In the past two years, 500 export assembly factories have shut down in Mexico, throwing 218,000 workers on to the street. Their crime was the $1.26-an-hour base wage they were paid by companies such as Alcoa Fujikura to produce auto parts for export to the US. Those wages are now "too high" in the global economy.
Never mind that the Alcoa workers in Acuna live in makeshift cardboard huts that lack potable water. Never mind that many of the workers in nearby Piedras Negras were selling their blood plasma twice a week to Baxter International for $30 in order to survive. Those same auto parts are now being made in Honduras by workers earning 59 cents an hour, in Nicaragua for 40 cents an hour and in China for 27 cents an hour.
Right now, in Nicaragua and Honduras, factory workers report that management is telling them to get ready to work harder and longer for lower wages, because there are 1,000 people in China lined up and ready to take each of their jobs. If they don't like it, the company will just have to shut down the plant and leave.
Multinational companies sourcing production in China are having an enormous impact on the global economy, lowering wages and rolling back labour rights. Workers in China assembling healthcare products for companies such as Viva and Sport-Elec are being forced to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week (with just 12 days off a year) for 16 cents an hour. There is no overtime premium. The workers have no health insurance and no pensions. If they try to organise, they will be fired, perhaps even beaten and imprisoned.
It does not have to be like this. But what happens when workers dare to stand up to ask that their basic rights be respected? When young women in Bangladesh, being paid just five cents for every $17.99 Disney shirt they sewed, asked for one day a week off, the Walt Disney Company responded by pulling its work from the factory. These women needed these jobs, but they also wanted to be treated as human beings. The message Disney is delivering to workers across the developing world is that if you dare to raise your voice, you too will be fired and thrown out on the street with nothing.
One thing is certain in the new global economy: workers struggling for their rights cannot succeed if there is not also simultaneous pressure on the corporations in their marketplaces. I am not talking about a boycott. It must be the very opposite: what is needed are campaigns to keep jobs in the developing world while at the same time working to guarantee respect for worker rights.
This is where the consumer comes in. We in the developed world hold the key to ending child labour and sweatshop abuses. If enough of us care, and if enough of us act, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Corporations continue to hide the factories they use around the world to make the goods we purchase. Wal-Mart, for example, uses 4,400 factories in one Chinese province alone. As a first step, we need full public disclosure of all factory names and locations. Such transparency will make it much harder to hide abuses.
Corporations have long demanded all sorts of enforceable laws, such as intellectual property and copyright laws, to defend their products and trademarks. Corporations tell us that there must be a level playing field in the global economy, or they cannot function and everything descends into chaos. However, when you say to the companies, "that sounds reasonable, but can't we also protect the fundamental rights of the 16-year-old who made the product?", these same companies say that would be an impediment to free trade. So, in today's global economy, the product is protected but not the human being who made it. We must not let this stand. We need enforceable laws to defend workers' rights - laws every bit as strong as those currently afforded to products.
In the short run, there is plenty we can do. We need to draw up a "preferred companies" list, made up of corporations which may not be perfect but are far better than average and moving in the right direction. We need to reward companies that are doing the right thing.
I would suggest the following standards for companies on the preferred list: full public disclosure of factory names and addresses; adoption of a code of conduct which calls for strict adherence to all local laws and core International Labour Organisation-recognised rights; release at least once a year of monitoring reports regarding the conditions in their factories; an agreement to respond to allegations of worker rights' violations.
At this very moment, while the Bush administration is pressing to impose the free trade agreement of the Americas, unions across central America are being wiped out as part of a campaign by companies seeking to roll back any rights workers have won.
The US-based national labour committee is about to release dozens of documented reports of worker rights struggles in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Haiti, Bangladesh and China. These are not just academic reports - they are calls to action to support these workers in their struggle for dignity and justice. Are we listening?
This article originally appeared in the Guardian (UK) on Sept. 22, 2003