Nov 1 1996

Sweatshops Are the Workers’ Friend

And Labor Activists Their Enemy—According to the New York Times

If the Robin Hood story were set in today’s new global economy, would Robin be portrayed as an enemy of the poor because his activities discouraged investment in Sherwood Forest? And would the Sheriff of Nottingham be praised by the media for a tough-love approach to economic development that is gradually winning the appreciation of the low-paid serfs grateful for the work he provides?

If one believes recent New York Times news articles about global economic controversies, Robin and the sheriff have indeed reversed their traditional roles. In several recent Times news stories, transnational corporations are depicted as doing their utmost to promote progress for the poor in underdeveloped countries, providing a much-needed boost to otherwise stagnant local economies.

Meanwhile, the Times has suggested, U.S. unionists and others critical of corporate treatment of workers are attempting to block economic gains for Third World workers, with their pious concern for “sweatshop” workers merely serving as camouflage for the dark purpose of keeping jobs in the U.S.

In the Times‘ news stories, the fundamental struggle in the global economy is not between exploitative transnational corporations and workers held down at the lowest possible wages under the harshest possible conditions, but between U.S. unionists selfishly trying to hang on to their over-paid jobs and Third World workers eagerly grasping the opportunities extended by multinational corporations.

Who’s the Real Exploiter?

This theme emerged in the controversy over TV talkshow host Kathie Lee Gifford, who had been charged by Charlie Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee with profiting from the use of 13- and 14-year-old Hondurans to make her Wal-Mart clothing line. (See Extra!, 9-10/96.) In a June 27 New York Times story (6/27/96), reporter Stephanie Strom suggested that Gifford had been unfairly singled out and held to an unrealistic standard–“Monitoring work and pay conditions in the thousands of factories that make clothing for American stores would be an all-but-impossible task”–by critics who weren’t really all that interested in the situation of Honduran workers: “In fact, some experts say Western campaigns against low-wage factories overseas mostly benefit the American labor movement and do more harm than good in poor countries by draining off scarce jobs and choking off investment.”

To advance its own hidden agenda, Strom wrote, U.S. labor has chosen to pillory the unfortunate Gifford, who “now figures that much of the time she had hoped to spend with her children Cody and Cassidy will be eaten up by meetings with labor activists and politicians.”

No doubt the Honduran workers toiling on the Kathie Lee clothing line for up to 20 hours a day will be able to identify with her plight of being unable to spend time with her family. However, the similarity stops there: The Hondurans producing her clothes would be unlikely to spend time in meetings with labor activists unless they were willing to take the risk of being fired. For years in the “free trade” zone in Honduras where Gifford’s clothing was made, any sign of union activity had swiftly induced firings by management, the National Labor Committee says.

The absence of real rights and choices for Honduran workers is equally absent from Larry Rohter’s July 18 New York Times piece, sub-headlined, “U.S. Critics See ‘Monstrous Sweatshops,’ But Hondurans See Better Life.” The context of systematic crushing of union rights is totally absent from the Strom and Rohter depictions of generally benevolent employers. Only very recently have unions been allowed to form (and their independence and democratic character are open to question.) While some union activity is now tolerated by corporations and the government in Honduras, workers remember vividly that union organizers were often abducted and “disappeared” by government security forces in the early 1980s.

Other important elements of context are also “disappeared” in the Times articles on the Honduran sweatshops. Life in Honduran factories is “far more complicated than portrayed in the American debate over ‘sweatshops,'” Rohter insists. “What residents of a rich country like the United States see as exploitation can seem a rare opportunity to residents of a poor country like Honduras, where the per capita income is $600 a year and unemployment is 40 percent.” And such misperceptions about “exploitation” may merely serve to conceal the self-interested aims of the sweatshops’ critics: “Many here [in Honduras] say critics from the north are more interested in protecting jobs in the United States than in improving the lot of Honduran workers.”

But sweatshop critics like the National Labor Committee have emphatically repeated that they are not trying to hold up Honduran conditions against U.S. standards, but against the capacity of transnational employers to provide more decent wages and working conditions and respect internationally recognized standards of labor rights. By conveniently restricting comparisons to a choice between the admittedly miserable circumstances of agrarian life in Honduras and working in a “maquila” factory, the Times stacks the deck in favor of corporations that offer steady employment not at the mercy of floods, drought or pestilence. But why not contrast the financial capabilities of companies like Wal-Mart with what they actually offer in pay and conditions for their workers? Such comparisons never seem to occur to the Times.

“Global Hopscotch”

Even when not deriding corporations’ critics, a blind faith in the good will of U.S.-based transnationals and the merits of unregulated U.S. investment overseas seems to shape the Times‘ news coverage. Covering a dispute at the University of Wisconsin over the school’s $7.9 million endorsement deal with Reebok–a company facing criticism for labor practices in its Indonesia plants—the Times reported June 28 that Reebok officials say “the company pays the highest possible local wages at its foreign factories.”

This claim of the “highest possible” wages–accepted at face value by the Times–stands in sharp contradiction to evidence from numerous human-rights groups, like Britain’s Christian Aid, that Reebok’s workers are virtual shoe slaves whose wages of about $2 a day provide only the barest subsistence. One recent study (by the Internaional Labor Organization) found that 88 percent of Indonesian workers employed in the sport-shoe industry suffered from malnutrition because their wages were so low.

Far from paying the “highest possible” local wage, Reebok seeks out localities with the lowest possible wages. As a headline in U.S. News & World Report (6/5/95) admiringly explained, Reebok plays a game of “Global hopscotch: Reebok jumps from one Asian site to another in search of low-cost labor.” When the lives of its workers begin to improve in any meaningful way, Reebok quickly abandons them and moves on to a new site. After wages in Korea and Taiwan finally began to climb as new unions broke down repressive walls and demanded higher pay, Reebok closed its operations there and set up shop in China and Indonesia, where independent unions are effectively banned.

But such denials of basic rights in Indonesia were downplayed in an Aug. 9 piece by the New York Times‘ Seth Mydans, whose message is echoed in this photo caption: “Workers at the Nike plant say that even at low pay, sewing sneakers represents one rung on their climb up Indonesia’s economic and social ladder.” Mydans states, “The Government and economists like Mr. de Tray [of the World Bank] argue that cheap labor is essential to the country’s economic growth and they say that it is unreasonable to apply Western standards to the labor market in developing countries.”

As for Nike’s willingness to pay millions for Michael Jordan’s endorsement while imposing low wages and harsh conditions in Indonesia, Mydans quotes one worker who declares, “I don’t care about any of that.” Mydans neglects to quote a single Nike employee critical of the company’s policies, under which workers are paid somewhere between 90 cents and $1.66 for each pair of sneakers sold for $70. Nor does he note that Indonesian workers who were critical of Nike could face severe consequences.

Bob Herbert of the New York Times op-ed page, whose columns on sweatshops have contrasted sharply with the Times‘ news coverage, interviewed Cicieh Sukaesih, a young Nike worker fired for union activity who toured the U.S. this summer exposing the company’s labor policies (7/15/96). Her accounts of young Nike workers living in tin or bamboo huts with no running water were a far cry from the fast life in discos mentioned in Mydans’ news story.

The New York Times has had a difficult time reconciling its faith that “free trade” inevitably improves the lives of the poor with the inconvenient fact that Third World employees of U.S.-based transnationals have remained mired in misery. The Times has filled the yawning canyon between free-market faith and the wretched reality of sweatshop workers’ lives with a blend of unfounded boosterism about low-wage “bright spots” and snide attacks on the motives of those who dare to focus public scrutiny on the actual situation.

Roger Bybee is communications coordinator of Wisconsin Citizen Action and active in the Wisconsin Fair Trade Campaign.