Monday, August 17, 2015

The facade of the free market in global labor

When asked, our leaders will proudly tell us how we must compete globally. They will tell us how we must demonstrate the virtues of the free market here and abroad. They tell us that we must innovate and invent to compete in the world market.

Here's what they don't tell you: labor markets in other parts of the world are not free. I found a very interesting example of that here, at the Films for Action website. It's a nice short film documenting the labor struggle in Cambodia. When workers in garment factories ask for a decent wage, they are denied. When they protest, the government intervenes on behalf of the businesses that employ the workers. 

Sounds familiar, right? We had something similar here, though not as extreme, when Ronald Reagan fired all of the air traffic controllers in 1981 when they went on strike. Since then, we've witnessed an unrelenting war on organized labor in the United States. The result? In the 1970s, unions represented 34% of labor. Now it's about 9%. Much of this shift is due to government support of businesses, not labor.

The use of government force against organized labor is not a new phenomenon. It's been going on for centuries. We're just seeing it again, in Cambodia as we do here. Lately, we've been seeing more labor protests in this country as more and more people begin to notice that the playing field is tilted in favor of business, by design. We have been fortunate that labor protests have been peaceful to the extent that they have been.

That short film was produced by Labour Behind the Label an organization dedicated to improving workplace conditions for workers worldwide. They work to improve wages, working conditions and respect for the rights of workers, all over the world. They also work to expose the exploitation of workers worldwide. They show us that while absentee corporations in foreign companies pay fantastic salaries to executives living in wealthy countries like the US and the UK, they are not paying a living wage to their sources of labor. Remember, the US and the UK are the two biggest promoters of "free trade agreements".

Which companies are participating in the exploitation of garment workers around the world? Here is their list of companies that benefit the most from wage suppression in Cambodia. It is interesting to note that Versace and Armani are at the top of the bad-boy list. These firms sell very expensive clothes yet pay a pittance for their labor. I note also that Adidas, New Balance, Puma and Levi-Strauss are on the list.

I happen to like New Balance shoes. They're great shoes, and I enjoy wearing them. Unfortunately, when I paid for the shoes, I also paid for their politics. Worldwide.

The Clean Clothes Campaign is a network of 250 organizations worldwide, seeking a living wage for garment makers. Their website says it all. Workers all over the world are seeking a living wage, just as we are here, too. But I notice a common denominator in every country: where there is a struggle for a living wage, there is a government standing firmly on the side of business. Big business.

Yet we are told that capitalism is the foundation for a free market. Well, if a free market is what you want, then you must accept these protests, unions and negotiations as a part of that free market. Unions are a natural response to suppressed wages in a supposedly free market. Unions are a part of the free market, so get over it and deal, because that's never going to change. If businesses can organize, consolidate and coordinate their efforts with interlocking directorates, then labor can organize, too. What's fair is fair, right?

So the next time you're out buying clothes, remember that the price of the clothes includes the cost of struggle of the people who make those clothes. That cost includes government intervention in the market to suppress wages, unions and media coverage of that struggle.

That cost is the facade of the free market in global labor.
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