Thursday, 16 May 2013

Who Cares Where Stuff is Made?


In recent weeks, the issues of off-shoring, sweat-shops, and labour mobility have resurged to occupy the news headlines once again.  The collapse of a textile factory in Bangladesh that left hundreds dead produced a temporary black mark on one of the eyes of the hydra of multi-billion dollar conglomerates that sources its garments in this part of the world.  Suddenly, twenty years after Kathie Lee Gifford cried on tv about her orphan-manufactured Wal-Mart clothes line (wow, I'm really dating myself here), there is collective shock and disgust that our clothes are still made in the third world.

Meanwhile in Canada, home of Loblaw Inc. who among others manufactured its own Joe Fresh line of clothes in that very factory that collapsed, much hand-wringing and griping has recently occurred over the issue of temporary foreign workers (or TFWs, as informed pros now calls them).  A haystack that was set fire to by one bitter obsolete employee at Canada's largest bank turned into a several-week long shit-storm during which it was revealed that not only this big bank but ALL the big banks, as well as politicians' office staff, lawyer firms, big telecom, and all the other six-figure earner employing, ridiculously profitable industries in this fair land were making use of the program.  In the face of all this anger, indignation, and angst at these two separate but related cases we must ask: Why all this uproar over what gets made or who does what where?

Please understand me: the title of this article, or that last sentence, do not mean I am an indifferent or callous to the plight of individuals trying to obtain economic security anywhere.  As sad as the deaths of 380 Bangladeshis are, I believe it is more constructive to pose basic questions than fall into righteous indignation, because I don't think they have been answered, and they provide more insight than righteous indignation.  You've probably already had more than enough of that in the mainstream media.  And the response to it doesn't allow us to cut any further to the heart of the matter: the anti-capitalist crowd sharpens its axes in preparation of marathon grinds and CEOs of multi-nationals hurriedly crowd-surf to podiums on their PR departments hands to reassure the world (and shareholders) that they are compassionate, well-meaning individuals.

The Globe and Mail, the virtuous paragon of humanity that it is, reminded us that deep down inside, we are all shareholders.  It asked the tough question days after the Bangladeshi disaster.  Something about the country being torn between this now crucial industry for its economy and the fact that, well, it's a dangerous and miserable occupation for all who do it and now the whole world knows that.  Okay, not that it didn't know before but its been reminded (humans have very short attention spans, and technology hasn't exactly helped the situation).  To put that in very impolite terms, what exactly do people in Bangladesh have better to do than sew $12 tank tops for 14 cents an hour?

I'm not sure, because I've never been to Bangladesh.  But I know there's a reason the clothes are being made there, and not in Central African Republic or Afghanistan (two dirt poor countries that come to mind).  Big, bad multinationals don't just walk into places they aren't wanted in 2013; they are aided by the tax deals and backroom handshakes of compliant governments, eager to get people earning incomes , paying taxes, and working 14 hours a day with no time to wonder how the government made their lives such shit.

The people of Bangladesh didn't ask for sweatshops, the government got them because it evidently made attracting them a top priority, and people didn't exactly turn their nose up at the work when it arrived.  North Americans' clothes have evidently followed a path of rising incomes through Asia, from Hong Kong to China down through Laos and Cambodia with extended stays in Phillipines, Indonesia and Vietnam.  All these countries have robust economies and excellent growth rates.

Does that mean the average person there doesn't still have an awful grind to get through to live day to day?  No.  But businesses will move anywhere or explore all options available to them to reduce costs and create value for their customers and shareholders.  If I draw the ire of some well-meaning "progressive" about promoting a "race to the bottom" then I reassure him or her that I would be interested in a system that rewarded people for their hard work and initiative and did not create instability and inequality at the same time.  The argument that this process also leads to worker exploitation and environmental destruction is, of course, irrefutable, but as the last five years in the wake of the widespread awareness of climate change have shown, people seem to be more interested in working to survive than figuring out how to solve really big complicated problems that involve coordinating the efforts of 7 billion individuals, millions of companies, and 192 sovereign states.  So nobody is really accountable to anybody and everyone just keeps telling themselves I'm just going to take care of business and do what I need to do until this cluster fuck all gets sorted out.  As of right now it seems pretty hopeless.

Anyway those same leftists are the ones pounding their chests in the media when Caterpillar closes a plant in London Ontario to move 500 km down the road to Indiana where wages are less than half, or when B.C. imports Chinese coal miners.  They are all about "protecting the environment" and "protecting Canadian jobs" which exposes them to be grovelling for the same working-stiff, joe six pack votes as all the other parties.  So the environment part is really just lip service.  Witness NDP leader Andrea Horwath this week in Ontario holding out her support to prop up a minority government over road tolls, badly needed to fund transit in a city choking worse than any in North America on its own traffic congestion.  It's so much easier for her (and so agonizing for everyone else) to blather on some bullshit platitudes about "families" and "ordinary folks" than to attempt to tackle a complex but urgent problem.

This is symptomatic of a larger problem of Canadians being alienated from and uninformed about where their "economy" that is the "most important issue" in every election actually comes from.  Corporations which employ Canadians and pay them good salaries have many operations abroad and make a lot of profits abroad.  And these companies and others import from abroad so that we can have cheap goods here.  Maybe it is not that simple but we could do a lot more to figure out how society should be run and be part of the solution instead of listening to idiot politicians constantly telling us that we are all entitled to good jobs and cheap goods and no pain because we are special.  If we were special we would be totally insulated and sell-sufficient; technology and petroleum have made that impossible.  Whether you think that is fortunate or unfortunate depends on your perspective, but what is 100% certain is that there is no turning back, and that's why I don't care who makes what and does what where.  I know there is still lots of work to do in Canada.

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