I remain unnerved. Do the labour practices of China and other “Asian Tigers” comprise an acceptable standard for this or any democratic government? Is this what we as a society should aspire to?
Some reasons to be concerned:
Last year , total U.S. trade with China reached $231.4 billion. Of this, $196.7 billion consisted of imports from China. The reality of these imports is that they arrive on the backs of millions of Chinese workers. These workers labor six days per week (seven during peak season), 13 hours per day, for as little as 35 cents per hour. They do not have pensions or Social Security; they do not have unemployment or medical insurance. By the time they reach age 40, they start having difficulty keeping up with the heavy workload. Soon, they are left with nothing. [China Labor Watch]
Over three-quarters of the 12 million people worldwide who are exploited in forced labor conditions are in Asia, according to a comprehensive global report released last week by United Nations social justice and work rights agency the International Labour Organization (I.L.O.). Defining forced labor as “work extracted under threat and against a person’s will,” the report has assessed the Asia and Pacific region as heading the worldwide list with 9.5 million people. Latin America follows with 1.3 million, Sub-Saharan Africa with 660,000 and Europe and the United States with 360,000. [Worldpress.org]
The International Labor Organization (ILO) has estimated that 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work in developing countries--at least 120 million on a full time basis. Sixty-one percent of these are in Asia, 32 percent in Africa, and 7 percent in Latin America. Most working children in rural areas are found in agriculture; many children work as domestics; urban children work in trade and services, with fewer in manufacturing and construction. [Human Rights Watch]
These labour practices are not mentioned in Bouchard’s manifesto, which has been roundly praised in Canada’s national newspapers. If they had been, we might ask how it is possible, let alone desirable, to “compete” with workers who earn thirty-five cents per hour? More to the point, we might question why our governments have not made it an urgent priority to improve working conditions in Asia and elsewhere.
The omission may have something to do with the fact that the “total global profits earned from the exploitation of men, women and children have been calculated as being $32 billion,” and that a disproportionate percentage of these profits are realized by Western companies. Without the intervention of governments that are committed to principles of social justice, profit will always take precedence over human rights, an historical fact that Bouchard and his fellows have conveniently overlooked. As labour activist Li Qiang notes:
China's current economic system could not exist in a democratic nation. The kinds of political and economic decisions made in China do not require democratic discussion, and the government of China has put aside all other considerations in order to develop the economy. Only under such authoritarian rule is it possible for the market to be so tightly controlled and for there to be this kind of trade surplus.
So, what is to be done? Some thoughts:
There is an urgent need to rethink current institutions of global economic governance, whose rules and policies are largely shaped by powerful countries and powerful players. The unfairness of key rules of trade and finance reflect a serious "democratic deficit" at the heart of the system. The failure of policies is due to the fact that market-opening measures and financial and economic considerations have consistently predominated over social ones, including measures compatible with the prerogatives of international human rights law and the principles of international solidarity. [World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization]
Globalization demands that we begin anew the task of establishing fair and just rules that make the economy work for all. This challenge is the same as that faced by American workers at the beginning of the 20th century. Unions, minimum wages, and fair labor practices were essential to meeting that challenge, and they are essential again. But such tools are no longer sufficient when applied nationally. They must be applied globally. That means China, India and other industrializing developing countries must agree to, and enforce, core labor standards and worker rights. Trade cannot be free without worker freedom and the right to share in the wealth created. [Thomas Palley, ZNet]
In the meantime, we can refuse to be swayed by calls to increase “productivity,” “flexibility,” or “performance” at the expense of our non-working lives. Leisure time is where the rest of life happens: love, friendship, family, learning, art, and all the other things that we work for. Quebeckers understand this implicitly, and, I hope, won’t give it up without a fight.