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"Pennies an Hour and No Way Up" by Former Senator Tom Hayden and NLC Director Charles Kernaghan

New York Times  |  March 27, 2008  |  Share  |  Source article

Reprinted from New York Times Op-Ed page, July 5, 2002

Pennies an Hour and No Way Up

In last week's meeting in Canada, the Group of Eight industrial nations grappled with the question of how to better economic conditions in poor nations. One powerful means would be to improve the conditions of workers in sweatshops. Two billion people in the world make less than two American dollars a day. As voters and consumers of sweatshop products, Americans can make a difference in ending the miserable conditions under which these people work.

Some argue that sweatshops are simply a step up a ladder toward the next generation's success: the garment worker at her loom is carrying out some objective law of development, or the young girl making toys for our children is breaking out of male-dominated feudalism. This line of thinking recalls the mythic rise of our immigrant ancestors to the middle class and beyond.

But the real story of those white ethnic ancestors was hardly a smooth ride up the escalator. Life in a New York was better than oppression abroad, but people worked 16 hours a day for paltry wages, lived in cellars with raw sewage, died of starvation and fever and were crowded into tenements. Their misery shocked reformers like Jacob Riis and Charles Dickens. They fought their way out — marched for economic justice, built unions, voted and finally forced the Gilded Age to become the New Deal.

Today young, mostly female workers in Bangladesh, a Muslim country that is the fourth-largest garment producer for the United States market, are paid an average of 1.6 cents for each baseball cap with a Harvard logo that they sew. The caps retail at the Harvard bookstore for $17, which means the garment workers, who often are younger than the Harvard students, are being paid a tenth of 1 percent of the cap's price in the market. Also in Bangladesh, women receive 5 cents for each $17.99 Disney shirt they sew. Wages like these are not enough to climb the ladder with.

There are similar conditions in China. Three million young Chinese women working for wages as low as 12 cents an hour make 80 percent of the sporting goods and toys sold in the United States each year. Companies like Mattel spend 30 times more to advertise a toy than they pay the workers in China to make it.

Each year Americans buy 924 million garments and other textile items made in Bangladesh and $23.5 billion worth of toys and sporting goods from China. Don't we have the consumer and political power to pressure our corporations to end sweatshop wages paid to the people who make these goods? These workers are not demanding stock options and Jazzercise studios. Women in Bangladesh say they could care for their children if their wages rose to 34 cents an hour, two-tenths of 1 percent of the retail price of the Harvard hat.

Some economists argue that even the most exploited and impoverished workers are better off than those who are unemployed or trapped in slave labor. But that argument is not about offering anyone a ladder up, but about which ring of Dante's inferno people in developing nations are consigned to. We don't want Disney, Mattel, Wal-Mart or other major American companies to leave the developing world. We simply want to end the race to the bottom in which companies force countries to compete in offering the lowest wages for their people's labor. There should be a floor beneath which no one has to live.

Our elected officials should end their subservience to corporate donors and begin asking some big questions: Aren't we entitled to know the addresses of corporate sweatshops in developing countries so they can be open to monitoring by local advocates? Why should our tax dollars subsidize government purchases from companies that operate sweatshops?

Under our customs laws, we ban imports made with inmate and indentured labor, so why not extend the ban to include those made with sweatshop and child labor? And if we insist on enforcement of laws against pirate labels and CD's, why not protect 16-year-olds who make CD's for American companies? We should be helping these workers elbow and push their way up from squalor just as American progressives once helped our immigrant forebears.

Tom Hayden is a writer and former California state senator. Charles Kernaghan is director of the National Labor Committee in New York City.

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