Nicholas Kristof’s column “In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop”, which appeared in New York Times on Tuesday, June 6 argues that sweatshops are a necessary part of the development process in poor countries and should be encouraged. It’s a theme that regularly pops up in the writings of proponents of corporate led globalization. Kristof’s column shows the depth of ignorance and distortion that often underlies such arguments.
While do-gooders in the West see sweatshops as “… exploiters of the poor…the poor themselves tend to see sweatshops as opportunities,” Kristof says. His insight into the preferences of the poor apparently come from a conversation he had in Namibia with a “…a group of young men…trying to get hired as day laborers at a construction site……[The] young men noted that the construction jobs were dangerous and arduous and that they would vastly prefer jobs in, yes, sweatshops.”
Kristof goes on to say that the men can’t get these jobs, in part, because, “Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops.” He adds, “… instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies should set up factories in Africa.”
The column is breathtakingly bad. Kristof actually argues that garment work is “safe, pleasant, and stable” But what is really stunning is the example Kristof gives of why sweatshops are leaving Namibia: the story of the Malaysian owned Ramatex Textile Factory which is closing its factories and moving to China. He could not have picked a worse example to argue his case. Kristof is either guilty of lazy reporting or he is in bad faith in not telling the real story of why Ramatex is closing its Namibian operations. It’s a story that encapsulates exactly what is wrong with the kind of development that Kristof’s favors.
A while back we ran a blog that tells the real story about Ramatex—a story Kristof could have easily uncovered had he wanted to. Here is an excerpt:
Today globalization is less and less about North-South competition and more and more about South-South competition. A story about the Malaysian transnational corporation Ramatex and its activities in Namibia, presented in a yet to be published paper by Norwegian geographer Ann Cecilie Bergene at the Cornell Conference on Global Unions, held in New York in February painfully shows exactly what’s at stake for the developing world.
Ramatex, a textile and garment TNC that supplies firms like Adidas, Puma, Target, Wal-Mart, Nike, and Sears operates plants throughout Asia. In 2002 Ramatex opened a major facility in Namibia which was the largest foreign investment in that country since independence. The company promised to hire 8,000 workers in a vertically integrated textile operation—doing everything from spinning to final sewing.
The jobs on offer at Ramatex turnout to be classic sweatshop jobs. The company—like many global suppliers-- wanted single women who had passed a pregnancy test. To add injury to insult, the women had to pay for the pregnancy test themselves. Namibian labor laws were violated, workers were cheated out of wages, overtime was forced, and workers were fired unfairly.
Namibia, in desperate need of jobs, had actively campaigned to get Ramatex to locate in the country, beating out competition from South Africa and Madagascar by offering major concession in labor law and taxes. But amazingly, one forth of the workers employed by Ramatex in Namibia were migrant workers, recruited mostly in Asia by global temp agencies. Ostensibly these temps were recruited to “train” Namibian workers, but according to unions, the workers were actually hired because they were in a more vulnerable position and therefore more passive. The migrant workers were kept segregated from the Namibian workers and worked under different rules; they sometimes fell into debt bondage; and, they had their passports confiscated so they could not easily leave Namibia. When some 400 Bangladeshi workers protested, riots broke out and they were immediately fired and deported. Throughout, Asian and Namibian workers were pitted against each other in a practice as old as capitalism.
Namibian workers went on strike in 2003. Strikers were beaten and intimidated and more than 400 were fired. Eventually Ramatex did sign a recognition agreement with the Namibian Food and Allied Workers Union, but the company refused to engage in collective bargaining.
The International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF) was alerted and intervened. The ITGLWF launched a campaign to alert global buyers of conditions in the Namibia. One effect of the campaign seems to have been a sharp drop off in orders as global buyers sought to distance from the negative publicity. Shifting suppliers is easy in a global economy where a ready alternative exists.
As a result of the drop in orders, plants closed and workers were laid off. The Namibian government and the company blamed the union for causing trouble and driving the buyers away. (The end of Multi Fiber Agreement was a major factor as well.) Where did Ramatex move its business too after it closed its Namibian operation? China. In fact, today, companies like Nike still do business with Ramatex in China, where many TNCs can operate with much less public scrutiny.
So here you have it all. Highly exploited Namibian workers employed under Dickensian conditions; Asian migrant workers recruited by global temp agencies and sent to Africa to work in slave like conditions; protesting workers deported, beaten, and fired; plants closed and production moved to lower costs countries.
Meanwhile, the global union federation and its Namibian affiliate got the blame from the company and the government for causing the company to move. The message is clear: if you organize, if you protest, you will loose your job, since production can easily be moved to a lower cost area with a more compliant workforce. For those interested in promoting a race to the bottom, it doesn’t get much better.
If workers in a poor country, desperate for jobs, like Namibia, can’t compete against China, is there any hope? The answer is yes, and for two reasons. First, today, the race to the bottom involves workers everywhere, giving workers in the developed and the developing world an organic reason to build a global labor movement to prevent Chinese wages from setting the global wage floor. Second, Chinese workers are far from passive and are essential allies in the fight to raise global standards—but the global labor movement must reach out and find ways to hook up with their struggles.
[Click on China on the menu bar for blogs on Chinese worker struggles.]