"No one is making them stop": Why corporations outsource catastrophe -- and workers pay the price

Labor historian Erik Loomis illuminates the warped economic order that exploits the global poor

Published July 6, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

A relative holds up a picture of a garment worker in front of the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, in Savar, April 27, 2013.           (Reuters/Andrew Biraj)
A relative holds up a picture of a garment worker in front of the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, in Savar, April 27, 2013. (Reuters/Andrew Biraj)

In his new book, "Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe," University of Rhode Island history professor Erik Loomis addresses the limitations of understanding labor and environmental policy through a nationalistic perspective in a world in which a large majority of corporate entities embrace outsourcing as their operative economic philosophy. Salon sat down with him to discuss whether a return to horrifying excesses of the Industrial Revolution and Gilded Age is inevitable, or whether it might still be possible to reverse course and not live in a world in which unregulated sweatshops and environmental indifference are accepted as the cost of doing business.

Your book starts with the Triangle Fire of 1911 and ends with the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013? How do you see those two events being connected?

In 1911, 146 apparel workers died at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City when their building caught on fire. They jumped to their deaths in front of the very people who purchased the clothing they made. The outrage of seeing these people die lead to consumer and political activism to ensure this did not happen again. Better fire safety, building safety, and workplace safety standards came out of this activism. And during the twentieth century Americans fought and demanded for change. We got the minimum wage, the 8-hour day, workers' compensation, Social Security, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and a whole lot more.

By the 1960s and 1970s, the corporate response eventually became to move production overseas, first to Mexico, then to east Asia, and today all across Asia and Central America. They did so not only for cheap wages, but to avoid workplace safety regulations and environmental regulations. So in 2013, when over 1100 workers die at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, it is the same industry as the Triangle Fire, with the same subcontracted system of production that allows apparel companies to avoid responsibility for work as the Triangle Fire, and with the same workforce of young and poor women, the same type of cruel bosses, and the same terrible workplace safety standards as the Triangle Fire. The difference is that most of us can't even find Bangladesh on a map, not to mention know enough about it to express the type of outrage our ancestors did after Triangle.

This separation of production from consumption is an intentional move by corporations precisely to avoid being held responsible by consumers for their actions. And it is very effective.

What's the impact of the massive outsourcing of jobs that would've gone to members of the American working class?

There just aren't good jobs for working people in this country. The industrial jobs that moved the working class into the middle class are almost all gone. The decline of the industrial unions that organized these factories means that working voices are increasingly eliminated from politics.

This had allowed corporations to fill the gap. As we now live in the post-Citizens United era of corporations and the super rich controlling our political process, we have to look at the antecedents to this situation. A big part of it comes back to the corporate war on unions and the working and middle classes. This corporate power over our politics then leads to more policies that hurt American workers and concentrate wealth at the top.

Critics would argue that American corporations are simply providing jobs to people around the world in desperate need of them. How would you respond?

While people do need to work, the idea that American companies are beneficent organizations helping out the world's poor with the gift of a job in a sweatshop is ridiculous. A corporation can still save money on labor costs and workers don't have to die on the job. They don't have allow foremen to sexually harass women at work. They don't have to contract with people who force women workers to undergo pregnancy tests to get hired. They don't have to allow their products to be produced in factories that collapse. We can have a global economy that operates ethically and prosecutes those who violate standards.

Walmart, Apple, Nike, and Target certainly don't want that. But the workers of the world want it and we should too. We should be fighting with the leaders of Bangladeshi worker movements for ethical standards in corporate behavior and with Vietnamese workers in opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership, which are both real demands from these movements.

Why do you think these corporations continue to operate like a parody of some Dickensian overseer?

Because no one is making them stop. These companies want to recreate the conditions of the Triangle Fire. They have found ways to do so. By isolation consumption from production, they ensure that no post-Triangle Fire reforms will happen after Rana Plaza. While some European companies have worked to improve sourcing in Bangladesh, Walmart, Gap, and other American apparel companies refuse to sign on to their standards because they fear legal accountability.

Of course, without legal accountability, they can do whatever they want. That's precisely their goal. And if the Bangladeshi workers organize and the Bangladeshi government improves working conditions, these companies can then move to Indonesia or Cambodia or Honduras. It creates a global system of corporate exploitation and malfeasance and makes it very hard for workers or consumers to do anything about it.

Given your dual concern with corporate outsourcing and environmental destruction, I find it really odd that you've thrown your weight behind Rick Perry in 2016. Care to explain yourself?

Despite my appreciation for Rick Perry's hair and debate preparation methods, I don't see any Republican caring about outsourcing and environmental destruction except to advocate for more of it. Realistically, Hillary Clinton is not particularly concerned about corporate outsourcing either. She is staying away from endorsing the Trans Pacific Partnership today because she realizes it is a hot button issue for the Democratic base and doesn't want to provide a point for her rivals to gain ground on her. There's no doubt that Bernie Sanders does care about these issues.

But more importantly, we need to stop looking at presidential candidates as people who will solve our problems. This is a major problem with the progressive movement. In 2008, people really did believe Barack Obama would bring widespread change. This was a serious mistake, both because his own record suggested he would not and because it misread how power actually works in this nation--which is that presidents are heavily constrained by Congress and the courts.

Rather, if we want to make sure that workers don't die on the job in Bangladesh and we want to preserve the middle class in this country, we need to work together to make demands of politicians. Assuming they will do the right thing after the election ignores the enormous power corporations place on any politician. We can express our own power. Just look at the current fight over the Trans Pacific Partnership that President Obama, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell all want. Labor unions, environmental groups, and consumer organizations have fought hard to hold Democrats in the House accountable to their members and thus the plan to get the TPP through the House by splitting Trade Adjustment Assistance (a plan Republicans hate because it provides money for retraining workers who have lost their job through trade agreements) from fast track blew up in Obama's face. The future of the fast track is heavily imperiled because House Democrats decided that job killing trade agreements that give even more power to multinational corporations over our lives was not acceptable.

So that's the kind of power we need to express on these issues all the time.

You talk about America's individualistic national mythology, or the Horatio Alger myth -- one that's near and dear to my 19th Century Americanist heart -- and I was wondering if you really think that's still the dominant labor-related myth among the younger generation. Without a viable middle class, many of the rungs required to climb the economic ladder are missing. How cognizant do you think people are of this?

I think a lot of younger people especially are of two minds on issues of economic inequality, the decline of the middle class, and mythology about the American economic system. People are clearly worried about income inequality, student debt, and other economic problems they face. The brief, wondrous history of Occupy showed that clearly. And widespread support for the minimum wage hikes even in conservative states like Arkansas continues to demonstrate demands for more equality at the workplace.

However, young people also really strongly believe in the myths of American capitalism. They believe that if they work hard, they really can be successful. And they often believe that those who fail do so because of their own personal failings. The embrace of the so-called sharing economy is a perfect example. People are happy to try and craft lives based on freelancing, Uber, and other jobs that effectively force all the responsibility for the job onto the individual employee while the corporation holds all the control. They are happy to be independent contractors in exchange for a vague notion of freedom on the job. They are voluntarily entering into an unequal employment situation because they think if they work hard, they can be successful. Well, mostly they can't because the cards are stacked against us in 2015.

What should the role of organized labor be in the environmental movement, and how should it use its muscle in the Democratic Party to achieve those goals. (If, that is, you still think it has muscle in the Democratic Party.)

Organized labor and the environmental movement have a complex relationship. Sometimes they have separate goals. Environmentalists oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline. The Laborers' union (LIUNA) has denounced those environmentalists as job killers. But they also have much in common, including on workplace safety and building green jobs. They also have the defeat of the Trans Pacific Partnership in common, which is why they have united to fight it in a remarkable display of power. Together, the two movements can still turn the Democratic Party to their interests, at least when they unite. Ultimately, very little permanent change has taken place in this country without placing it into the legal code. Both organized labor and greens understand this. The easiest path for making the government work for workers and greens is through the Democratic Party which is why both movements should support the Democrats who fight for them and punish those Democrats who do not.

A lot of Salon's readers no doubt feel very good about themselves as they sort their recyclables into their proper bins. Can you tell them why their self-satisfaction isn't merely unearned, but also ill-gained and irresponsible?

Recycling is a perfect example of how we are complicit in the global process of production and consumption. When we put our recyclables in the little blue box or recycle our electronics, not only do we have no idea about what happens next, we don't think about it. We assume that these products are being reused or repurposed in an ethical way. But what are the working conditions in recycling sorting facilities? Are workers cut by glass and metal, covered in stale beer and rotting garbage mixed in with the recycling? Don't we have an obligation to know something about this? In fact, a lot of our recycling, especially plastics, is shipped to China, much of it ending up in garbage heaps anyway.

It's even worse with electronics recycling. When you recycle your phone or TV, they get shipped to China, where workers pound and burn them into bits in order to recover the valuable heavy metals in them. That's the recycling process. These workers are therefore laboring in extremely toxic situations, contracting cancers and other diseases, while the metals run off into local water supplies. These are some of the worst working conditions the world has to offer and they come from what seems like the most environmentally responsible thing we consumers can easily do.

This doesn't mean recycling is inherently bad. But it does mean that we need to have access to knowledge about the system in order to make sure we aren't contributing to the global exploitation of workers and the environment.

Similarly, quinoa is a so-called "superfood." Why exactly should we feel guilty for eating it? Put differently, what would what you call "a democratic food system" actually look like in practice?

Western consumers shouldn't necessarily feel bad about eating quinoa, but it's worth recognizing the relationship between newly popular foods on the western market and the people who traditionally eat them, in this case the people of the Andes who have seen the prices of one of their staple crops rise. More broadly, food democracy in the context of global production would not only allow small farmers in the United States to have a chance to succeed in their local and national markets and the knowledge of where our food comes from and how it is produced, but also good working conditions and wages for those growing and processing our food as well as the ability of farmers in the developing world to be able to continue farming in traditional ways.

The Green Revolution may have saved many lives in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but the high-yield crops required enormous inputs of chemicals, forcing farmers to pay up to American chemical corporations like Union Carbide and Monsanto. Most small farmers can't do that and millions in Mexico, India, China, and other nations have had to leave the land. This then provides the labor force for the outsourcing of jobs across the planet. In Oaxaca, a southern state in Mexico, there is a "right to stay at home" movement happening as a way of resisting agricultural and economic policies in the wake of NAFTA and the Green Revolution that have made it impossible for small farmers to stay on the land and instead forced them into the maquiladoras of northern Mexico or across the U.S. border as undocumented immigrants. Giving farmers around the world choices for their lives should be part of our food democracy.

You've painted a very bleak picture of the contemporary world, so how about we end this on a hopeful note. Is there anything readers -- and consumers generally -- can do to fight back?

You can demand that your organization source its apparel ethically. If you are a college student, you can join United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) to make demands on your school to make sure its branded clothing is produced in a factory that does not exploit workers. Church and club members and can take similar actions. And if you want more direct action, go hand out flyers in front of stores like Gap about the terrible conditions at the factories they use. You'll get escorted off the premises but if you alert your local media, you might be able to raise attention about the issue through a news story.

In the long run, we have to fight for international standards that would set minimum limits on goods sold in the United States. Those standards must be mandatory for corporations, even if they outsource their production, and with real punishment clauses. They also must empower workers and citizens around the world to take action against corporations if they break these standards, giving them the opportunity to sue these corporations in American courts. If Gap wants to source production in Bangladesh, fine. But there should be standards of pay, workplace safety, and pollution. If Gap production turns the rivers pink because of what the factory is making that day--which is the conditions of Bangladeshi rivers near these factories--then citizens should be able to charge Gap with violating pollution standards. The same for workplace standards.

This isn't some pipe dream. In the book, I give many examples of how Americans already do and have in the past decided on standards for imports. We don't allow ivory to be imported for instance. We have laws on the books against products produced through slave labor, although our pro-corporate government don't always enforce them. We can do this and doing so would take the incentives away from corporations moving factories at will since the standards would follow them wherever they moved. This would allow more jobs to stay in the United States and if they were moved to Bangladesh, allow Bangladeshis to create their own middle class instead of the jobs disappearing when their workers joined unions and improved pay rates for instance.

By Scott Eric Kaufman

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Environmentalism Erik Loomis Labor Movement