Another horrible disaster in the global apparel industry. This time it was in the Philippines where at least 72 are dead after a fire burned a slipper factory. There might not have been many deaths, despite the fact that the sparks set off chemicals used in making the slippers, had the owners not put bars on the second floor windows. It does seem that this factory was producing strictly for the Philippine market. But that doesn’t mean the types of global labor standards I argue for in Out of Sight could not have an impact in a situation like this. Since I advocate the U.S. to more strongly regulate the goods entering the country and the factory conditions of American companies operating abroad while empowering workers to have the power to take these matters into their own hands, these standards would have a race to the top effect by making it harder for companies with substandard conditions and unsafe factories to operate. If workers could leave for safer factories, they would and other companies would presumably have to improve conditions to play catch-up. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t be as effective as I think, but we have to ensure that apparel made by American companies or for American consumers is produced ethically. Hopefully it would have cascading effects.
You probably read Sarah Maslin Nir’s excellent investigative report on the labor conditions inside New York nail salons, which are brutal and including wage theft, poisoning from breathing in cosmetics, and physical abuse. There are relatively simple answers to solving these problems, which are strong labor enforcement of state and federal law. The report convinced Andrew Cuomo to announce “emergency measures” to help these workers, including more inspections and a multilingual attempt to inform workers of their rights. We’ll see how real this is once people stop paying attention.
Anyway, the unfortunately most common response is what we often see from empowered individualistic consumers, which is “how can I consume ethically.” The question turns the issue from being about the workers to about the consumer. We see this in apparel activism too often from people who think that buying second-hand clothing is an answer to sweatshop labor. Michelle Chen answers the question about what you can do quite simply–support worker organizing–and she provides plenty of information about how that is shaping up. Amanda Marcotte takes on the middle class guilt part of this debate more directly (with plenty of links of this sort of thing if you are so inclined). She writes:
I don’t mean to pick on people,I really don’t. These huge labor and immigration issues can feel overwhelming and I get that people want to know what part, however small, they can play. But that leads to this unfortunate tendency to frame these issues around middle class complicity, as if that were the main problem and not just a sideshow. The problem with that is that these sort of individualized rituals of self-sacrifice in the name of purity do almost nothing to actually improve the lives of marginalized or exploited people. In some cases, it might make it worse—in this case, for instance, the end result will be that a smaller proportion of customers in nail salons will be good tippers who are nice to the workers. Great.
To be fair, some writers cleverly used the “how to assuage your guilt” click bait headlines to compel people to take real action, such as calling the authorities when they discover a salon is breaking labor laws or to surreptitiously distribute materials informing workers of their rights in their native language. These are still small actions, but they are actions that might actually help a real person who actually needs help, and that’s not nothing. But most of what I saw out there was focused on how you personally can feel better about yourself. That’s not helpful to people who actually need help.
And then she says what you actually can do, which is to make this a political issue and call your politicians to demand they do something about it. Like just about everything else when it comes to workers, the way to solve these problems is to give workers power. That means actively taking power from employers. The nail salon workers are the modern version of immigrant sweatshop labor a century ago and while we’ve outsourced that work to people we can exploit far out of our sight, the need for service labor means there are still workers who we do see. We can demand the rigorous inspections of these agencies with shutdowns and heavy fines for employers who violate the law.
Of course, if you are a libertarian, your hot take on all this is that there’s no way we should do anything about these workers. After all, how can we know what they want since we are not them? Of course we could ask workers what they want but that would mean libertarians talking to real people and I mean, c’mon. Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown:
Getting more government involved when it’s not at the behest of these workers, however, is only going to lead to more hardship for those most marginalized. When state investigators find a bunch of undocumented immigrants working as unlicensed manicurists—yes, being a manicurist in New York technically requires a state permission slip—for under the minimum wage, do you think they’re going to stop with forcing employers to institute a pay hike? Do you think salon owners under more investigative scrutiny from government agents are going to be more attune to requests from their underground employees?
I don’t want to diminish the concerns of workers in these communities. But this top-down, outsider, progressive, law-and-order view concerns me. Would workers be better off with no jobs or means to support themselves? Living back in their home countries? Maybe in some cases, yes, but we don’t know because we are not them. And I tend to believe that immigrant salon workers, being as intelligent and rational as the rest of us, are capable of weighing their own interests and situations and acting accordingly.
This of course is nothing more than the same Gilded Age arguments conservatives have always loved, that workers make rational decisions and that if they didn’t think it was in the interest to work in dangerous jobs, they wouldn’t do so. Nevermind that government can actually make that work less dangerous or that the unions these people inevitably oppose can do the same or that workers don’t actually have choices if the “choice” is work or starve. For conservatives, this is all a fun theory they can sit in their comfy houses and pontificate about. They aren’t interested in actual workers and their lives.
Then there’s this:
Increased FDA oversight can’t educate nail workers about the importance of leaving the job when they’re pregnant, or help make doing so financially feasible; it can’t instill simple best practices, like wearing gloves, that could mitigate skin problems; it can’t encourage salon owners to install work on better ventilation systems. These sorts of education and outreach efforts are best undertaken by public health nonprofits and people in these communities. And they would have a much more immediate effect than the years or decades it could take to get accomplish similar feats via federal regulation.
Actually increased oversight can do those exact things. Maybe not through the FDA but through OSHA. OSHA can educate workers. OSHA can instill best practices and mandate wearing gloves. OSHA can fine employers for not installing ventilation systems. And if there’s a reason that it is hard to make federal regulation work on these issues, it’s because people like Brown and her plutocrat masters spend money opposing these regulations.
Quite the hot take there.
Labor has made some positive gains recently in organizing the working-class employees of the Silicon Valley. But what’s really interesting here is the aggressive attitude of labor:
The state’s labor movement has been “very good at being the opposite of Wisconsin,” Paulson said. Unions have traditionally been strong in Wisconsin, but over the past few years a state government has dealt a series of crushing blows to the labor movement, including passing a law restricting collective bargaining for public employees and a law that bans union shops. Labor in California has remained strong enough to make such attacks unlikely, but Paulson said he and others in the movement have tired of focusing so much on simply avoiding disaster.
“Over the last few years, some of us have just said, fuck that,” Paulson told Al Jazeera. “Let’s do what we want to do to fight for workers. And so the state federation of labor in particular decided that we are going to put our resources into organizing. Into real organizing, that is going to result in a collective bargaining agreement at some time or another, and people being in a labor union, and officially having a voice at work.”
The California Labor Federation selected three particular campaigns on which to combine resources: The SEIU-USWW drive to organize Silicon Valley security officers, as well as a UFCW-backed campaign to organize workers at Walmart and a similar Teamster-driven campaign at food processing plants in California’s Central Valley. Every union in the federation is expected to contribute something to those three campaigns, regardless of whether the campaigns have anything to do with their immediate interests, Paulson said.
“Even school employees, we’re going to send them to the Walmart campaign,” he said. “We’re going to send them to food processing and help the Teamsters out in Central Valley. All of us central labor councils, we’ll organize civil disobedience and actions outside of Google and Apple in order to reinforce organizing for security officers.”
After the security officers campaign began to pick up supporters and public attention, the labor movement started throwing itself behind other organizing drives in the Silicon Valley area, according to SEIU-USWW organizing director Sanjay Garla. The most prominent of those campaigns is the Teamsters’ effort to unionize shuttle drivers — but, Garla said, “there’s a lot of talk about how food-service workers are also part of this fight.”
“Everyone sat down and said, ‘How do we back up these security officers that are going up against these major giants?’” he said. “It was really about supporting the security officers, and it’s turning into something more.”
Cajoling all the unions into contributing something for organizing is a good idea and being aggressive is a great one. There can be good reasons to play defense, but labor also must press its advantages where possible. And if it isn’t possible in California, it isn’t possible anywhere.
Housing for the workers building the NYU campus at Abu Dhabi
NYU has come under significant criticism for the terrible conditions of the workers building it’s Abu Dhabi campus. Here is an excellent discussion of the connections between a single NYU trustee and the treatment of those workers.
Khaldoon Al-Mubarak sits on the NYU Board of Trustees. He is also the CEO of one of the main construction companies building the school’s forthcoming outpost in the United Arab Emirates.
That company, Mubadala, was named in a recently released 72-page report detailing how a third of the workers at the construction site were systematically exempted from the higher labor standards NYU had promised in its “Statement of Labor Values.” The statement was designed to protect workers from the harsh conditions migrant laborers typically face in the UAE.
The decision to build the campus in Abu Dhabi came on the heels of a $50 million donation to the university from the government of Abu Dhabi, and Al-Mubarak was installed as a trustee after plans for the campus were announced, according to the New York Times.
“He was central to this whole exemption scheme,” said Hugh Baran, a first-year student at NYU School of Law who was one of several people to confront an administrator about the issue last week. “Given that this is his company, he surely had some knowledge [of the labor conditions].”
The damning report outlines an investigation by a firm hired by the government of Abu Dhabi, Nardello & Co., that ostensibly aimed to verify media reports of substandard labor conditions at the site.
The construction companies, including Mubadala, had established an “exemption” that excluded short-term employees from the guarantee of improved working conditions promised by NYU, according to the report. This exemption could also be applied to lower-cost contracts.
The report found that some people affiliated with NYU “said they were aware of a time threshold” that allowed different working conditions for short-term employees.
Oh I’m sure they were aware and totally fine with it. This NYU deal is about nothing but cash for top university administrators and their friends. It is utterly corrupt and the fact that its own professors can not enter Abu Dhabi to report on these labor conditions shows just how debased this deal and the administrators who support it have become.
Is there anything the modern university president won’t do for money?
Please read this Human Rights Watch report on union busting in Bangladesh’s garment industry. Two years after Rana Plaza, conditions have changed slightly for the better because of pressure from western activists, but workers demanding the power to fight for themselves are brutalized. I want to present you two quotes from the report’s summary.
I was beaten with metal curtain rods in February when I was pregnant. I was called to the chairman’s room, and taken to the 3rd floor management room which is used by the management and directors — and there I was beaten by the local goons… There were other women who were called at other times, and they were beaten the same way as well. They wanted to force me to sign on a blank piece of paper, and when I refused, that was when they started beating me. They were threatening me saying ‘You need to stop doing the union activities in the factory, why did you try and form the union. You need to sign this paper.’
This is what happens when workers try to organize to ensure they have a safe place to work. The companies order them beaten. The western contractors like Walmart, Gap, Target, and other exploitative companies can completely wash their hands of this kind of behavior because of the contracting system. Yet they are in fact indirectly responsible. A garment factory owner told Human Rights Watch
Factory owners want to maximize profits, so they will cut corners on safety issues, on ventilation, on sanitation. They will not pay overtime or offer assistance in case of injuries. They push workers hard because they don’t want to miss deadlines and end up paying for air shipment which can destroy the viability of the operations. Workers have no unions, so they can’t dictate their rights…. Some of this can also be blamed on the branded retailers who place bulk orders and say ‘Scale up production lines because it is a big order, and improve your margins.’ Even 2-3 cents can make the difference, but these companies don’t want to factor in [labor rights and safety] compliance into costing.
This is why the Bangladeshi workers’ struggle must be our struggle. We must demand that corporations are held accountable for violence against organizers, terrible working conditions, pollution, and other unacceptable behaviors.
And yet the Bangladeshi workers are scared that they will lose their jobs from all this bad attention on their industry as the apparel companies move production to Cambodia, Indonesia, or some other new country that has not received negative attention in the West. Then they can start this exploitative process all over again. That cannot happen and that’s why we must create international standards for working conditions and union rights if companies want to sell products in the United States. If they are American companies or if American companies are contracting with suppliers, they need to be held legally responsible in American or European courts. And that will only happen if workers have the power to initiate these struggles. Otherwise, companies will move and move again in the global race to the bottom, leaving the world’s poor just as poor as they were before.
In short, we need to adapt the ideas of the Trans Pacific Partnership to create international courts that would protect corporate rights and make them protect the rights of workers and citizens to basic dignity.
In related news, I am speaking tomorrow night at the Workers Unite Film Festival in New York. Come on out if you are around. I will be signing books as well. And remember to preorder Out of Sight if you have not. It comes out for real on June 2.
Can the nation afford a $12 minimum wage in 2020? The answer is obviously yes on the face of it. But the always useful Economic Policy Institute released a report showing that the answer is in fact yes.
A federal minimum wage of $12.00 in 2020 would return the wage floor to about the same position in the overall wage distribution that it had in 1968.
In 1968, the minimum wage stood at 52.1 percent of the median wage.5 By 2014, this ratio had fallen to 37.1 percent.
Raising the federal minimum wage to $12.00 by 2020, under the conservative assumption of no real wage growth at the median, would leave the ratio at 54.1 percent, just above where it was in 1968.
If we assume just 0.5 percent annual real wage growth for the median worker between now and 2020, the ratio would fall to 49.9 percent.
A broadly similar story emerges when using the average hourly earnings of nonsupervisory production workers, instead of the median wage, as a benchmark.
The federal minimum wage was equal to 53.0 percent of the average production worker wage in 1968. By 2014, this ratio had fallen to 35.2 percent.
Raising the federal minimum wage to $12.00 by 2020 would restore the ratio to 51.4 percent (under the conservative assumption of no real wage growth for production workers), just below its 1968 value.
The strong rise in average worker productivity and the increase in the age and educational attainment of low-wage workers in the last five decades suggest that the 1968 benchmark may understate the economy’s capacity to support a higher national wage floor in 2020.
The compression of median wages across the U.S. states over the last five decades, especially the catching up of lower-wage states, means that the federal minimum wage has less impact on low-wage states today than was the case in 1968.
What I want to know is whether we can have a $20 minimum wage by 2020.
The latest Rheeist attack on unions is quite special. Her organization Students First is helping a woman named April Bain, featured above, in a lawsuit against the California Federation of Teachers. Bain admits that the union does good things. But she doesn’t want to pay the dues the union uses for political activities. I’ll let Moshe Marvit explain the details of how this incredibly ludicrous but very dangerous case is being argued.
At issue in Bain is not that teachers may choose to opt out of membership with their union and pay a reduced dues rate while still receiving all the benefits of the contract. Those fair share fee cases, such as the seminal Beck v. Communication Workers of America, focus on the process of opting out of membership and the types of fees that would be refundable. At issue are those teachers who choose not to be members of the union and do not receive the members’ benefits from the union, such as being able to vote in union elections and access to any union-sponsored insurance programs. Bain and other teachers in the suit argue that it is unfair and unconstitutional for them to be denied any benefits of membership as a result of their decision to opt out of membership and pay a reduced amount in union dues.
They want to be able to both opt out of membership in the union and a significant portion of union dues, but to still be able to vote for union officers and direct the union (which they’ve chosen not to join). In other words, they want the full benefits of a union without having to pay for them. And they are asking the federal courts to intercede and say that the First Amendment guarantees them that right.
“The complaint equates joining the union with ‘giving up’ First Amendment rights.” Seattle University School of Law professor Charlotte Garden explained to In These Times. “But joining or not joining are both exercises of the right of free association. It seems that the plaintiffs wish their choices were different—and that they could join the union on their own terms—but I can’t think of any other circumstance in which an individual would attempt to bring a First Amendment claim to force a private association to change its terms of membership.”
In other words, Bain not only wants to have access to what the union wins in contract negotiations, which she of course receives, but she also wants all the privately held benefits unions offer to their own members as well. This takes non-union members leeching off their fellow workers to a whole new level. To say that it’s a violation of the 1st Amendment to not receive union disability insurance because you are not a member of the union is completely absurd. The legal case also revolves around admitting that unions provide real benefits for workers, but saying that the unions should force employers to grant those provisions and that they violate non-members rights by granting the benefits themselves. Thus, unions do a great job and destroying unions is part and parcel of the same argument.
But of course Michelle Rhee will do anything to destroy teachers’ unions. And as for the Supreme Court, well, I’m not sure there is any argument too ridiculous for the 5 Republican justices if it serves their agenda of destroying workers’ rights. If the case goes there, I get scared.
I’ve been completely overwhelmed this week with end of the semester work. Good thing nothing has happened in the news the last couple of days that might require some historical comment… Anyway, I’m starting to dig out. So let me at least take the time I’m glad that John Oliver dedicated his show this week to sweatshop labor. Basically, if you were to film a comedic take on Out of Sight, this is what it would look like.
Of course, conservatives are angry about it. And there’s nothing as smug and condescending as a British wealthy conservative.
We also know how to fix this problem. We should buy more from them. It’s worked absolutely beautifully in China. 15 years ago manufacturing wages there were $1,000 a year. Today they’re $6,500 a year. They’ve risen because we’ve been buying all our electronic bling from poor Chinese people working in Chinese factories. And our buying that bling has meant that jobs have become more productive (heck, electronics assembly is going to be more productive that staring at the south end of a north moving water buffalo however you do it) and the economy has taken off. And China started with those “start an economy” kits we call schmutter factories too. And in only 15 years China has grown rich enough that it no longer does that work. Even Chinese people don’t wear clothes made in China now, now that China’s got rich (which it has by any global or historical standard) that work is not done by poorer people in Vietnam and Indonesia. And guess what? They’re getting rich too.
Because that’s just how economics works. Trade makes everyone better off. That’s why the more trade we have then the more people will be made even better off.
And as at the top, I feel like as a Briton I should apologize. For surely anyone who manages, like Oliver, to get through one of our top universities would have learned that somewhere along the way? But apparently not, for which I do apologize.
Here’s the thing about this kind of argument, outside of the smugness,–people who make it conceive of labor exploitation as a gift the western world has granted to the poor of Asia and Latin America. This argument is much like colonialist arguments about giving Christianity and civilization to the natives. There is just enough of a kernel of truth here–people do need jobs!–to make a lot of people believe this basic narrative. There are of course several problems with it. First, the argument that China has become wealthy because it became the world’s sweatshop is vastly and overly simplistic, with state investments in the economy and centralized control over that economy being at least as important as people putting together plastic widgets for Walmart.
Second, it offers a religious faith in the market as a god that rivals any extremist Christian or Muslim for the damage it can do to the world. That diehard devotion to their ideal of free market capitalism means that conservatives aren’t going to ask any questions about the limitations of the current trade system, assuming that the gods will take care of it if we sacrifice enough
lambs on the altar children in the factories. The increasingly rapid mobility of global sourcing means that if workers protest or win higher wages or make any improvements in their lives, the companies can simply move to another country. The ability to create a global middle class out of these jobs is impossible. Bangaldeshis and Indonesians are not getting rich. An elite class is making bank. But workers are not recreating the U.S. in 1955 in Dhaka. At best, you might create a China with vast poverty and an incredibly wealthy elite. While the U.S. is also moving in that direction in no small part because all the good jobs for working class people have left, it’s not ideal for any nation’s long-term stability, as we are discovering in Baltimore.
Such religious devotion to capitalism also allows believers to completely ignore the voices of the actual workers. Again, when capitalist gurus and their devotees talk of sending low-paying jobs around the world, they treat it as a gift from the god of the market. So when workers complain of the treatment–bad wages, beatings, sexual harassment, forced pregnancy tests, long hours, poor housing, terrible food, etc., etc.–they are seen as ungrateful and not voices to which we need to pay attention. We can go along in our developed world believing that far away out their in Bangladesh and Vietnam, workers are happily toiling to make their lives better. But when they do actually try to make their lives better, to tell employers what they want and need, what happens? This is what happens:
For those who don’t want to watch it, a quick summary:
Just look what happens in the below clip from new documentary The True Cost. In the clip we meet 23-year-old Bangladeshi woman Shima Akhter, who is one of almost 4 million garment workers in the country and earns less than $3 a day making clothes in dangerous conditions. Akhter formed a union at her job, and along with other workers, submitted a list of demands to her managers. Instead of looking at the demands or even ignoring them, the managers had Akhter and the other workers viciously beaten by 30 – 40 staffers with chairs, sticks, and even scissors. Akhter was hit in the chest and abdomen and had her head banged against a wall.
Obviously John Oliver is an embarrassment to the British elite educational system–not to mention the University of Aberdeen for moving away from buying sweatshop made electronics–for caring about a woman like Shima Akhter. Because the market is after all a god and gods need sacrifices. So long as it is someone else and I can buy clothes for cheap, go for it. If 1100 people die in a Bangladeshi factory for this system, it’s far and what do I care. Ooh, those jeans are only $20!!!
There aren’t a lot of steel jobs in the U.S. anymore but the ones that remain are about the disappear as U.S. Steel announces more layoffs. At the core of layoffs is unrestricted free trade that undermines the ability of American corporations to sell its own steel because it has to pay workers decent union wages and abide by environmental standards. The Trans Pacific Partnership will just continue to undermine the ability of Americans to work industrial jobs. And before we argue this is a good thing, note that for all the workers, like the rest of the American working class, they face unemployment, decreased earnings, and increased instability in their lives. Every United Steel Workers job lost means less ability for unions to influence American economic and social policy, giving more power to corporations and moving the New Gilded Age another step forward. Those who continue to say that these free trade agreements like the TPP need to reckon with these realities, especially liberals who do not trust corporations at home but want to empower them overseas. Everything that is wrong with this nation in the New Gilded Age can be traced back to the decline of union jobs and the disappearance of working class voices from politics.
Oh Walmart. You are so evil.
Wal-Mart suddenly closed five stores in four states on Monday for alleged plumbing problems.
The closures could last up to six months and affect roughly 2,200 workers in Texas, California, Oklahoma, and Florida, CNN Money reports.
Wal-Mart employees say they were completely blindsided by the news, having been notified only a couple hours before the stores closed at 7 p.m. Monday.
“Everybody just panicked and started crying,” Venanzi Luna, a manager at a store in Pico Rivera, California, told CNN Money.
All workers will receive paid leave for two months. After that, full-time workers could become eligible for severance, according to CNN Money. But part-time workers will be on their own.
Local officials and employees have questioned Wal-Mart’s reasoning for the closures.
Why were these stores closed? Because they had activist employees.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) said it planned to seek an injunction from the National Labor Relations Board on Monday compelling retailer Wal-Mart to rehire 2,200 employees at five recently closed stores.
The UFCW claims that Wal-Mart Stores closed its Pico Rivera location — one of the five stores — in the Los Angeles area in retaliation for protests by workers there in recent years seeking higher pay and benefits.
“This is a new low, even for Walmart,” said Venanzi Luna, an eight-year Walmart worker and long-time OUR Walmart member. “It’s just so heartless to put thousands of your employees out of a job with no clear explanation on just a few hours’ notice. We know that Walmart is scared of all we have accomplished as members of OUR Walmart so they’re targeting us. Through OUR Walmart, we’re going to keep fighting back until the company gives us our jobs back. It’s unfortunate that Walmart has chosen to hurt the lives of so many people, just to try to conceal their real motives of silencing workers just like they’ve always done.”
I suspect there will be more details about these Walmart closings coming out in subsequent days.
In a nation that places many injustices and indignities on the poor, it’s good to see at least one of those be alleviated in one place:
But the city where first impressions count for everything is about to make the job market a little less judgmental. New York’s City Council just voted overwhelmingly to outlaw the common practice of letting employers prejudge people based on their credit history—passing an unprecedented ban against employers use of workers’ credit background data.
The legislation, which passed last Thursday following an extensive grassroots campaign by local and national labor and community groups, restricts a boss, prospective employer or agency from “us[ing] an individual’s consumer credit history in making employment decisions.”
The final version incorporates some compromises pushed by the business lobby, such as carve-outs for positions that could involve handling “financial agreements valued at $10,000 or more,” police and national-security related jobs, or workers with access to “trade secrets.” While business groups cited these provisions as wins in a bill they otherwise chafed at, economic justice advocates have nonetheless hailed the law as a promising boost for an emerging nationwide movement.
Sarah Ludwig of the New Economy Project says, “It’s a strong law…and it’s going to cover most New Yorkers [and] most jobs by far and away. It’s a real civil rights victory.”
Enforcement of the law will be driven by a complaint process, which makes it a tricky game for the city authorities relying on workers to come forward. But Ludwig adds, advocates hope the system provides a platform for the city’s Human Rights Commission to gain new prominence under the de Blasio administration’s leadership, since the city has “this unbelievably strong human rights law” on paper but not necessarily in practice.
Not perfect, but a significant improvement. Of course, this should be a nationwide law, for what possible valid reason is there to allow employers to access job applicants’ credit histories, unless the goal is to create a permanent underclass.