Monday, June 02, 2008

Labor and the Global Economy


By Richard E. Noble

This TV documentary began in India or Bangladesh or some such place. I remember very little of the details but for this short, sad story, the details are not the important thing. You’ll get the point without them. But let me relate the report as best I remember, anyway.
A reporter was taking the viewing audience through a modern day sweatshop in some third world country. The story focused on this one young lady. She was very beautiful with a sweetness in her eyes and expression that couldn’t help but to attract the camera and the viewers. She was dressed in the colorful wardrobe of her ethnic community. She made dresses. We first see her running cloth through her sewing machine in a very businesslike fashion. It is clear that she knows what she is doing and has been doing this job for some time.
She is working in a room with hundreds of other women - all participating in the same craft. The scene looks like something out of America’s 1860s. We see her working and then we walk home with her.
Where she lives, looks like a cut from “The Gangs of New York” movie - the Four Corners section. Her apartment is on the third or fourth floor of a rickety wooden tenement structure. As the camera pans the building one wonders what is holding this structure together.
We follow this pretty little thing in her colorful Indian gown as she walks across perilous looking wooden planks and pathways. We finally arrive at a room. This room is filled with people. It looks like Grand Central Station. She walks in and about and around people until she comes to a curtain or blanket that is draped over a cord in a far off corner. She pulls back the artificial drape and we meet her family. I don’t remember the whole family but there are a number of generations living in the 20x20 square behind this blanket. There are mats strewn about where everyone sleeps. I don’t remember what they ate, how they cooked or where the bathrooms were - if there were any. The street leading up to the apartment looked like a giant cesspool anyway. The whole thing was so shocking it was hard to keep focused, but I resisted changing the channel.
The reporter and his crew then explained this young lady’s situation.
She works nine hundred hours a week and makes twelve cents a month and you should be able to make up the rest for yourself. But the reporter now tells us that we are going to go on a journey through the social structure to find out who is responsible for all of this.
First we go and interview the man who owns the sweatshop. For some reason this gentleman does not appear to be from the same culture. He is not an Anglo but an Asian. He is a businessman. He is very businesslike but not totally without compassion - if you can believe what he say.
We do not follow him to his home. He says that he is paying his workers as much as he can afford without going under himself. He sounds like all bosses everywhere. I was one for a time myself.
So I listen to this Chinese guy tell this American reporter why he can’t pay this Indian lady enough money to buy single ply toilet tissue, and I start thinking.
The reporter asks the Chinese guy why he can’t afford to pay this little lady enough money to live on. He says that it is because of the department store chain that buys his stuff. They tell him what they will pay him for the dresses. “If you will buy these dresses for more money than these department stores are offering, I will buy them from you and give the extra money to the women workers,” he claims. He sounds very sincere. It is hard for a decent person to believe that he isn’t telling the truth.
Next we go to the head of economic development of this whole country. Our American reporter is now at the palace interviewing the King or the General in Charge, or the El Presidente or whatever.
This man is extremely well spoken. He has a very kind and sympathetic look on his face. He bows and bends his head while holding his hands in prayer-like posture. “What am I to do?” he says. “I am but a poor simple King. This woman you tell me about, she is living in an apartment. She has a roof over her head. She has food to eat. She has some money. There are millions of others in this country who have none of these things. We are glad that any business comes here and pays our people anything. We are not in a position to bargain.”
The King seems sincere. We do not interview any concubines and next we are on an airplane heading for New York or Nebraska, Berlin or London or someplace. We are now in the office on the 116th floor of the Ball Mart Department Store chain. “Sir, our policy here at Ball Mart is to provide our customers with the best possible product at the cheapest possible price. We do not operate any sweatshops anywhere in the world. We buy all of our products from independent businessmen. We do not tell them how
to run their enterprises. We believe in free competition, individualism and entrepreneurship. These are the virtues that have made America great. These are the virtues that have made the United States of America the idol of the whole free world. What would you like us to do?” We leave this man’s office with a free American flag and everyone singing the Star Spangled Banner.
We go back to the Four Corners of Bangladesh and pick up our little Indian sweetheart. We put her on the plane with us and fly her to the Ball Mart Department Store in Uptown Downtown America. She is very thrilled. She looks rather out of place as she walks through the Ball Mart Parking lot in her native Indian attire.
Once inside the store we take her over to the dress department. She excitedly looks through the racks of clothes and finds a dress that she herself made for three cents. She recognizes it. She shows it to the reporters. She has a big smile on her face. She is quite thrilled and proud to see a product that came from her own hands selling inside this fantastic department store. Everything that she has seen over here in this country is beyond her wildest dreams. She asks the reporters how much her dress is selling for. They tell her the price. Her eyes open wide and her tiny well-worked fingers rush up to cover her open mouth. She is in shock. The price of one of her dresses is equivalent to one whole year of her salary. She is bordering on tears. She tells the reporters that if she could get only five cents more for each of her dresses, she could live a decent life back in her home country.
There is a lady shopping at the store. She is going through the racks of dresses. The reporters bring the little Indian lady over to the shopper and introduce them to one another. They tell the American shopper that this lady made the dress that she is looking at. The American lady tells the Indian lady that she likes her dress and is probably going to buy it. They quickly tell the American shopping lady about this poor Indian lady’s sad life. They explain how little money she makes and how she lives in the most unhealthy and horrid conditions. They explain that this poor woman says that if she could receive one nickel per dress her whole life would be changed for the better. They ask the American shopping lady if she would be willing to pay an extra nickel for that dress so that this Indian lady could live a better life.
Without hesitation the American lady says no. She says that she is working two jobs herself and that she is also trying to raise three children - without a husband. She tells the Indian lady that she must fight her own battles just as everyone else in this world must do. Then she walks away.
The reporters translate what the American lady had to say. The dark black eyes of the Indian Lady well up with tears as she listens. The tears flow readily down her cheeks as she stands there without moving. She makes no attempt to wipe her cheeks or turn her face away. She stares straight ahead, silent, as the tears flow freely down the front of her face.