Covering Labor

Kristin Huckshorn


Issues of labor and workers’ rights have been fertile ground for journalists since the 1800s, when thousands of impoverished Europeans and Americans left farm fields for factories. A reporter needs look no further than the strict rules governing working girls in the Lowell, Massachusetts textile mills in the 1850s to find antecedents for the regulations issued 150 years later to Asian workers inside foreign-invested sneaker factories.

Today, the rush toward globalization and the accompanying exodus of jobs from industrialized to developing countries has reestablished labor as a hot-button issue. Indeed, labor is one of the chief ways in which globalization affects developing countries. The fact that most of the newly created jobs offer low-wage, labor-intensive employment has become a rallying point for groups in the West concerned about labor conditions in developing countries. These include protectionists, trade unions, college students, human rights organizations, environmentalists and, finally, soccer moms who buy the Frosted Flakes, Puma soccer balls, Gap T-shirts and NIKE sneakers made overseas. The outcry against foreign invested “sweatshops” has led some corporations to establish codes of conduct and increase monitoring. Others have closed factories and reopened in other countries, taking the jobs with them. Groups working to improve conditions are struggling to find a way to hold private companies accountable for treatment of their workers, in much the same way governments once were held accountable.

As the world undergoes an economic downturn, consumer spending and demand for many of those Made-Anywhere-But-Here products have dropped. For the workforce in developing countries, that means reduced orders, more factory closings and higher unemployment. Clearly, in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, developing countries will feel continued pressure to damp down both wages and demands for better working conditions as they attempt to hold onto jobs or attract new investment. Impoverished young women will continue to abandon back-breaking work in rice paddies for indoor jobs stitching and gluing sneakers for $1.50 a day. And anti-sweatshop groups will continue to seek ways to hold companies accountable and responsible for their workers and factories.

Asia at Centerstage

Asia is at the center of the current debate over labor and workers’ rights. Here’s why: More than half of all textiles and apparel produced each year are made in Asia, a majority in China. These low-skilled jobs – cutting, stitching, gluing – traditionally pay the lowest wages within the manufacturing sector. And factory wages in some Asian countries are among the lowest in the world, below those in Mexico and Central America. These low-wage jobs disproportionately go to young women. Indeed, as many as 85 percent of the jobs in apparel factories are held by women, most of them between the ages of 18 and 23. Asia is also home to some of the world’s poorest and most overpopulated countries, including China, Indonesia and Vietnam. In agrarian countries like these, too many people and not enough arable land leads to high unemployment and social unrest. Cash strapped governments also desperately need foreign currency. Foreign-invested factories offer low-skill jobs and cash.

The World Bank endorsed the rush to manufacturing in the early 90s with two comprehensive and widely-quoted reports. One report, in 1990, said that labor-intensive growth provided countries one of the main exits from poverty. The other, “The East Asian Miracle” published in 1993, largely credited the remarkable economic growth and rise from poverty in eight high-performing Asian countries to a high savings rate and the governments’ decisions to manufacture for export. Emerging countries could look to countries like Japan and Korea, where workers who had once glued together sneakers or plastic toys now held high-skill, high-wage jobs, and see the rewards of manufacturing for export.

In the U.S., manufacturing jobs began moving overseas in the 1950s and that shift accelerated in the 70s. For instance, in 1972 there were 1.42 million apparel sector jobs in the U.S. By 1996, that number had fallen 41 percent to 837,000. During the 1990s, trade barriers continued to fall and once isolated countries like China and Vietnam began to open for foreign investment. Foreign-invested companies shifted jobs to Asia to take advantage of low wages and authoritarian regimes that outlawed trade union activity. (Additionally, in 1993, the U.S. Congress passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, removing trade barriers with Canada and Mexico. Five-year studies on the impact of NAFTA estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 jobs shifted from the U.S. to Mexico after NAFTA went into effect.)

Another phenomenon in Asia is the country-shopping for lower wages by foreign-invested companies and their subcontractors. NIKE is a case in point. In the 1970s, the Beaverton, Oregon company employed subcontractors based in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. In the 1980s, its subcontractors moved to China and Indonesia, which offered lower wages. In the 90s, NIKE began producing in Vietnam and Cambodia, where workers earned 30 cents to one dollar less a day than their counterparts in China and Indonesia. Asian countries continue to compete against one another for jobs, a strong incentive to keep wages low and unions at bay.

Covering workers’ rights: Pitfalls and Prejudices

A 19-year-old girl stands inside a poorly ventilated factory, gluing together two of the 150 pieces that make up an athletic shoe. She’ll repeat this same step for the next eight hours and at day’s end, she’ll be paid $1.30 for her work.

The image of young women bonded in sweatshop labor ignites anti-sweatshop campaigns and stirs consumers to boycott brand names. It is an emotional issue – unlike other business-related issues like currency controls or privatization that impact ordinary people in a more obtuse way. But the image is only part of the picture. A reporter needs to leave preconceived ideas and personal prejudices at the factory door when reporting on labor and workers’ rights.

The reality is that many, if not most, workers in foreign-invested factories desperately want these jobs. Often, the other alternative is seasonal farm work – standing knee deep in muck for eight hours a day to bring in the rice harvest. For young women, whose families often cede their meager farm land only to sons, the factories truly are their only route to financial independence. In the poorest countries, such as Cambodia, a factory job can mean the difference between dignity and a life of prostitution. It is imperative for reporters to talk to the workers themselves to find out what their previous lives were like and what their employment alternatives were. It is not a reporter’s job to validate or invalidate the individual feelings of a worker, based on that reporter’s feelings or experiences. In short: if a worker tells you that life in a factory constitutes a better life, then, for her, it does.

Tips for Reporters

Inside the factory; what you need to know:

  • Who operates the factories? Who is the foreign investor and who is the subcontractor? What percentage of the subcontractor’s orders are for which companies (for instance, some subcontractors produce only for one company, giving that company virtually complete control over the subcontractor’s factory conditions and regulations). Does the foreign-invested company have an on-site representative?
  • What is the country’s minimum wage? What are entry-level workers paid? A reporter should try to see an entry-level worker’s pay stub to determine actual take-home pay. Many companies require automatic deductions for housing, social security and lunch. How much money does the worker save per month? How much did the worker make in their previous job?
  • What is the minimum age for workers in this country? Do workers know of anyone employed at the factory under that age?
  • What percentage of the workers are women? What percentage of those in supervisory jobs or higher paying jobs are women? What happens when women become pregnant? (In Honduras and Guatemala, female workers in maquilas have been subjected to forced pregnancy tests or asked if they are pregnant during job interviews.) Are there any instances of sexual harassment?
  • How are workers punished for transgressions?
  • How many hours and days in a typical workweek? Is overtime voluntary or required?
  • Are workers allowed to organize into an independent union, Are they allowed to strike? If there is a union, who picks its leadership and who does the union report to? Is it government controlled (as is the case in Vietnam)? What mechanisms are in place to respond to problems or complaints? What happens to whistleblowers or workers who file complaints?
  • Are workers given quotas for production? What happens if they don’t make their quotas?
  • What safety equipment is issued to workers?
  • What chemicals are used during processing? Which of these chemicals are in use in industrialized countries? Does the factory use safer, water-based adhesives or more toxic glue-based adhesives like toluene that is proven to cause brain damage?
  • Do workers know of anyone who has died at the factory or suffered serious injury? If so, how was the family compensated?
  • Has the factory laid off workers? What was the compensation?
  • How did the workers land the factory job? Did they have to pay a middle man to procure the placement?
  • Are workers given opportunities for advancement or skills training?
  • Does the foreign invested company have a code of conduct? Is it visible in the factory?
  • Who monitors the factory conditions for the foreign-invested company? Is there an independent auditor? Are outsiders (reporters, human rights groups) allowed to tour the factory? Have workers met with monitors or a representative from the foreign-invested company?
  • Is the foreign-invested company a member of the Fair Labor Association? If so, it has probably been visited by FLA monitors, who issue periodic reports. It has also agreed to adhere to an FLA code of conduct that includes rules on forced labor, child labor, health and safety, minimum wages and work hours.
  • How does the factory compare to another foreign-invested factory manufacturing the same goods? How does it compare to a locally owned factory producing those goods?

Publication Information

Type Backgrounders
Program Journalism Backgrounders
Download Not Available