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What slavery did for Moustapha

Stephen Gowans

as bad as they are, sweatshops are better than the alternative.

You may have heard this argument. You may have uttered it yourself.

Many have. From people sporting Nike shoes at soccer games, to newspaper columnists, to eminent economists.

Paul Krugman, the American economist, says that people who protest against free trade agreements like the FTAA are naively romantic. They think, he says, that peasants are better off eking out a marginal existence on hard-scrabble land than working for picayune wages making soccer balls, or Nike shoes, or washing machines. Sure, the pay in the maquiladora factories that dot the US-Mexico border, or in the cavernous sweatshops of Indochina, is meager, the hours long, the conditions regrettable, but sad as it is, the life of a peasant is even worse. If you want to help the poor of the world, let peasants sweat for thin wages.

Besides, sweatshop drones don't need big paycheques. They don't have mortgages and car payments. Not like us.

An acquaintance says that denying peasants sweatshops means denying the poor a way out of poverty. It seems misguided bleeding hearts are making matters worse by opposing the only opportunity those who live in desperate poverty have for a better life.

Michael Moore, the head of the WTO, says people who oppose neo-liberal institutions like the WTO and IMF, believing them to harm the poor, make him want to vomit.

Employees at a Dominican Republic sweatshop, who sew kiddie sweatshirts for Nike, make 70 cents a hour. It takes 6.6 minutes to make one sweatshirt. That works out to 11 cents per sweatshirt. The sweatshirts sell in the US for $22.99.

The chances sweatshop workers are going to lift themselves out of poverty making 70 cents an hour are slim to none. The chances of a raise in pay are no better.

When workers in other Nike connected sweatshops have demanded higher wages, Nike has shifted, or threatened to shift, production to other low-wage countries. The ideal, said one CEO, is to have factories on barges. That way, whenever workers form unions, or elect governments sympathetic to labour, or otherwise find themselves in a position to bargain wages up, you just set sail for another country, where wages are lower, unions are weak, non-existent, or illegal, and governments are sympathetic to capital.

Factories aren't on barges. But shifting production from one contractor in one low-wage country to another, hasn't proved to be difficult.

The Globe and Mail's foreign affairs columnist Marcus Gee urges FTAA opponents to think twice about "globalization." He points to Deth Chrib.

Deth Chrib is a Cambodian woman, Gee tells us, who's found a better life working in a sweat shop. She was a prostitute. She had been terrorized by the Khmer Rouge. Now she works in a factory making clothing for Nike. Life is better for Deth, says Gee.

Cambodians working in Nike contractor sweatshops make 19 cents a hour. Nineteen cents an hour is better than prostitution or starvation, Gee says.

Perhaps. But does that justify sweatshops?

Death by injection is better than being disemboweled by a rusty machete, but is that reason to celebrate being poked in the arm by a syringe filled with lethal poison?

Africans brought to America as slaves found a more materially secure life on ante bellum plantations. Did that justify slavery?

Did someone like Paul Krugman hold forth two centuries ago on the merits of slavery, while sipping a mint julep served by a Black servant in an Atlanta mansion? Did he condemn slavery's opponents as well-meaning, misguided fools, who would, if they had their way, relegate poor Africans to perpetual poverty? Did he wonder aloud whether those who would upset the South's slave-based economy with their misguided opposition to human bondage not know that Africans were better off picking cotton, than picking their way through the jungle?

Randy Newman wrote a song called Sail Away that said something like what Krugam's slavery-promoting predecessor might have said. Except he wrote it from the perspective of the slaves who had imbibed the argument.

Ain't no lions or tigers,
Ain't no mumba snakes,
Just the sweet watermelon,
And the buckwheat cake,
We'll just sing about Jesus,
And drink wine all day,
It's going to be great,
To be in America.

And then there were the merits of slavery versus wage-slavery. Slave holders argued that they treated slaves more humanely than factory owners treated employees. Because they owned slaves, they treated their human chattels with the respect and care that ownership of any chattel, human or non-human, encourages. Factory owners, on the other hand, didn't have to treat employees well -- and didn't. They only rented people, and treated their chattel as any renter would -- as something to be used, exploited, then discarded.

But slavery wasn't the only horrible institution that promised, and delivered, a better life.

Fascism did too.

Germans, other than Jews, Roma, and dissidents, found a better life under Hitler. Italians did better under Mussolini. Fascism imposed order and prosperity, where there had been the chaos and want of economic depression.

Marcus Gee's column on Deth Chrib was called "What globalization did for Deth".

Would a column, "What fascism did for Gunther and Tony", or " or "What slavery did for Moustapha" be any different?

Sweatshop apologists say there are only two choices: hyper-exploitation or hyper-poverty.

There are other choices, too. It's just that the people who profit from sweatshops don't want to talk about them.

Asked why Nike couldn't afford to double the wages of Dominican sweatshop workers from 11 cents to 22 cents per sweatshirt, the sweatshop manager reacted in horror. But that would harm workers, he sputtered. Higher labour costs would mean higher retail costs and higher retail costs would mean lost production and lost production would mean layoffs. And who would suffer in the end? Workers.

Except that you could reduce profits by 11 cents per sweat shirt to make up for an 11 cent increase in wages, and hold the retail cost of the sweatshirts in check. But that would hurt profits. And there's the rub.

Hey, this isn't a poverty reduction enterprise, the manager replies. This is a profit making enterprise. That's what you're supposed to do in a capitalist economy. Make a profit. Not pay higher wages and guarantee jobs to lift the poor out of poverty!

But don't the proponents of NAFTA and globalization promise that neo-liberal trade agreements will lift the poor out of poverty?

So what gives? Why is it that when businesses are challenged to produce the benefits they're always promising, they say they're not philanthropic organizations, but when they want to make profit-making easier, they say there will be benefits for all?

Making a profit is what some people call one of the economy's systemic imperatives. No matter what you do, the economy inexorably drives toward fattening bottom lines. It doesn't matter what anyone wants. It's the system. Cold. Impersonal. Inexorable.

It's like goals and hockey. Hockey teams put the puck in the net. It's an imperative. You could ask the players not to score, but those who listened to you would soon be replaced by those with undiminished zeal for scoring. As long as there's hockey, there will be goal scoring.

That says that pressuring Nike to pay sweatshop drones higher wages is bound to fail. You might as well pressure Mario Lemieux to stop scoring goals.

But that doesn't mean that sweatshops and exploitative wages are any more inevitable than Mario scoring goals is. You could put Mario on a baseball diamond. Different game, different imperative, different outcomes. No goals. Home-runs.

What if, rather than pressuring Nike to pay its workers higher wages, we did the equivalent of introducing Mario to a new sport? What if we changed the systemic imperative of turning a profit, to turning our collective productive capacity to providing meaningful work and a materially secure existence for all?

If we did that, we might see newspaper columns that begin "What putting people first did for Deth, and you, and me".

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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