In hindsight the words sound eerie.
In February we were in Nicaragua on a rare tour of a Maquila factory that manufactures Levis Dockers pants for the U.S. and Argentina. These factories are usually reluctant to let foreigners in, but this one had a better record than most. It had a good relationship with both its union and an activist women’s group operating within the plant.
Wages at this factory are very low by international standards, but higher than others in Managua’s Maquila zones. The manager of the factory told us that some in the U.S. thought he was doing a good thing by raising his more than 3,000 workers out of poverty. He said they were wrong – his plant wasn’t taking workers out of poverty, only from “misery to poverty.” He said at $45 a week, nobody was getting out of poverty.
Unlike many foreign-owned plants in Nicaragua, this plant had invested in training for its workers and owned its equipment. Many companies simply lease their equipment and building, leaving at a moment’s notice without paying their bills, including worker wages.
The problem with a global economy is there are no real rules for the treatment of workers, only international agreements that give corporations extraordinary rights over sovereign governments.
The Nicaraguan plant manager told us that the wages he paid meant they were losing contracts elsewhere. He specifically said he lost one major contract to Bangladesh were the workers are making a third of the poverty wages he pays his Nicaraguan labourers.
We don’t know if that competitor was one of the factories operating in the collapsed building that is making headlines this week. While the Nicaraguan workers were struggling to get by on $200 a month, the media are reporting that the Bangladesh workers in these factories were earning between $70-$100 per month.
Our direct experience showed us that being in Central America didn’t afford workers any more buying power with their earnings. One mall we visited had prices expressed in American dollars. The cost of items in that mall was no different that the prices we saw back at the Miami airport. Imagine trying to feed, clothe and house your family on $200 a month. You can’t. In Nicaragua it’s a family effort to make ends meet – and at that, barely.
This week commentators are trying to be sensitive to workers in this country who rely on cheap clothing from factories like the one in Bangladesh. The Nicaraguan factory we visited was not producing cheap clothing. We were told by one manager that the cost to make a pair of pants was about $10, but by the time it made it to the shelves of a U.S. department store it could be anywhere from $45 to $80. That’s a lot of mark-up that doesn’t stay with the workers or the factory.
Low wage workers abroad are also putting pressure on the wages of workers here in Canada. The reason why workers here need to buy cheap Joe Fresh clothing made in Bangladesh is because of a global environment that reduces everyone’s wages to the benefit of the super wealthy. It’s exactly what Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak is referring to when he speaks about making Ontario more “competitive.”
The Globe and Mail ran a commentary last week that lauded Loblaws for coming forward and admitting the collapsed Bangladesh factory was producing clothing for their Joe Fresh line. Loblaws is doing its best to be seen expressing sympathy amid public outrage over the unnecessary deaths. No doubt the corporate sector is rattled by the mess the Royal Bank created after it was caught exporting middle-class IT jobs to India and asking their Canadian employees to train their own replacements. With the Bangladesh tragedy showing the other side of this equation, anybody with average intelligence should be now connecting the dots on what is going wrong with this global economy.
Controlling interest in Loblaws is owned by the Weston family. According to Wikipedia, W. Galen Weston and family have an estimated net worth of $US 7.6 billion, are listed as the second wealthiest family in Canada and 133rd in the world by Forbes magazine (March 2011). The W. Garfield Weston Foundation is also a significant supporter of the extreme right-wing Fraser Institute here in Canada. It’s the Fraser Institute which would rather pay workers $70 a month in Bangladesh than $200 in Nicaragua than $1600 here in Canada. How much corporate responsibility is at play when we have the spectacle of the lowest paid workers on the planet perishing in an unsafe building to make profit for one of the richest families?
In the newspaper letters columns some advocate closing our borders to such goods. They call for a return to a made-in-Canada policy. We would invite those people to even try to find a made-in-Canada pair of shoes at any Toronto mall.
The answer isn’t to turn our back on struggling workers in other countries, but instead focus on international agreements that link fair trade with working conditions in those countries.
OPSEU’s Jeff Arbus took the trip to Nicaragua. When he spoke with the factory workers in a meeting arranged at Maria Elena Cuadra, a national women’s group fighting to improve the lives of workers in these factories, the women surprisingly said the same thing as the factory manager – it’s time for an international minimum wage to stop this race to the bottom.
A minimum wage could be tied to living standards in each country – it doesn’t mean every worker has to earn exactly the same.
Such a standard would begin to curb these kinds of excesses that have become a hallmark of what even the factory manager calls “savage capitalism.”
Drafted by Jeff Arbus, a motion was passed at this year’s OPSEU convention pushing the idea out into the world. The next stop is NUPGE’s national convention.
If Loblaws or the Royal Bank are really interested in corporate responsibility, they should support this idea, as should our Federal government. It should be a condition of any trade agreement.
A food company should understand that people cannot feed their families on these wages. A bank should understand the meaning of poverty. As health care workers, we should understand these connections and how they affect the well-being of citizens both here and abroad.
From “misery to poverty.” Surely we can aim higher than that in an era that appears to have totally forgotten the meaning of social justice.
To watch our video tour of the Nicaragua Maquila factory, click here.
To read more about our Nicaragua tour, click here.