Sweat Shops, Then and Now


Despite his support for some policies and programs that organized labor has strongly opposed (NAFTA anyone?),  I’ve always been a fan of Robert Reich, President Clinton’s first-term Secretary of Labor.  Even when disagreeing with him, I’ve always found his thinking to be refreshingly clear, and his heart in the right place.

Incidentally, for anyone interested in a fascinating glimpse into White House politics, I can recommend Reich’s Locked in the Cabinet, an insightful (and surprisingly witty) first-person account of his four years as Labor Secretary.

During an interview for my book, Reich and I touched on the rise of Third World manufacturing and the deleterious effect it’s had on America’s industrial sector.  In response to my mini-rant about their deplorable working conditions, Reich reminded me that, historically, “sweatshops” have been a natural point on the trajectory from a rural economy to an industrial one.  It happened in Europe, it happened in the U.S., and it’s happening in the Third World.

Of course, most of us are familiar with that “historical” explanation.  After all, how else could it have occurred?  How else does a country move from a farming economy to an industrial economy?  Clean, safe, well-lighted, modern factories don’t just suddenly spring up overnight.  They evolve.  Historically, the sweatshop has been a natural stage in the progression of an industrial-based economy.

But there’s a critical flaw in this appeal to history, one that hinges upon the failure to recognize a profound difference between then and now.  And that difference is the dominant role of multinational corporations.

Consider an analogy to the “evolution” of former European colonies in Africa and Asia, and the role the Cold War played in it.  Due to enormous political and economic pressure exerted by the tug-of-war between the USA and USSR, these countries were denied the right to self-determination.  They were denied the right to struggle toward a “natural” self-identity.  In a word, they weren’t allowed to evolve.  Instead, many of them became client states.

And so it is with manufacturing industries in the Third World.  The corporate entities who rule these enterprises (and whose loyalty is reserved exclusively for bankers and shareholders) are constantly trolling for industrial “client states” of their own.

Just as it’s getting harder in the U.S. to find employment as a full-time, vested employee—rather than a temp, part-timer, or independent contractor—the same is true of manufacturing enterprises in Third World nations.  It’s all about mobility.  While the word “temporary” may once have had pejorative connotations, today those connotations are all positive.  Temporary means unconstrained.  It means free to move.  It means no hindrances, no limitations, no commitments, and, alas, no long-term responsibilities.

Just as U.S. businesses are constantly seeking ways to pry workers off the traditional concept of “full-fledged employment” and get them to rejoice in seeing themselves as wandering hordes of independent contractors, corporations around the world are doing the same thing, but they are doing it on a gargantuan scale.

These multinational corporations are transforming entire countries into independent contractors.  They “hire” these countries the same way American businesses hire transient workers.  They hire them, train them, equip them, get all they can out of them, and then, as soon as they can strike a better deal elsewhere, they cut them loose.

The deplorable working conditions in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Honduras could almost be “excused” if it were understood by everyone—employers, workers, consumers, human rights groups—that what we’re observing is simply a stage in the natural development of an industrial economy, and that these sweatshops and this unfortunate class of worker are moving inexorably toward something better.

But that’s not the case.  The exploitation of Third World labor has become a monetized and commodified form of “human strip-mining,” and it’s being traded daily on the New York Stock Exchange.  Unless something very dramatic happens, it ain’t going away any time soon.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” 2nd edition), was a former union president. dmacaray@earthlink.net

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Jennifer Loewenstein
Heading Toward a Collision: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Regional Proxy Wars
John Pilger
Wikileaks vs. the Empire: the Revolutionary Act of Telling the Truth
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria
Gary Leupp
A Useful Prep-Sheet on Syria for Media Propagandists
Jeffrey St. Clair
Pesticides, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Acceptable Death
Joshua Frank
The Need to Oppose All Foreign Intervention in Syria
Lawrence Ware – Paul Buhle
Insurrectional Black Power: CLR James on Race and Class
Oliver Tickell
Jeremy Corbyn’s Heroic Refusal to be a Nuclear Mass Murderer
Helen Yaffe
Che’s Economist: Remembering Jorge Risquet
Mark Hand
‘Rape Rooms’: How West Virginia Women Paid Off Coal Company Debts
Yves Engler
War Crimes in the Dark: Inside Canada’s Special Forces
Arno J. Mayer
Israel: the Wages of Hubris and Violence
W. T. Whitney
Cuban Government Describes Devastating Effects of U. S. Economic Blockade
Brian Cloughley
The US-NATO Alliance Destroyed Libya, Where Next?
Barry Lando
Syria: Obama’s Bay of Pigs?
Karl Grossman
The Politics of Lyme Disease
Andre Vltchek
Southeast Asia “Forgets” About Western Terror
Jose Martinez
American Violence: Umpqua is “Routine”?
Vijay Prashad
Russian Gambit, Syrian Dilemma
Sam Smith
Why the Democrats are in Such a Mess
Uri Avnery
Nasser and Me
Andrew Levine
The Saints March In: The Donald and the Pope
Arun Gupta
The Refugee Crisis in America
Michael Welton
Junior Partner of Empire: Why Canada’s Foreign Policy Isn’t What You Think
Lara Santoro
Terror as Method: a Journalist’s Search for Truth in Rwanda
Robert Fantina
The U.S. Elections and Verbal Vomit
Dan Glazebrook
Refugees Don’t Cause Fascism, Mr. Timmermann – You Do
Victor Grossman
Blood Moon Over Germany
Patrick Bond
Can World’s Worst Case of Inequality be Fixed by Pikettian Posturing?
Pete Dolack
Earning a Profit from Global Warming
B. R. Gowani
Was Gandhi Averse to Climax? A Psycho-Sexual Assessment of the Mahatma
Tom H. Hastings
Another Mass Murder
Anne Petermann
Activists Arrested at ArborGen GE Trees World Headquarters
Ben Debney
Zombies on a Runaway Train
Franklin Lamb
Confronting ‘Looting to Order’ and ‘Cultural Racketeering’ in Syria
Carl Finamore
Coming to San Francisco? Cra$h at My Pad
Ron Jacobs
Standing Naked: Bob Dylan and Jesus
Missy Comley Beattie
What Might Does To Right
Robert J. Burrowes
Gandhi Jayanti, Gandhi’s Dream
Raouf Halaby
A Week of Juxtapositions
Louis Proyect
Scenes from the Class Struggle in Iran
Christopher Washburn
Skeptik’s Lexicon
Charles R. Larson
Indonesia: Robbed, Raped, Abused
David Yearsley
Death Songs