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INHUMANITY FOR HIGHER PROFITS:
Global Sweatshop Wage Slavery
Thursday, 25 February 2010
The National Labor Committee calls the world "a desperate place for the poor." Global trade rules don't protect them. They struggle to keep jobs they know will harm or kill them because of no choice. How else can they support their families.
In its mission statement, the National Labor Committee (NLC) highlights the problem stating:
"Transnational corporations (TNCs) now roam the world to find the cheapest and most vulnerable workers." They're mostly young women in poor countries like China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Haiti, and many others working up to 14 or more hours a day for sub-poverty wages under horrific conditions.
Because TNCs are unaccountable, a dehumanized global workforce is ruthlessly exploited, denied their civil liberties, a living wage, and the right to work in dignity in healthy safe environments. NLC conducts "popular campaigns based on (its) original research to promote worker rights and pressure companies to end human and labor abuses. (It) views worker rights in the global economy as indivisible and inalienable human rights and (believes) now is the time to secure them for all on the planet."
Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Article 24 states:
Definition of a Sweatshop
The term has been around since the 19th century.
Definitions vary but essentially refer to workplaces where employees work for poor pay, few or no benefits, in unsafe, unfavorable, harsh, and/or hazardous environments, are treated inhumanely by employers, and are prevented from organizing for redress.
The term itself refers to the technique of "sweating" the maximum profit from each worker, a practice that thrived in the late 19th century.
Webster calls them "A shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages under unhealthy conditions."
According to the group Sweatshop Watch:
It's mainly a women's rights issue as 90% of the workforce is female, between the ages of 15 - 25. But it's also an environmental one as the global economy exacts a huge price through air pollution, ozone layer depletion, acid rain, ocean and fresh water contamination, and an overtaxed ecosystem producing unhealthy, unsafe living conditions globally.
According to the US Department of Labor, a sweatshop is a place of employment that violates two or more federal or state labor laws governing wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers' compensation or industry regulation.
To understand the practice, it's essential to view it in a broader globalization context. In their book titled, "Globalization and Progressive Economic Policy", Dean Baker, Robert Pollin and Gerald Epstein present the opinions of 36 prominent economists, asking:
Does globalization cause inequality? Instability? Unemployment? Environmental degradation? Or is it an engine of prosperity and wealth for the vast majority of people everywhere? They conclude that it can work for good or ill depending on how much control governments, corporations, and individuals exert, but also say:
In other words, the dog that once wagged the tail now is the tail, the result of eroded state sovereignty and powerful private institutions, producing a race to the bottom conducive to exploiting labor - most prominently in poor countries but also in developed ones.
Wage Slavery in America
In America, the US Department of Labor estimates that half or more of the nation's 22,000 garment factories are sweatshops, mostly in the apparel centers of New York, California, Dallas, Miami and Atlanta, but also offshore in US territories like Saipan, Guam and American Samoa where merchandise is labeled "Made in the USA."
In all locations, wages are low, often sub-poverty, benefits few if any, and regulatory enforcement lax or absent. Hours are long, working conditions unsafe, and those complaining are fired and replaced.
Conditions are also horrific for around two million farm workers - exploited, living in sub-poverty misery, without benefits, a living wage, overtime pay, or other job protections, even for children. Because state and federal oversight are lax, Florida workers have been chained to poles, locked in trucks, physically beaten, and cheated out of pay, yet are intimidated to stay silent.
They also perform dangerous jobs, experience workplace accidents, and are exposed daily to toxic chemicals. As a result, about 300,000 suffer pesticide poisoning annually, and many others experience accidents, musculoskeletal, and other type injuries, some serious.
Workers in Florida, Texas, California, Washington, and North Carolina are most vulnerable, with nowhere to go for redress except those benefitting from a few organizing victories. Impressive as they are, however, they're no match against agribusiness giants or companies like Wal-Mart, a ruthless exploiter of worker rights.
Domestic servitude is another problem affecting many thousands, usually foreign women taking jobs as live-in workers, mostly for the wealthy, foreign diplomats, or other domestic or foreign officials. They seek a better life, send money home to families, yet are exploited - often by unscrupulous traffickers who hold them in forced servitude, work them up to 19 hours a day, pay them $100 or less a month, and subject them to sexual abuse.
They're are excluded from labor law protections. As a result, they're underpaid, work long hours, have little rest, are abused, given limited freedom, denied medical care, proper food and nutrition, and are subjected to unsafe working conditions.
So are many restaurant and hotel workers - underpaid with few benefits, worked long hours without overtime pay, fired if they complain, and these practices exist for lack of regulation and a growing demand for cheap labor, letting unscrupulous employers exploit powerless workers for profit. If it's common in America, what chance have workers in developing countries with lax labor laws offering few protections, even for children, to attract business.
Abuse happens often in dangerous, unhealthy environments for sub-poverty wages, with no overtime pay, breaks or bathroom visits, even when sick. Employees suffer numerous accidents (at times severe), can't organize, and are harassed, intimidated, and fired if they try.
In today's globalized economy, capital is highly mobile, free to go anywhere for the highest return by fleeing locales with high taxes, strict labor laws, or rigorous environmental protections yielding lower profits by raising costs, the main one being labor that's easy to get cheap in developing states eager to grow and needing to new businesses do it. The result is a race to the bottom, a phenomenon Karl Polanyi described in "The Great Transformation - namely, that:
NLC on Wal-Mart
With over $400 billion in sales and about 2.1 million employees, Wal-Mart is the world's largest retailer and private employer, and number three globally in the 2009 Fortune 500 rankings behind Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon.
On December 16, 2009, NLC reported that "Wal-Mart's Punitive Policies Drive Employees to Work Sick - Everyone comes to work sick."
Workers tell a different story. So does Global Exchange.org, saying the company leads "the race to the bottom" by its unfair labor practices:
In December 2008, Wal-Mart agreed to pay at least $352 million and up to $640 million to settle 63 federal and state class-action lawsuits from present and former employees over pay and other issues. According to Professor Paul Secunda of Marquette's School of Law, the company settled to avoid an even worse defeat, including what unionization might cost.
Overall, Wal-Mart treats employees punitively. They're overworked, underpaid, (many below the federal poverty line), denied benefits, discriminated against, punished for the slightest infraction, and treated like wage slaves.
In addition, its operations are predatory, punitive, and destructive as local businesses can't compete and go under, the result being lost jobs, broken lives, and harmed communities. Its also ruthless in pressuring global sweatshop suppliers for low prices, all the worse because the company wields such enormous power.
Study Exposes the Dark Side of Worker Exploitation in America's Three Largest Cities
From January to August 2008, the Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project, and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment exposed the dark side of workforce exploitation in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago - revealing practices common throughout America, especially during the global economic crisis making workers more vulnerable and eager for any job.
Their findings documented flagrant workplace violations, core protections most Americans take for granted, including a guaranteed minimum wage, overtime pay, regular meal and other breaks, compensation for on-the-job injuries, and the right to bargain collectively. The study revealed:
Most affected were workers in apparel and textile manufacturing, personal and repair services, and private household employment. Small companies were worse than larger ones. Hourly workers and those paid by company check were treated better than those getting a weekly wage or in cash. Immigrants, women, the foreign born, and others in vulnerable categories were most at risk, but all workers are affected to some extent.
The abuses documented are endemic in key industries throughout the country, and have a profound effect on workers, their families and communities, especially with true unemployment over 20% and increased job losses monthly during the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.
Low-wage worker rights are compromised across the board - in jobs ranging from agriculture, meat and poultry processing, hotels and restaurants, retailing, nursing homes, day care centers, and residential construction in every city where exploitive day labor hiring exist. American workers face a system where business is empowered, their rights are eroding, and government is their enemy, not ally.
Sweatshops in Developing Countries
Abroad, exploitation is endemic in agriculture, mines, and factories producing garments, shoes, rugs, toys, chocolate, and other products. The same abuses are common - 60 - 80 hour workweeks, sub-poverty wages as low as pennies an hour, and no benefits in hazardous environments. Workers are harassed, intimidated, forced to work overtime, prevented from organizing, and fired if they complain.
Global sweatshops are mostly in Asia, Central and South America employing tens of millions of workers. It's also a children's issue as the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 250 million between the ages of 5 - 14 work in developing countries - 61% in Asia, 32% in Africa and 7% in Latin America, but scattered numbers show up everywhere. Many are forced to work, at times abducted, work for less pay than adults, and are denied an education and normal childhood. Worse still, some are confined, brutally exploited, beaten, and sexually abused with no one looking out for their welfare.
National Labor Committee (NLC) Sweatshop Report on a China Factory
On February 10, 2009, Jason Chen headlined, "Your Keyboards May Have Been Made in Appalling Conditions," then explained that Microsoft, IBM, Dell, Lenovo, and HP keyboards likely were made under horrific working conditions at a Meitai Dongguan City, China factory.
"Workers are prohibited from talking, listening to music, raising their heads, putting their hands in their pockets." They're fined for being one minute late, not trimming their fingernails, and for stepping on the grass. They're searched on entering or leaving the facility, and anyone handing out flyers or discussing working conditions with outsiders are fired.
The assembly line never stops, so workers needing bathroom breaks must wait for the scheduled time. Overtime is mandatory, "with 12-hour shifts seven days a week and an average of two days off a month." Anyone taking Sunday off is docked two and a half days' pay. Including unpaid overtime, workers average up to 81 hours a week on site for a 74 workweek, including 34 hours of overtime, 318% above China's legal limit.
Their base pay is 64 cents an hour, way below their basic needs, and after deductions for "primitive room and board," take-home wages are 41 cents an hour. For 75 hours a week, including overtime, it comes to $57.19 or 76 cents an hour. Routinely, workers are cheated of up to 19% of pay due them.
They're also docked two hours wages for "not lining up correctly while punching time cards or at the cafeteria," 4 and a half hours for taking personal phone calls, not working "diligently," raising their head to look around, putting personal possessions on their work desk, listening to the radio, "not parking bicycles according to company regulations," riding them at the facility not according to company rules, and returning to dorms after curfew.
They're penalized seven hours wages for switching beds without permission, one and a half day's pay for arriving over one hour late, riding the elevator without permission, using dorm electricity without permission, using company phones for personal calls, producing low quality, socializing with other employees during working hours, entering or leaving the factory without being inspected, or treating supervisors "with an arrogant attitude."
They lose three days' pay for leaving their workstation without permission, putting up notices or handing out flyers, or "revealing confidential company or production-related information."
They're fired for violating labor discipline, participating in prohibited groups (such as unions, human or civil rights organizations, or non-sanctioned religious ones), not observing government regulations on stopping work, slowing it down, or encouraging others to do it, missing three days work, disobeying China's one-child policy or company rules, causing trouble, or colluding in prohibited behavior.
NLC Report on Jordan Sweatshop
On July 24, 2009, an NLC report headlined, "US - Jordan Free Trade Agreement Stumbles," citing "human trafficking, abuse, forced overtime, primitive dorm conditions, imprisonment and forcible deportations of foreign guest workers at" Jordan's Musa Garment factory, owned by two Israeli businessmen, Jack Braun and Moshe Cohen.
About 209 workers are employed, included 181 foreign guest workers, 132 from Bangladesh and 49 from India. NLC explains the following abuses:
After the US - Jordan Free Trade Agreement took effect in December 2001, Jordanian exports to America rose 2,000 percent, the result of virtually no worker protections, making them easily exploitable.
NLC Report on Bangladesh Sweatshop - The Kabir Steel Yard, Chittagong
In September 2009, an NLC report was titled, "Where Ships and Workers Go To Die: Shipbreaking in Bangladesh & The Failure of Global Institutions to Protect Worker Rights." NLC Executive Director Charles Kernaghan wrote a preface saying "If There Is a Hell on Earth, This Is It," calling the Kabir site "one of the strangest, most striking and frightening (ones) in the world."
About 30,000 workers dismantle enormous decommissioned tanker ships - 20 stories high weighing 25 million pounds, up to 1,000 feet long, and from 95 - 164 feet wide. They perform the world's most hazardous jobs 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 22 - 32 cents an hour "handling and breathing in dangerous toxic waste and with no safeguards whatsoever and under conditions that violate every local and international labor law." Serious injuries happen daily, in some cases paralyzing, for others deaths every three or four weeks. Over the past 30 years, as many as 2,000 have been killed. Life is cheap, and no one cares.
Employing mostly young men, but also children as young as 11, the operation has been ongoing for over 30 years under horrific conditions. Workers use hammers to break up 15,000 pounds of asbestos in each ship, then dump it on the sand to wash away.
Four to six of them share primitive rooms, often sleeping on a filthy concrete floor. No one can afford a mattress. Roofs leak so, on rainy nights, they have to sit up covering themselves with plastic sheets. Their shower is a hand water pump. They deserve better and don't ask for much - 60 cents an hour, legal overtime wages, one day a week off, sick days, holidays, and healthcare to cover job injuries.
On September 5, 2009, a worker was burned to death breaking apart a South Korean tanker. Another is in critical condition, and three more were seriously burned when their blowtorches struck a gas tank that exploded, engulfing them in flames.
They're often paralyzed or crushed to death by falling metal plates. On July 14, 2008, a 13-year old child was killed when a large iron one struck his head. Accidents like these aren't reported, and investigations are never held.
On average, each ship contains about 15,000 pounds of asbestos and 10 - 100 tons of lead paint. As a result, workers are exposed to toxins from asbestos, lead, PCBs, mercury, arsenic, dioxins, cadmium, solvents, black oil residues and carcinogenic fumes from melting metal and lead paint. In addition, Bangladesh beaches, ocean, and fishing villages sustain heavy environmental contamination.
Helpers, often children, go barefoot or wear flip flops, use hammers to break apart asbestos, then shovel it into bags to dump in the sand. The most rudimentary protective gear is absent. Cutters using blowtorches wear sunglasses, not protective goggles; baseball caps, not hardhats; dirty bandanas around their noses and mouths, not respiratory masks; and two sets of shirts, not welders' vests, hoping not to get burned but they do daily.
All International Labor Organization (ILO) and Bangladesh labor laws are blatantly violated. Anyone asking for proper wages is immediately fired. Workers are assured of early deaths because conditions haven't changed in over 30 years.
A dead worker is worth $1,400. On August 12, 2008, a worker was crushed by a metal plate when a cable holding it up snapped. Another worker's leg was so badly hurt, it was amputated. A third one's hand was crushed. It's now paralyzed. In vain, the dead man's mother begged for help with burial expenses. Only after a long struggle and legal aid did she get 100,000 taka, $1,453, a cheap price for a life.
After sustaining serious injuries, another worker said:
He demanded justice for his injuries, and doctors said he had a chance with proper treatment. Surgery, however, would cost 750,000 taka, $10,900, a cost the shipyard wouldn't pay. Instead, they let him rot in bed with no end in sight for his misery.
Another worker said:
Others said work in the shipyard "is to invite death. Here a dog is more important than a human being," easily replaced. "After a cow ploughs for one or two hours, they have to be fed. But not us. We have to work 12 - 14 hours with nothing."
Workers aren't united. They have no union. They can't bargain. If they try to organize, they'll be fired and replaced. "What the owner says is the law....We work. We eat. We sleep. We don't have any life."
Inside ships, it's hot. "Very hot. We are sweating. Everyone is soaked." They often work on "floating stairs," bamboo rope ladders. It's "very risky." They hang on with one hand and operate a blowtorch with the other and use their teeth to turn liquid gas and oxygen valves on and off.
A leading Bangladeshi attorney, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, said he hadn't:
NLC calls the world "a desperate place for the poor." Global trade rules don't protect them. They struggle to keep jobs they know will harm or kill them because of no choice. How else can they support their families.
Listen to Lendman's cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.
Mr. Lendman's stories are republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.This story was published on February 25, 2010.
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