Sweat-shops: dream or curse?
"It may shock Americans to hear this, the challenge of poor countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people; but that they don't exploit enough"...... Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times.
A few years ago, a British NGO (no names) listened to the complaints of women who worked in a garment factory: a sweatshop in Khlong Toei (a shantytown in Bangkok), as they listed their complaints. So the NGO persuaded the women to strike.
They struck for about a month (I'm quoting from memory) and the NGO flew out a British activist/b-list filmstar. The women had never heard of her, but it was great publicity. Bangkok Post covered the story: they were very critical of the NGO for not fully understanding how precarious the striking workers were. The British papers probably ran a picture of the 'star', standing on the picket lines, shoulder to shoulder!
And then the 'star' flew back to England and more, lucrative films. But the factory? Well.....sadly...the factory lost its contracts and went bust.
So the NGO persuaded the women to buy the factory (going cheap) and set up a co-operative of the workers. No management, just a nice team, doing all the work. The women got back some of the contracts but not enough for all the workers. So the workforce accepted fewer jobs and they agreed to take a cut in wages, in order to keep the contracts flowing and compete for further work. The wages they paid themselves were less than what the factory paid. But, hey, they were a co-operative!
Coops: good! Sweatshops: bad!Thailand:
There are about two million migrants in Thailand, from Laos, Cambodia, and Burma. The Burmese men work mainly on the fishing boats: 3D work - dirty, dangerous and degrading. The women work in the fish processing factories, also dirty, dangerous (sexual abuse) and degrading. (see my earlier story: Two kinds of trah in the Gulf of Thailand). They are badly treated, say Human Rights NGOs. But the money they earn, they can send back home. It is far more than they could get from any Burmese job.
A Cambodian friend of mine works in a garment 'factory': well, three rooms turned into one. He is the cutter: he cuts the cloth for a thousand tee-shirts at a go. Boring work but it gives him just enough money to survive. He is not a 'registered' migrant. He had no ID card (very important in Thailand) until he bribed a local official to issue one without recording it on the computer. When it ran out, he phoned the official again. But the official wanted too much money. Not to worry: he had a job. The boss liked him and would keep him on while the work was plentiful.
I've not seen him recently. He's probably lost his job. Or the police maybe have found him. A bribe perhaps? Or back to the border to live with his Mum in the refugee camp. But I know he hates it there. He told me before, how other refugees can bully him or steal his money. He's gay. That does not help.
When I went to Pakalinding village, in the heart of the Gambia to work at the Rural Development Institute, a woman and her 17 year old son, Salifu, visited me on my first day there. She told me that she usually cleaned for the foreign people who stayed in this house and her son was the gardener. I didn't want a cook/cleaner or a gardener. I was capable of house and garden work myself. But this was the middle of the Gambia. No other work was on offer for this landless family. The father had disappeared to Banjul, the main city, with his new woman. And his wife in Pakalinding had four children to care for. I paid her (and him) the going rates. I was a volunteer on a local teacher's wage (and found the cost of food made things hard for me). But I had savings. Salifu still believes that, one day, a factory will come to Pakalinding and he will get a proper job, maybe as security, or as a mason (he is fully trained) or maybe helping to build a house for the Boss (he is a carpenter too). Nothing has arrived there, so far.
In India, there 450 million people who have no secure work. They take whatever they can find..... breaking stones in quarries, renting out their bodies for sex, scavenging on toxic waste dumps, domestic work (with the sexual abuse and violence that can accompany it), manual day labour (if they can find it), paddy harvesting in the fields, or local sweatshops in the villages and shanty towns. If they cannot find work, maybe they can find scraps of food discarded by someone. If not, they will go hungry. Most of them are not skilled or literate enough to get jobs in India's better sweatshops: the ones that have long-term contracts.
Nicholas D Kristof (for his article: In Cambodia, sweatshops are a dream) talked to Pim Srey Rath, a 19-year old Phnom Penh woman scavenging on the city's huge toxic waste dump. "I'd love to get a job in a factory. At least that work is in the shade. Here is where it's hot", she told him. Kristof talked with another woman, Vath Sam Oeun and her ten year old son. She hopes he will grow up to get a factory job: she has seen other children hit by garbage trucks. Her son has not ever been to a doctor or dentist. He last had a bath when he was two. A sweatshop job would be wonderful: less dangerous for his future.
Kristof says he is glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers, in dangerous factories.
But, as he points out: "sweatshops are only a sympton of poverty, not a cause; and banning them closes off one route out of poverty".
Sweat-shop workers of Britain Unite!
You have everything to fear: your jobs, your gang-masters' bullying, your beds and your hunger. The sweatshops in Britain are found mainly in the fields of East Anglia, to the east of London. Cabbages, cauliflowers, brocolli, carrots, turnips, swedes, and parsnips, this time of year. The fields are cold: below zero at present. Usually, they are muddy and slippery. The gangs get up at five, and wait for the lorry from their 'house' out to the farms. They work until dark. The work is fast and slick: cut, strip outer leaves, and pack: they have quotas to fulfil. Sainsbury's and Tesco's like vegetables - farm fresh. Their customers are very demanding: they won't buy any vegetables that do not look fresh! Customer waste is a real problem for these supermarkets, but what can they do? Their customers are pretty choosey: a badly shaped apple or carrots that are small don't get sold. The field sweatshop money's not good. But hey! Its a job that English workers won't do.
The Sweatshop activists don't go out to these fields with their BAN SWEATSHOPS! banners. I'm not sure why. Maybe they don't speak other languages. Maybe they are afraid of violence from the gang-masters. After all, the gang-masters have strict quotas to fulfil each day. It the work gets interrupted by London sweatshop activists, the gang-masters are in trouble. The supermarkets are very demanding. If the gang-masters cannot deliver what Tesco's require in East Anglia, then Tesco's and Sainsbury's will probably go up-country to the sweatshop fields in Lincolnshire.
Meanwhile, the Sweatshop activists are happy outside Primark: that's the big bad demon this week. And the coffee shop next door is a Starbucks!
Next week, the Sweatshop activists will have other banners. I wonder what they will read? I wonder what they know about hunger? Do they ever feel the hunger pangs of no food for seven days? I hope not.
I hope they enjoy their work. I wonder how they manage for money?