or profitability associated with securing supply chains and guaranteeing the absence of forced labor in production is minimal when compared to what is at stake legally and ethically if such ends are not pursued.

Corporate social responsibility often involves doing what’s right beyond what’s required by the letter of the law. … We’re talking about standing together morally and developing strategies practically to stop slave labor in the dark shadows of the world economy. We can afford to. We must afford to.

Conference hosted by The Coca-Cola Company. Sponsored by the U.S. Council for International Business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the International Organization of Employers in Cooperation with the International Labor Organizations on February 19, 2008.

Read the whole speech at the U.S. Department of State site.

This speech was sent to me by another slavery writer, Benjamin Skinner, who has a new book out called A Crime So Monstrous about the ease with which humans are trafficked around the world.

I’m posting this because it’s interesting. On the one hand it is a meaningful and articulate show of concern. On the other hand, I’m a huge non-believer in corporate responsibility. It’s great if they make efforts, but fixing the world is not their job. As Robert Reich describes very eloquently in his new book, Supercapitalism, and I have articulated less well elsewhere, corporations are like viruses. They’re money-making machines. That’s all they know how to do, and all we should expect from them. It’s the job of citizens and governments to create democracy, diminish inequality, protect labor and human rights, and eliminate slavery.

Finally, it’s also very interesting that the Coca Cola company had this guy come speak to them, given their problems with murdered trade unionists in Colombia. But hey…

Watch the Freedom Tag

A week ago, The Times reported that the cost of household goods in the UK has fallen by nearly 50 percent since the 1970s.

How everything can be so cheap these days?

Because we don’t have free people in Europe, Japan and America making our stuff. We have an unfree labor force in China manufacturing it all!

My point is: don’t measure everything in price. Watch the freedom and environmental tag at the same as you watch the price tag.

Half-Time Shame

Most of us spent the day yesterday enjoying the game with friends and family. What many of us don’t know is that one of the Super Bowl’s major sponsors, Bridgestone Firestone, is involved in incredible abuses in Liberia, where it runs the world’s largest rubber operation. Writing for Alternet, Emira Woods, co-director for Foreign Policy In Focus, brought the story to the fore yesterday.

Herself a Liberian, Woods visited the plantation in 2005, shortly after Firestone signed an agreement with the interim government that extended its lease until 2042. It was on this trip that she met Abu, an 11-year-old working in the Firestone plantation alongside his father.

From 4:30 AM, Abu spent his time cleaning storage cups, applying chemicals and pesticides to trees, collecting the rubber sap streaming down each tree and transporting buckets of sap weighing up to 75 pounds a mile up the road to storage tanks.

Woods was touched when Abu shared his dream of one day being a doctor, knowing how small his chances are. He and his family, she writes, are shackled by a quota system that withholds pay unless a set number of trees are tapped daily. Firestone marks this number at 650 trees, but rubber tappers have estimated the number at about 1,100 trees that must be tapped three times each day.

According to a CNN report, even 650 trees take about 21 hours tap. It is this quota system that forces workers to bring their children to work so they do not lose their daily meager wage of $3.19.

Read Modern-Day Slavery and the Big Game by Emira Woods at AlterNet.

Crucifix Sweatshops

This is one that perhaps slipped through the cracks during the Christmas season, via the Seattle Times, to be filed under, “Surprise, Surprise, Chapter MXCVVLXX”:

A labor-rights group alleged Tuesday that crucifixes sold in religious gift shops in the United States are produced under “horrific” conditions in a Chinese factory with more than 15-hour workdays and inadequate food. Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, held a news conference to call attention to conditions at a factory in Dongguan, a southern Chinese city near Hong Kong, where he said crosses sold at historic New York churches and elsewhere are made.

Spokespeople for St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Episcopal Trinity Church said the churches had removed dozens of crucifixes from their shops while they investigate the claims. While none of the crucifixes sold in New York were identified as made in China, they bore serial numbers matching products made at the factory in question, Kernaghan said.

St. Patrick’s and Trinity bought the crosses from Singer, a religious-goods company in Mount Vernon. Co-owner Gerald Singer said the objects were purchased through a Chinese manufacturer, Full Start.

“Whether they came out of a sweatshop, we do not know,” Singer said.

A man at the Full Start factory in Dongguan said the allegations were “totally incorrect.”

Listen to an interview with Charles Kernaghan at Democracy Now!