The commoditisation of cheap labour is complicit in the reinforcement of structural inequalities that come at the expense of poor labourers’ welfare
Globalisation promises a world without boundaries; ideas, ideologies, people, objects, images, technology and knowledge in constant motion through the porous borders of neoliberal economies. It heralds, in many respects, an era of equal opportunity and mobility in global work patterns. However, where rights have a price and citizens are commoditised, the North-South divide possesses powerful signification within labour structures, creating diminishing hierarchies and reshaping inequality on a tilted global scale.
On the weekend of the 24th of November, 123 workers perished in a tragic factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, owing to inadequate health and safety provisions, including fire exits.
The Guardian reports:
‘Bangladesh has some 4,500 clothes factories, employing more than 2 million people (mostly women), and accounting for a whopping 80% of the country’s annual exports. Clothing from its factories makes its way across the world, supplying big name brands in the west – from WalMart – the world’s largest retailer (Asda is a subsidiary) – to high-street names like Tesco, Marks & Spencer and H&M.’
The incident led to an (inevitably fleeting) uproar in the international media, owing predominantly to the factory’s links to Walmart and other major brands. Amidst protests and pressures, Walmart ended its ties to the factory, which portrays itself as a victim in the incident owing to the grave losses. The Bangladeshi government has offered compensation to the family members of those who died and were injured, yet what of thousands of workers who continue to toil in appalling conditions across the developing world? Measures of goodwill are plotted by PR gurus eyeing multinational coffers, and ethical fashion is cast as a trend to watch next season, with proceeds from markups making their way to Third World orphans weaving sustainable traditional fabrics.
Yet, when the negative press of a factory fire fizzles and pressure groups find other corporate heels to snap at, whose responsibility is it to regulate?
Cheap Labour? Nations for Sale!
Since the 1960s, the creation of Free Trade Zones (FTZs) and Export Processing Zones (EPZs) have featured in the economic planning of developing nations as a means of promoting modernisation, industrial and economic growth by attracting foreign investment, technology transfers and job creation. For investors, these spaces were fringed with the benefits of low taxation, custom-free manufacturing, and the availability of a cheap and willing unskilled or semi-skilled workforce to undertake labour-intensive production processes. As such, the garment industry burgeoned within the developing world, with nations such as China, Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka at the forefront of selling cheap labour to the world.
Across the developing world, garment factory workers are subjected to arduous working conditions, minimal living standards and numerous forms of exploitation that grievously affect the health and safety of employees, alongside the particular discrimination of female workers. In the example of China, where Special Economic Zones (SEZs) have been central to the success of its economic growth, domestic migrants are immediately excluded from receiving any social welfare benefits and also face serious exploitation by employers. Many foreign companies have also been found guilty of violating national labour laws, imposing excessive hours on employees along with a militaristic management style that endorses corporal punishment, physical assaults and body searches. In reality, few Asian economies have actually seen the vast revenues promised by the manufacturing experience of Korea or Taiwan and in some occasions the financial return on the investment has been nominal or negative. Countries struggle to keep corporations happy, lest business is packed up to another developing world competitor with cheaper labour and more undocumented fire hazards.
The preference for female labour in the manufacturing sector also adds a negatively gendered dimension to the employment opportunities available in the garment sector. It reinforces a stereotype that women are best suited for mindless unskilled labour, whereby new employment opportunities remain confined within this stereotype of low-skilled, labour-intensive and lowest-paid.
The Tilted Plane of Globalisation
In an age marked by rapid progresses in technology, travel and communication, humanity now possesses remarkable awareness and access to social, economic and political opportunities defined by national or regional boundaries. Production and care economies have become one such pervasive exchange, instrumenting labour and capital flows in a world without borders, reproducing existing inequalities and creating new forms of marginalisation.
Globalisation purports claims of equal membership to the global order through the optimistic preambles of international organisations that endeavour to protect rights. Yet, within what is essentially sweatshop labour forming the foundation of the world’s garment industry, masses of men and women remain prone to victimisation and inhumane working conditions as a result of their respective country’s promise of cheap labour.
As such, the garment industry has proved doubly opportune for manufacturers who maintain cost-effective production units through the financial and physical exploitation of their labour force. The very notion that these jobs, which are evidently detrimental to the health and wellbeing of employees, are regarded as positively associated opportunities must be interrogated. It mirrors complicity between the state and foreign employers in maintaining financial benefits for both parties at the cost of poor labourers’ welfare.
Within a network of imports and exports, capital flows and remittances, labour has become a key commodity channelled between nations. The financial dependencies of the peripheral developing world take a particularly politically and socially relevant manifestation in the example of the garment industry. Nations are willing to overlook the cost of human fodder fuelling wheels of direct foreign investment, and directly affront the purpose of international treatises for protecting universal rights. In the dimension of cheap labour, both wealthy and developing nations were able to benefit from the need for labour; however, what must be questioned is the cost to labourers themselves.
Whose responsibility is it to advocate and ensure safe working conditions for garment workers? Nations who commoditise their people? Profit-seeking multinationals? International advocacy groups bolstered by the sometimes fleeting interests of activists? Local or National Labour Unions?
Deliberating estrangement, Goerg Simmel writes, ‘Money, with all its colourlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominator of all values; irreparably it hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability. All things float with equal specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money.’
Where social responsibility becomes a part of public relations strategies, and sustaining economies take precedence over the well being of citizens, what is the real cost of cheap labour?
Image from: http://lat.ms/SK4E1b
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