Article — From the January 2010 issue
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Article — From the January 2010 issue
Of course, the current state of the U.S. economy has only worsened the picture for overseas labor, not just in Cambodia but in every country that depends on manufacturing exports to the United States. Tens of thousands of factory employees in Singapore had their wages cut and their hours reduced when consumer demand plunged in North American and European markets. In Taiwan, 200,000 electronics workers were put on long-term unpaid leave. Apparel exporters have been especially hard hit, with millions of workers at Third World textile, clothing, and footwear plants laid off. Only a handful of countries have been able to increase their exports to the United States and the European Union: Vietnam, Bangladesh, Haiti, and China, and not even these nations have escaped plant closings and mass layoffs. One reason for China’s continuing success, the New York Times explained in a recent article, is the ability of its manufacturers “to quickly slash prices by reducing wages and other costs in production zones that often rely on migrant workers.” An official at a Chinese jeans exporter told the newspaper that American buyers were “getting more and more tough in bargaining for lower prices.”
The crisis has made it more difficult for workers to pressure companies and governments for better wages and conditions. In Vietnam, strikes have been relatively common, even though they are generally considered illegal and are opposed by government-controlled unions. In 2008, a series of wildcat stoppages over the soaring inflation rate led to a small improvement in an otherwise bleak situation; but after the downturn, the number of strikes plunged as apparel workers grew anxious over job security. In Bangladesh, where the average wage is 22 cents an hour, the lowest rate in the world, union activities were temporarily banned under a state of emergency declared in 2007. Despite the arrest of several union and labor-rights activists, workers have continued to protest low salaries. In October, after a garment factory closed, thousands of its workers rioted to demand three months’ back pay; two workers were killed during the protests, which police put down with rubber bullets and tear gas.
The Cambodian government is preparing a new labor law that amounts to a huge handout to apparel makers; its central provision would allow garment factories to keep workers on short-term renewable contracts for as long as they like. Companies in Cambodia have begun hiring almost exclusively on short-term contracts—which pay out far less in benefits than companies using permanent employees and discourage short-term workers from complaining about pay (or anything else) because they have no job security.Currently these engagements are limited to two years, at which point the employee has to be put on the regular payroll. Even in China, where a similar provision is routinely exploited, “short-term” employees must be made permanent after ten years.In October 2008, a Phnom Penh newspaper reported that foraging for food was “an increasingly popular weekend pursuit for garment workers feeling the pinch due to the spiraling cost of goods.” To survive, workers scavaged the fields near their factories for wild vegetables, snails, and crabs.
Yet the conventional wisdom in the United States is still that wages in the Third World are as high as they need to be. “Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about ‘labor standards,’ I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh,” the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote last January, in his trademark tone of a den mother addressing a troop of Brownies. “The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn. . . . Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.” For families living in the dump, “a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty,” and attempts by Obama to push “living wages” for apparel workers in the Third World would merely ratchet up production costs and lead to factory shutdowns and layoffs. “The central challenge in the poorest countries,” he wrote, “is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.”Incidentally, Kristof’s speakers’ bureau, American Program Bureau, says his typical fee is approximately $30,000 for an hour, during which he offers “a compassionate glimpse” into global poverty and gives a “voice to the voiceless.”
Ken Silverstein is the Washington Editor of Harper's Magazine.
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