Issue 4-2022 small

19 July 2001 Edition

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Sweatshops fuel global resistance

In the third part of a series on the anti-globalisation movement, JUSTIN MORAN examines some of the labour issues that have galvanised so many people to take to the streets against the multinationals. He describes the economic zones in developing world states where transnational corporations enjoy tax breaks and cheap labour but where workers face obscene levels of exploitation.

There is no corporate tax. There are no unions. There is no environmental law. The government doesn't really care what you do. Overtime is mandatory and the law is what you make of it. For decades such a paradise has been the fantasy of big business across the world. A place where they can run their factories however they want, treat workers in whatever manner they please and be thanked for it.

And now the dream is coming true. The globalisation of the world economy has led to an explosion in the creation of what are commonly called Export Processing Zones (EPZs). The International Labour Organisation estimates there are close to 1,000 of them across the world, employing 27 million workers, with over $200 billion worth of trade flowing through them.

Although the common idea of sweatshop labour is of people making clothes, everything imaginable can be found in the EPZs. Computers, cars, speedboats, childrens toys and anything else you care to imagine can be manufactured. All that is required is a supply of cheap labour and there is no shortage of that in Asia and South America. China, Mexico, Guatemala and the Phillipines have some of the largest EPZs in the world.

The theory behind the zones is that they encourage economic growth. Attract these companies in and they might decide to stay in the country. It doesn't work. Countries compete with each other to offer the lowest minimum wage, the biggest tax breaks, the weakest rights legislation in order to attract investors who, such is the nature of their company, can pull out at a moment's notice, and are perfectly willing to do so.

And so these countries effectively cede part of their country and workforce to transnational corporations in the hope that somehow, despite not having a shred of evidence to back up the idea or an example to point to, the companies will eventually come round and help the country prosper. It goes almost without stating that the decision to set up an EPZ is one made by a political elite far removed from the conditions and lives of the people they are condemning to a modern form of indentured labour.

The abuse workers are subjected to is the stuff of nightmare. Factory managers are reported to have injected their workers with amphetamines in Honduras to keep them going for days on end. In Bangkok, scores of workers died when the doll factory they worked in was burnt down. Like the slave chambers of old, they had been locked in for the night. Physical and mental abuse is routine.

As bad as it is for all employees in the EPZs, women have it even worse. Determined to keep their workers productive, women employees have had to accept anything from mandatory use of contraceptive pills, to monthly checks of their sanitary pads and even enforced abortion to keep their jobs. The conditions they are forced to work in can do immense harm to unborn children, even should they be able to keep the child. Working 15-hour shifts in windowless rooms for barely enough money to feed herself, let alone the child inside, many young mothers miscarry with depressing regularity.

And big business is prepared to do anything to keep it this way. In 1993, a workers' organiser and his lawyer were killed in Sri Lanka. In 1995, workers who organised a union in a Gap factory in El Salvador were kidnapped, beaten by police and jailed. Some corporate tenants get the support of the army or the police as part of the `package deal' for staying in the country.

The cheap cost of labour in the third world, owing in no small part to the profusion of EPZs, hurts Irish people as well. Clothing manufacturers like Fruit of the Loom find it much more profitable to pull out of Ireland and leave the workforce behind to exploit the poor in other countries.

The only way we can compete is if we lower our wages, if we accept cuts in our employee benefits, if we surrender all the hard-won gains of the labour movement. And if we undercut someone else in selling our labour, it won't be long before desperation drives him to undercut us. Globalisation allows big business to exploit this to the fullest extent possible. But it also allows progressive forces to see the common interest. To see why the struggle for labour rights in Honduras is but another front of a global struggle for workers' rights in which Irish workers play a role. And it creates protests like the one we will see in Genoa this weekend, where workers of the world unite.

After all, they have nothing to lose, but they have a world to win.


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