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Global Sweatshop Wage Slavery

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Global Sweatshop Wage Slavery
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In its mission statement, the National Labor Committee (NLC) highlights the problem stating:

"Transnational corporations (TNCs) now roam the world to find the cheapest and most vulnerable workers." They're mostly young women in poor countries like China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Haiti, and many others working up to 14 or more hours a day for sub-poverty wages under horrific conditions.

Because TNCs are unaccountable, a dehumanized global workforce is ruthlessly exploited, denied their civil liberties, a living wage, and the right to work in dignity in healthy safe environments. NLC conducts "popular campaigns based on (its) original research to promote worker rights and pressure companies to end human and labor abuses. (It) views worker rights in the global economy as indivisible and inalienable human rights and (believes) now is the time to secure them for all on the planet."

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

(1) "Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."

Article 24 states:

"Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay."

Definition of a Sweatshop

The term has been around since the 19th century.

Definitions vary but essentially refer to workplaces where employees work for poor pay, few or no benefits, in unsafe, unfavorable, harsh, and/or hazardous environments, are treated inhumanely by employers, and are prevented from organizing for redress.

The term itself refers to the technique of "sweating" the maximum profit from each worker, a practice that thrived in the late 19th century.

Webster calls them "A shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages under unhealthy conditions."

According to the group Sweatshop Watch:

"A sweatshop is a workplace that violates the law and where workers are subject to:

  • extreme exploitation, including the absence of a living wage or long hours;
  • poor working conditions, such as health and safety hazards;
  • arbitrary discipline, such as verbal or physical abuse, or
  • fear and intimidation when they speak out, organize, or attempt to form a union."

It's mainly a women's rights issue as 90% of the workforce is female, between the ages of 15 - 25. But it's also an environmental one as the global economy exacts a huge price through air pollution, ozone layer depletion, acid rain, ocean and fresh water contamination, and an overtaxed ecosystem producing unhealthy, unsafe living conditions globally.

According to the US Department of Labor, a sweatshop is a place of employment that violates two or more federal or state labor laws governing wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers' compensation or industry regulation.

To understand the practice, it's essential to view it in a broader globalization context. In their book titled, "Globalization and Progressive Economic Policy, Dean Baker, Robert Pollin and Gerald Epstein present the opinions of 36 prominent economists, asking:

Does globalization cause inequality? Instability? Unemployment? Environmental degradation? Or is it an engine of prosperity and wealth for the vast majority of people everywhere? They conclude that it can work for good or ill depending on how much control governments, corporations, and individuals exert, but also say:

"....most discussions of globalization hold that the power of nation-states to influence economic activity is eroding as economies become more integrated, while the power of private businesses and market forces is correspondingly rising."

In other words, the dog that once wagged the tail now is the tail, the result of eroded state sovereignty and powerful private institutions, producing a race to the bottom conducive to exploiting labor - most prominently in poor countries but also in developed ones.

Wage Slavery in America

In America, the US Department of Labor estimates that half or more of the nation's 22,000 garment factories are sweatshops, mostly in the apparel centers of New York, California, Dallas, Miami and Atlanta, but also offshore in US territories like Saipan, Guam and American Samoa where merchandise is labeled "Made in the USA."

In all locations, wages are low, often sub-poverty, benefits few if any, and regulatory enforcement lax or absent. Hours are long, working conditions unsafe, and those complaining are fired and replaced.

Conditions are also horrific for around two million farm workers - exploited, living in sub-poverty misery, without benefits, a living wage, overtime pay, or other job protections, even for children. Because state and federal oversight are lax, Florida workers have been chained to poles, locked in trucks, physically beaten, and cheated out of pay, yet are intimidated to stay silent.

They also perform dangerous jobs, experience workplace accidents, and are exposed daily to toxic chemicals. As a result, about 300,000 suffer pesticide poisoning annually, and many others experience accidents, musculoskeletal, and other type injuries, some serious.

Workers in Florida, Texas, California, Washington, and North Carolina are most vulnerable, with nowhere to go for redress except those benefitting from a few organizing victories. Impressive as they are, however, they're no match against agribusiness giants or companies like Wal-Mart, a ruthless exploiter of worker rights.

Domestic servitude is another problem affecting many thousands, usually foreign women taking jobs as live-in workers, mostly for the wealthy, foreign diplomats, or other domestic or foreign officials. They seek a better life, send money home to families, yet are exploited - often by unscrupulous traffickers who hold them in forced servitude, work them up to 19 hours a day, pay them $100 or less a month, and subject them to sexual abuse.

They're are excluded from labor law protections. As a result, they're underpaid, work long hours, have little rest, are abused, given limited freedom, denied medical care, proper food and nutrition, and are subjected to unsafe working conditions.

So are many restaurant and hotel workers - underpaid with few benefits, worked long hours without overtime pay, fired if they complain, and these practices exist for lack of regulation and a growing demand for cheap labor, letting unscrupulous employers exploit powerless workers for profit. If it's common in America, what chance have workers in developing countries with lax labor laws offering few protections, even for children, to attract business.

Abuse happens often in dangerous, unhealthy environments for sub-poverty wages, with no overtime pay, breaks or bathroom visits, even when sick. Employees suffer numerous accidents (at times severe), can't organize, and are harassed, intimidated, and fired if they try.

In today's globalized economy, capital is highly mobile, free to go anywhere for the highest return by fleeing locales with high taxes, strict labor laws, or rigorous environmental protections yielding lower profits by raising costs, the main one being labor that's easy to get cheap in developing states eager to grow and needing to new businesses do it. The result is a race to the bottom, a phenomenon Karl Polanyi described in "The Great Transformation - namely, that:

"To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings....would result in the demolition of society....Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed." And labor, of course, exploited for the lowest cost.

NLC on Wal-Mart

With over $400 billion in sales and about 2.1 million employees, Wal-Mart is the world's largest retailer and private employer, and number three globally in the 2009 Fortune 500 rankings behind Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon.

On December 16, 2009, NLC reported that "Wal-Mart's Punitive Policies Drive Employees to Work Sick - Everyone comes to work sick."

(1) A deli section worker in a Pennsylvania company supercenter said:

"Everyone comes to work sick," including employees handling food. In the deli section, "plenty of girls come coughing their brains out, but can't go home because of points (unless they're) coughing too loudly (in which case they) switch you to another department. Since you can't take days off," she kept working. Her cough worsened, and she ended up hospitalized with pneumonia.

"You can't stay home, and God forbid if you have to leave early." For being hospitalized, she got a demerit, lost eight hours pay, and was required to take a leave of absence. Being sick, deli section work was hard because it's a "hot area," requiring in and out visits to a freezer to get meat.

"Everyone is sweating and your hair is all wet, but we can't use fans because of the dust." Under Wal-Mart's "Open Availability" policy, management demands all associates be available 24 - 7. "A flood of people would leave the company if they could find other work. Fear and need" keep them there.

(2) A worker taking time off to be with her injured, traumatized son was docked eight hours pay, then said:

"Wal-Mart puts you in the position where you are supposed to put your job ahead of your children."

Like others, she worked sick to avoid demerits and lost wages. One time she worked with a strep throat, the infection spread, and she became so dehydrated she passed out and needed hospitalization. Out three days, she was penalized a day's pay.

(3) A senior Wal-Mart employee told NLC about supervisors acting "like bullies who like to intimidate workers."

(4) Another Wal-Mart worker told NLC:

"Wal-Mart's (sick) policy has not changed, and they have not said a word to anyone. No one knows of any change....and everyone continues coming to work, even if they are really sick," including food handlers.

They get demerits but not told how many. Workers accumulating four in six months get verbal or written "coaching." One more means no promotions or upgrading from part-time to full-time status for those working less than a full load.

As a result, one worker said morale is low and "pretty much everyone hates their jobs," but haven't much choice in today's economic climate. Even Wal-Mart instituted staff cuts, making it harder for shoppers to be served. Some of them yell "at us all the time, screaming and cursing at us" for a situation out of their control.

(5) At Wal-Mart, workers needing a day off must request it four weeks in advance, no matter what the emergency.

(6) At the company's Nampa, Idaho supercenter, a worker was fired for having Swine Flu. At first she worked sick, then wasn't able to several days and wasn't paid. Feeling a little better, she came in, but by early evening was so ill she was taken to an emergency room, couldn't work for two days, and was docked more pay plus demerits.

She already had three for taking time off to care for her sick mother and contracting the flu. Disciplinary action follows after six. It's called "Decision Day," or "D-Day" on which employees must write an essay on why they like working at Wal-Mart, why they should keep their job, and how they'll improve their future performance. Based on their comments, they're either retained or fired, but if kept, they're placed on probation for a full year during which firing follows the slightest infraction.

Nampa supercenter employees call it "cleaning out," when workers are fired for any reason - minor infractions, slow traffic, firing full-time staff for cheap part-time ones or temps.

One worker was fired for accumulating flu-related demerits. On November 6, 2009, a Wal-Mart spokesperson told ABC's Good Morning America:

"Wal-Mart will not fire any worker for having Swine Flu."

Workers tell a different story. So does Global, saying the company leads "the race to the bottom" by its unfair labor practices:

  • half of their employees get no health insurance, and those with it pay a large percentage of the cost and receive too little; and
  • the company has a long, disturbing record of worker abuse, including forced overtime, some off-the-clock, illegal child and undocumented worker labor, and relentless union-busting; as a result, Wal-Mart faces numerous suits over unpaid overtime, denial of meal and rest breaks, manipulating time and wage records to cut costs, employing minors during school hours, and the largest ever class action discrimination lawsuit, involving over 1.5 million present and former female employees, paid less and promoted less often than their male counterparts.

In December 2008, Wal-Mart agreed to pay at least $352 million and up to $640 million to settle 63 federal and state class-action lawsuits from present and former employees over pay and other issues. According to Professor Paul Secunda of Marquette's School of Law, the company settled to avoid an even worse defeat, including what unionization might cost.

Overall, Wal-Mart treats employees punitively. They're overworked, underpaid, (many below the federal poverty line), denied benefits, discriminated against, punished for the slightest infraction, and treated like wage slaves.

In addition, its operations are predatory, punitive, and destructive as local businesses can't compete and go under, the result being lost jobs, broken lives, and harmed communities. Its also ruthless in pressuring global sweatshop suppliers for low prices, all the worse because the company wields such enormous power.

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