FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

More articles by:

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Natoli
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
Binoy Kampmark
The Disgruntled Former Prime Minister
Faisal Khan
Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?
Arnold August
The Importance of Néstor García Iturbe, Cuban Intellectual
James Munson
An Indecisive War To End All Wars, I Mean the Midterm Elections
Nyla Ali Khan
Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions
Dan Bacher
Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California
Christopher Brauchli
When Depravity Wins
Robby Sherwin
Here’s an Idea
Susan Block
Cucks, Cuckolding and Campaign Management
Louis Proyect
The Mafia and the Class Struggle (Part Two)
David Yearsley
Smoke on the Water: Jazz in San Francisco
Elliot Sperber
All of Those Bezos
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail