Gilberto Soto of Cliffside Park, New Jersey, had gone home to El Salvador to celebrate his 50th birthday with his mother. One week into the visit he was gunned down on her doorstep as he spoke on his cell phone. His dying words were “Mama, they’re killing me.” Soto was an American Teamster official who had committed the unspeakable crime of investigating the plight of dock workers during his visit.
Three weeks ago over 4,000 miners died in China in two separate industrial accidents in sites under government inspection and control. Control from the same entity that now seeks to buy Noranda Mines and Falconbridge Nickel in Canada. Last week the cartels of South Africa announced that the average worker’s wage would go up to $350 a month for men who spend their days one mile underground in locations so far from home that some see their wives for only one month a year.
And every year the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics compares manufacturing labor costs in the U.S. with those of about 30 global rivals. Its latest report, on Nov. 18, showed that average hourly compensation of foreign factory workers rose 12% in 2003, measured in dollars, compared with 4% in the U.S.
But these statistics had a glaring omission: China. The BLS couldn’t compare Chinese and U.S. factory labor costs because reliable statistics from the Asian giant don't exist. That made it hard to assess China's competitive strength.
But for this report the BLS hired a Beijing-based American consultant, Judith Banister, to dig through China's mountain of incomplete and sometimes unreliable statistics. The goal: to calculate average manufacturing compensation in China in 2002 -- the last year for which data was available.
Her estimate? The cost of Chinese factory labor is a paltry 64 cents an hour. This includes both wages and employer contributions for benefits and social insurance. And it covers not just city factory workers, who get the most attention, but the more numerous rural and suburban factory workers as well. For comparison, hourly factory compensation in the U.S. in 2002 was $21.11, and an average of $14.22 in the 30 foreign countries covered by the existing BLS report.
As the new 20th century dawned, there was little to be happy about if you were a workingman. Owners grew rich by keeping their thumbs squarely on their workers. With an endless supply of new immigrants desperate for jobs, owners had little trouble finding people willing to work 10 to 12 hours a day for miserable pay.
In one industry towns most were forced to live in company-owned housing with imposed rents, paid in script rather than cash and left with no choice but to shop at company-owned stores where prices were artificially high — leaving them little more than slaves. For this, many died in the thousands, whether in the sweatshops in New York or the mines of West Virginia. Between 1870 and 1914, an estimated 50,000 miners alone lost their lives on the job in the United States, a death rate three times higher than that of industrial Europe.
When workers tried to organize for better conditions, they were fired, blacklisted, beaten and sometimes murdered. During strikes, compliant politicians ensured that state militias were unleashed to transport union leaders out and escort strikebreakers in.
Often, workers were demanding nothing more radical than the eight-hour day that was already the law in many jurisdictions. Violent conflict seemed always to be the tragic and necessary pivot in the breakthroughs industrial unions finally made over the decades. Governments acknowledged the necessity of righting industrial wrongs only after cataclysmic confrontations like the Ludlow Massacre, the Winnipeg General Strike, the vicious attacks on UAW strikers in Detroit and the confrontations by the CNTU with Johns-Manville in Lac Megantic and Thetford Mines.
There are those today who think all this is a thing of the past and industrial trade unionism is redundant. There are people out there who think globalized markets are the panacea to everything. Their shriveled spirits and hostile hearts refuse to recognize the true sorry state of worldwide labor rights.
The reality is that the blessings of unprecedented choice many Canadians currently enjoy comes at a dear price in the savagely competitive world of global business. In many parts of the globe the pattern is the same: long hours, pay scales below any standards of decency, draconian health risks, intimidation and harassment for the legions who produce goods. Often they are migrant workers. Increasingly they are women. All of them cogs in a system that is largely beyond regulation or control.
Dominated by a few giants, the global manufacturing industry aims to turn on a dime to find the cheapest possible way of filling orders. Elementary rights such as the freedom to associate, reasonable hours and safe working conditions go by the boards. Even companies that have ethical production standards in the West, violate them in the underdeveloped countries as suppliers cut under-the-table deals with subcontractors.
Most Canadians would feel very uncomfortable buying toys or children's clothes if they knew they were made by women whose hours were so long and benefits so meager that they were unable to care properly for their own kids. But like all decisions, consumer choice requires information to be effective. And reliable information isn't always on offer. Shoppers and investors can demand it. Conscientious manufacturers and retailers can supply it. But in our cutthroat environment it's unrealistic to expect everyone to do so voluntarily.
"Made in China" no longer suffices when components may come from half a dozen countries, all co-coordinated by a Hong Kong-based middleman. We need to move toward listing detailed information about the conditions under which goods are produced, including specific suppliers and plants.
Canada has vast experience in tailoring regulations for consumer awareness as well as market flexibility. Governments, primarily Ottawa, need to take a stand. Some may argue that tightening labeling requirements to take into account working conditions and labor standards would be too cumbersome and intrusive. This excuse would be disingenuous at best.
We already insist on meticulous labeling. The list of ingredients on cereal boxes or frozen desserts would challenge an upper-year chemistry student. Detailed information about domestic-production chains allows government to guard Canadians' health, and it allows consumers and their watchdogs to look out for their interests.
We should be similarly concerned about the conditions others work under to produce the things that make our lives more enjoyable. In extreme cases of brutal despotism, there may be an argument for banning goods from certain countries. Favored nation status must have some teeth and meaning. The Jackson-Vanik amendments in the 1970’s to America’s MFN and the Helsinki Final Act Accord that followed, helped millions enslaved under brutal conditions.
Canadians like to think of themselves as global humanitarians. But we have not led at all in trying to formulate minimum international standards of labor laws, at least in those countries where our own businesspeople prosper. We need to show leadership both in the World Trade Organization and in the International Labor Organization. Sadly, however, we remain deaf to the growing evidence that globalization inhibits prosperity as often as it enhances it, and imposes poverty as often as it relieves it.
Our lives must be more than simply a "race to the bottom" in which the only objective is minimum price and maximum profit. Charity balls and foundation gifts don’t cut it anymore. We must all walk the walk not just talk the talk. Canada has convincing moral authority in the world. We must use that authority to make a difference to the billions crying out for fairness. The spirit of the legitimacy and authenticity of our experiment in civilized nation-building is dependant on it.
This is not communism, or socialism or nihilism. It is decency for the global village we all inhabit. For in the final analysis, in this age of instant communication, and instant destruction, what affects one affects all. We are all mortal. We all cherish our future. And pain caused to the least amongst us should be viscerally felt by all,
Globalization must fulfill the promise of each human being having a call on the bounty of society’s wealth to which their labor has so much contributed. If we limit the flow of that well-being, we will surely drown in the flood of a Tsunami of redemptive rage that will be of a scale incomparably more violent than what we have witnessed the past ten days.