Monday, November 27, 2006

What are Jobs For?

“In 10 or 15 years it’s going to be great to be a third world country. By that time that’ll be the only place where labour is affordable and they’ll be outsourcing all their work to us.” This hopeful statement came from my girlhood friend, an African IT professional working in London. She goes to work every day and grapples with the rising cost of employing labour in Britain, so she has made this observation over time, she’s educated and observant, she knows it’s looking good. Look at what’s happening in India, she says, where all the call centres have moved to. We hear about data entry companies in Ghana, where they upload the credit card data from Accra by satellite, bringing work to hundreds of typists. Soon, when you give your company’s IT Helpdesk a call you may hear a Kenyan or Congolese person on the other end, in their own countries. This is good news, right?

You can picture all the trapped rural women, currently unable to access healthcare, suddenly accessing civilised jobs, travelling on tarmacked roads to clean computer centres in the bundus which use the miracle of the internet to create a seamless, softwired connection to an income. You could set up environmentally non-invasive industries to bring security and self respect to people who now get passed on from husband to husband as each dies of HIV. They could feed their children vegetables. Learn about balanced diets. Get health insurance. Save up for their old age. Build their communites, investing in clean water and good roads. Imagine what the salary of a data entry clerk in London, even halved, would do to a secondary school leaver in Nyanza who had a good computer lab in her high school.

Unfortunately, however, she won’t be getting that kind of job, with job security, maternity leave and sick pay. She’ll be getting the jobs they had here a hundred years ago. The mindset which outsources labour does not do so for the worker. Women who work in the garment industry, in Export Processing Zones across the world, are currently living in pre 1930’s New York. They get locked in to keep the union organisers out, worked viciously hard for many hours for a pittance. A job which used to earn the American seamstress $10 to $18 an hour earns a Chinese one $0.13 cents, when a living wage would be $0.87. The companies made a profit at $18 an hour, but not enough to please the shareholders when Nike started the great outsourcing race. Not to bedevil Nike, as someone would have started it sometime. That’s capitalism. Good business. 28-day contracts and sanitary pad checks monthly to prove you’re not pregnant. Keeps the costs down, girls. How did you think the British high street has such good quality clothes so cheap?

The methods are tried and tested. As colonial governments ruled us indirectly, using the inimical among us to their ends, so they set us third worlders to watch each other. In the EPZs in Nairobi the supervisors are from Jordan, Vietnam, China. Kenyans can’t be trusted to be hard enough on the girls. In 1990 a toy factory in Kader, Bangkok, went up in flames. It was a firetrap, piles of cloth and dust everywhere. The girls were locked in, to keep the labour organisers out. They threw themselves from the windows wrapped in bales of cloth, so their families would be able to recognise them for burial. This is exactly what happened in 1927 in that shirtwaist factory in New York. The demographic of the dead girls matched up exactly. Young girls, peasants who had travelled far from home to feed their familes, girls who were unlikely to know their rights or how to agitate for them. In New York they were Italian and German. In Kader they were poor Thai girls. Nearly a hundred years apart, the same greed and irresponsibility killed them. Fires and industrial accidents rage through sweatshops in Bangladesh, too. You can’t run factories so cheaply in the West any more, there are labour laws and health and safety regulations. You have to go elsewhere, so you take the bad conditions with you, built into the ethic of the system.

I have a friend in England who is entitled to one tonne of free coal every year from the Coal Board (Yes, there’s still a Coal Board, there are still people who heat their homes with coal). It’s because her father died of the black lung, through being a coal miner before health and safety. But the coal she gets isn’t British, because British coal is too expensive nowadays. It comes from Czechoslovakia, where someone else’s dad is dying of the black lung instead.

These are the jobs they’ll be sending our way. Unregulated, tax haven jobs where computer controlled contracting systems that are the envy of the free world, add figures and award contracts that leap lightly from point to point on the globe in pursuit of the weakest labour laws, the most desperate work force, currently China. It’s a system where the jobs chase the misery, and increase it wherever they land. The World Trade organisation does not uphold the right of free speech the way it does tariff barriers. Clothing companies do strict quality control on T-shirts, not on labour rights. The companies growing the fastest, getting the most kudos in the business press, are the most inimical ones. Even in the West, now a world of service industry jobs, the working life of the poor is controlled by award winning computer systems which keep track of the time when you ring up the most lattes or burgers, and print you out shifts to match. So that mothers find themselves unable to get shifts longer than 3 hours, and people who roll out of bed to get to work by 0530 hrs have to head home at 0930 when the latte flood slows a little.

If you think about it, your own money management systems give the game away. Good money management damages the world. When the poor earn money they instantly fritter it away, splurging unwisely. But when the rich earn money they save it. Do you not congratulate yourself, when you manage to leave money in the bank rather than spend it? That’s what money’s for, isn’t it? Save it for a rainy day. Well, banks keep your money in the stock market.

When the poor earn money, they feed it back into the economy. The rich earn money (count everyone who doesn’t live hand to mouth here) and they feed it into the stock markets. So gradually all the money in the world gets fed into these markets, where 60% of the world's cash is currently sloshing back and forth in massive hedge funds. What for? Meanwhile a poor woman who needs a caesarean dies a horrible, suffering death on the shores of Lake Victoria because, between all her friends, neighbours and acquaintances in the neighbourhood, no one has £3 for fuel for the boat to get her across to the hospital. She stood no better chance of having that £3 if her community had been broken down and its earners taken away to work in an EPZ and live in dorms, with sleeping spaces outlined in white paint. But the real problem is why she needed £3. The infrastructure to handle emergencies has to be a countrywide construct. Why were they looking for fuel, when you and I have ambulances and midwives on demand? Tell me again, why do we continue to subscribe to this stupid thing called capitalism? Why do we allow ourselves to be convinced that market forces work everything out fairly in the end? That’s not what they’re for.

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