Saturday, June 16, 2007

Strawberries and Slavery

It's almost Wimbledon time again - strawberries and cream are in the air - delicious!

Throughout the last week there's been many stories about slavery in China, for example here, here and here (I seriously doubt that such large scale slavery would be possible in Indonesia, unless Kalla gets in and goes the way of China).

As I have noted before, there is a big difference between desperate people working of their own free will in harsh working conditions, and people being violently forced to work.

It's one of my pet hates when I read stories where journalists confuse the two.

Working in poor nations is often very harsh, because life for many in those nations is /extremely/ tough. I wish it was different, but boycotting dirt cheap imports from China is counterproductive (link -- in German).

Meanwhile British strawberries are withering on the vine, because not enough immigrant workers are being allowed in to pick them. I am sure unskilled workers from Indonesia and China could earn at least the equivalent of their usual monthly wage /every/ day if they were allowed to pick strawberries in Britain.

It looks like strawberries will have to be imported en masse to make up for the shortfall - thank God for Mexican immigrants working on American strawberry farms!


mukuge said...

yes john - I agree with you that most people condemn 'cheap labour' as 'inexcusable sweatshop efforts' partly because jobs were outsourced due to lower costs and/or internal unwillingness to undertake these said jobs (like you said, picking strawberries... how much is the rate again anyway? I might go pick strawberries... hehe)

The truth is, these 'cheap labour' jobs are very much in demand (particularly in Indonesia), where getting a job to support living itself is a difficult task for many. Why? There simply aren't enough jobs to go around. Secondly, most of the time it costs less to outsource because the cost of living is so much less that what it would be in, say, Britain. This means the employer does not have to expend as much money in providing livelihoods to its workers.

The main point is, boycotting isn't going to help these people make their living. As costs excalate, jobs are axed (most likely on their end instead of on the executives' end). The company would prowl on to find other sources of cheap[er] labour. So IMO no, boycott doesn't solve the problem.

johnorford said...

yeh i agree with u mukuge, the problem is poverty, not evil companies...

Berly said...

Samuelson, Nobel Prize winner and co-founder of neoclassical synthesis, once said that the most misunderstood important idea in economics is comparative advantage.

The simple test would be a counterfactual. Would the poor in developing countries be better off of Nike and other exploitative-but-not -coercive- sweat shop stop their investment there?

Its an intergenerational saving where the parents willing to go through not-so-plesant working condition so the children can go to school.

If gov (and international community) want to help, do it by building high quality and affordable school so the children of the poor have a gateway out where they can fairly compete in.

Keep the fight against ignorance.

johnorford said...

Well comparative advantage is counterintuitive - and sometimes i do think that economists take a too rosy a view of its implications...

i still think the best help is to free up labour markets, let more immigrants from poor nations come to rich countries and pick strawberries and other unappealing jobs.

even start up industries with cheap labour which would otherwise be unviable in wealthy countries -- e.g. import indonesian workers to work in textile factories in northern europe -- all participants would gain.

spew-it-all said...

Yes boycott does not seem to be the recipe of this.

Agree with John about the difference between workers trapped in harsh condition and force labour.

Yet i would be very careful in looking at this issue as it could make us easily to nod to neo-liberalism agenda.

The condition of immigrant workers are assumed to be better off working in wealthier countries than their own. But this only appears on the surface, i am afraid.

Many workers of course could earn more money (after working for long hours) and send some home but they could not be upping themself in term of social and economical stratification.

Education may help but these days, privatisations on this field makes it even harder for them to have it.

I reckon, monitoring policy on labour protection should be prioritised by those who are concerned with this issue.

johnorford said...

Citu! Spoken like a true (ex)sociologist :P

Lemme save up some time to reply to you properly :P:)

oigal said...

Its certainly a complex issue. Maybe its just me but I wince inside when I see those "maids" (one of the cheap labour options) particulary with the families at McDonalds etc. Even worse, the maid having to sit apart from the family, not eating often wearing a face mask as not to contaminate the child (pretty common sight in Singapore for instance). Any yet, the money they earn is the life blood of their families and even the country back home. Still it seems so exploitive..

IndCoup said...

Better a bad job than no job at all. The people who complain about the Western companies operating in Indonesia are middle class lefties. Here in Indonesia, people want to work for these companies as they pay better than Indonesian employers.

oigal said...

There is no doubt about that Indcoup. For a more frightening view, look at the difference in OH&S standards applied.