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Companies Continue to Profit by Playing Dumb

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By now, everybody knows the drill. An American or European company (typically a manufacturing or food-processing enterprise, but increasingly expanding to include IT operations) sets up shop in a stable Latin American or Asian country in order to take advantage of ridiculously low wages and weak or near non-existent environmental laws. It’s beats the hell out of what they face back home.

Consider the alternative. A company wishing to manufacture athletic shoes in Ohio, for example, has to deal with employees demanding decent wages and benefits, labor unions seeking to represent the workers, state and federal laws requiring that women and ethnic minorities be hired, state and federal laws requiring that overtime be paid, state and federal statutes requiring a safe workplace, and state and federal laws requiring that the operation not pollute the environment.

Compare this to a shoe factory in, say, Honduras or Bangladesh, where precious few of these aforementioned requirements even exist. Granted, some may actually appear on a document somewhere, but if they do, it’s purely for show, purely to give American congressmen an excuse for voting in favor of those predatory trade agreements that have been systematically eroding the American middle-class.

And on those rare occasions when international corporations are made aware of labor and/or environmental violations occurring at their factories in faraway Honduras or Bangladesh, they claim to be stunned. They profess ignorance. They play dumb. (“We’re shocked, positively shocked.”)

The majority of those high-minded labor and environmental “protections” included in trade agreements are viewed from the get-go as being as deceptive as an old-fashioned Ponzi scheme. It’s a fact. But it’s also a fact that inclusion of those high-minded provisions is imperative, it’s mandatory. Indeed, without it, those hypocritical Democrats in Congress couldn’t bring themselves to vote for ratification.

And the difference between provisions being mentioned in a document, and provisions being strictly enforced by the host country, is the difference between math students at MIT and football players at the University of Alabama. Accordingly, with the ink on these trade agreements barely dry, the whole phenomenon quickly devolves into a case of, “Goodbye, progressive change”….and “Hello, Nike.”

More bad news. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse than those Asian hellholes that pay workers, including children, a pittance—barely enough to subsist on—we learn that there’s something even creepier than that deadly Third World trifecta of miserable work, long hours, and low wages. Question: What could be worse than toiling in one of those sweatshops? Answer: Toiling in one as a virtual slave.

Nestles SA (headquartered in Switzerland), the largest food company in the world, announced yesterday that workers in Thailand (many of whom were citizens of dirt-poor countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh) who were employed by subsidiaries of Nestles SA, were being coerced to work or even be sold into slavery in order to fulfill the needs of the thriving Thai seafood industry, which exports $7 billion worth of products per year.

How does it qualify as slavery? It’s a two-step process: (1) The intermediaries, the brokers, promise these people an opportunity to “better themselves” by tricking them into borrowing money for their transport, job placement, and “supplies,” and (2) then explain to them that, of course, they won’t be permitted to quit until all that money is paid back. No freeloaders allowed. After all, a person can be thrown in jail for not honoring a debt.

Needless to say, given the combination of abysmally low wages and smoke-and-mirrors debt accumulation, these hapless workers are rarely able to pay what they owe. Basically, they’re stuck there, trapped in one of the crappier jobs ever invented. On the upside, we all get to eat cheap shrimp.

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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

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