Our systems of industrial production are as harmful today as they have ever been, but now the ugly side of manufacturing is hidden in faraway places where workers are most vulnerable. Out of Sight, by labor historian Erik Loomis, explains how this came to pass and how workers can take power back from corporations. Order the book now by donating to Truthout!
Corporations slither through lax regulations and take advantage of poor people around the world and people of color to create zones of toxicity and exploitation. Truthout recently interviewed Erik Loomis about how corporations, in the end, create catastrophe.
Mark Karlin: How does subcontracting allow corporations to claim that they are not engaged in the exploitation of workers and the share of corporate responsibility for global warming?
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Erik Loomis: The system of subcontracting allows corporations to shield themselves from responsibility for the labor and environmental consequences of production. Walmart, Gap, Target and other apparel corporations lead the way in protecting themselves from responsibility through contracting production out to suppliers. These companies do not own the factories that produce their clothing. They simply sign contracts with contractors, dictating the amount they will pay for the product. It is up to the contractor to then make sure the clothing is produced for the right price. This incentivizes the contractor subcontracting to sweatshops, pushing workers to the point of exhaustion, paying them low wages and spending no money on pollution controls. The western companies can then say they have no responsibility for these conditions because they don’t care what happens inside those factories so long as the goods come in at the right price. This absolves them of legal responsibility even though they set the terms of contract with their suppliers. The system produces high profits on the backs of the workers as well as nearby residents who have to deal with the pollution of these factories.
It is part of a larger strategy corporations take to push responsibility off to others while in fact dictating wages and costs of production. A cousin of subcontracting is the franchising model that fast food companies use, where McDonald’s can effectively ensure that wages remain low while saying that the franchisees control these matters.
What has globalization added to making the destructive action of corporations appear, per your book’s title, “out of sight”?
Globalization allows corporations to move around the globe, finding people with very little power who have a limited ability to resist exploitation. When companies produced goods in the United States, American consumers could stand up and fight against the corporate exploitation of people and the land. When 146 workers died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City in 1911, middle-class people rallied behind reforms to fire safety, building safety and working conditions. They saw workers die making their clothing, and they fought for change. But if the factory is in Bangladesh, Honduras or Cambodia, no American consumers are seeing these horrible conditions or breathing in the air pollution or watching the rivers run red or green.
When corporations move production out of our sight to nations they can dominate and control, it protects corporations from the consumer activism that forced the reforms that created the middle class in the US during the 20th century and the relatively clean environment most Americans enjoy today.
Why should we not be surprised when the mainstream news announces workplace catastrophes?
We should be surprised when the mainstream news announces workplace catastrophes! It doesn’t happen very often. Even when it does, such as the Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh, in 2013, when over 1,100 workers died making clothing for western companies like Walmart, it might show up on the news for a day or two, and then it is over. Labor activists might fight to support the Bangladeshi workers’ movement that is struggling for dignified work and lives, but the everyday citizen forgets about it immediately and moves on to the next story that floats across their television screens.
You state that “corporations still seek out the areas with the poorest people to dump toxic waste.” How is it also clear that corporations locate plants with a risk of noxious and deadly leaks in populated locations that have limited economic means?
Corporations who deal with toxic chemicals and who pollute don’t want resistance to their operations. No one wants a chemical plant or oil refinery in their backyard. So companies work with often-corrupt state and local politicians to find the people with the least ability to fight back. In the US, this usually means African-American and Latino communities. So for instance, the so-called “Cancer Corridor” between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is a largely rural, African-American area. The petrochemical industry has enormous facilities through this region with terrible results for the health of local residents. They might not be dumping toxic waste per se, but they are emitting noxious chemicals. Areas like the Cancer Corridor have become sacrifice zones for American production, where poor people have to live with, and die with, the results of the American production system. It is about who has power to resist corporate siting of toxicity in their neighborhood and who doesn’t have that power.
What does the 1984 Union Carbide pesticide plant leak in Dhopal, India, that killed perhaps as many as 16,000 people (with the death figure contested by the company and the Indian government) tell us about corporate disregard for individuals that they consider “disposable”?
The Union Carbide leak effectively shows how little corporations care about the human beings who work for them or the people who live around their facilities. Union Carbide could have easily prevented this leak. But it shut off some of its safety systems in order to save money, sacrificing safety for profit. Operating manuals were in English but most workers read only Hindi.
Local officials worried about processing these chemicals in a big city like Bhopal, but Union Carbide executives overrode their concerns because they wanted to centralize production at that facility and sell it to other Asian nations. The limited pollution prevention system in the plant was completely overwhelmed by the size of the factory, with UC putting no money into ensuring such an event did not happen. Between 1980 and 1984, UC laid off half its safety employees in the plant in order to save money.
Not surprisingly, the plant had severe workplace safety issues as well. A 1976 accident blinded a worker. A 1981 leak killed one worker and injured two others. A leak in 1982 nearly killed 28 workers, although none died in the end. There were many more similar incidents. A 1982 safety audit suggested major changes, but there is no evidence UC implemented any of them. This clear indifference to worker safety created the conditions for the horrible tragedy that took place in Bhopal.
In your chapter, “The Climate Is for Sale,” you suggest that”given the threat of catastrophic climate change, the ability to protest at the point of energy production is absolutely vital.” Aren’t energy corporations increasingly trying to pass laws to criminalize such protests?
Yes! Corporations are doing everything they can to shut down any protest of their actions or knowledge of what happens inside their plants. This has really picked up over the last 15 years. First, after the Seattle WTO protests in 2000, major events began creating “free speech zones,” which were actually censorship zones that forced activists into isolated spaces where they could be ignored and would not disrupt the goings on of agencies like the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund that did so much damage to the people of the world.
In recent years, the agricultural industry has worked toward “ag-gag” bills that make it illegal for people to have video evidence in their possession of what happens inside meat production facilities, where animals are often horribly abused. Animal rights activists have taken jobs in these plants and secretly filmed it all to raise awareness over these abuses. If these laws succeed, corporations will likely try to pass versions of this for their own industries. Criminalizing both protest and knowledge is a major threat to anyone fighting for change.
Can you amplify on the statement in your introduction that “calling ‘market decisions’ natural law is a mythology created to hide the very choices made by corporate leaders and politicians”?
We often hear about “the invisible hand” of the market like there is nothing we can do to control how the market operates. It turns the economy into some sort of natural force like gravity. This is ridiculous. The market is a series of choices made by people about how to structure an economy, no more and no less.
There may be some general truths like laws of supply and demand, but our economic history shows that government policy heavily shapes these phenomena. Those who talk about the free market in this way are actually saying they don’t want any government interference in the economy except to the extent that it serves corporate interests. Whether the government works to distribute the profits of our society fairly or serves CEOs and seeks to concentrate wealth at the top, it is acting to shape the economy.
Believers in the free market act like other believers in fundamentalist religion, dismissing nonbelievers as heretics and savages who need to be washed clean by the flood of their truth. Unfortunately, many of our most powerful people are the high priests of this religion, and the destruction of the American middle class has been the sacrifice we’ve made for their beliefs.
We’ve seen companies such as Walmart, Apple and so many others also outsource exploitative labor conditions and work environments. How are workers the victims of companies that keep their reprehensible workplace labor practices “out of sight” through subcontracting?
They are victims because they need to work and feed their families and are forced to take these terrible jobs western companies offer them because they lack other options, partially because global agricultural policy has forced small farmers off their land. They don’t take these conditions lying down. They fight for unions, for higher wages, for dignified lives. They don’t see jobs in an Apple outsourced factory as a benevolent gift from a western corporation, which is how apologists for the race to the bottom often portray the system. Rather, they want the same kind of decent living that you and I have. They don’t want to die on the job. They don’t want to have their children having to work instead of going to school. They don’t want to skip meals because they don’t have enough money for food. But all of this happens because they face corporations who threaten to move to another country if workers unionize and a political system in cahoots with those corporations to make sure conditions don’t improve for them. That we do nothing in the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan and other wealthy nations to help the workers who suffer to make our goods creates an even greater tragedy.
Why is it so important for advocates to maximize media coverage of exploitative working disasters? You use the historical example of the infamous sweatshop Triangle Fire of 1911 that resulted in the deaths of 146 women workers?
Media coverage brings knowledge. Knowledge creates action. Action leads to change.
Most people don’t like to see people suffer. But if that suffering is not in their sight, it becomes very easy to not think about it. Clothing magically appears on hangers in the store, and meat shows up nice and neatly packaged at the grocery store. We are encouraged to not consider how these products got to the store.
When people see suffering, they act. New technologies such as smart phones have begun to transform the ability to cover these issues. For example, police violence against African-Americans has been endemic for centuries. What happened to Eric Garner and Michael Brown has happened to thousands of African Americans over the years. But now that police brutality is being recorded, it has led to national outrage over this institutionalized racism. The same dynamic could take place with working conditions, poverty and pollution around the world.
No one wants Bangladeshis to die making their clothing. If we see their lives, we are more likely to demand those lives improve. If the media doesn’t cover it, we can create our own coverage through new technologies and force the mainstream media to pay attention, assuming media doesn’t become illegal through new versions of ag-gag bills that apply to industries nation and worldwide.
Your last chapter is called “The Way Forward.” What are some of your suggestions for resistance against corporate exploitation, toxic policies and catastrophes?
First, we need to fight to defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This trade agreement between 12 nations around the Pacific basin would make the current system of global labor exploitation even worse. It would create courts called the Investor State Dispute Settlement that would allow companies to sue states that enact regulations that limit their “expected future profits.” That meant that if the US created laws mandating better working conditions in factories that made products for our markets abroad, corporations could theoretically sue the nation for doing so. That’s not an idle threat either. Already, early versions of these extra-judicial courts are doing awful things. Philip Morris is going after Uruguay for creating new tobacco regulations while a French company has sued Egypt for raising its national minimum wage. The TPP in this form would only make lives worse for the world’s workers because it grants corporations even more power to dictate policy to governments.
Going forward, we have to make trade and the global race to the bottom key issues on the political agenda. That means grilling our representatives and senators on their stance on these issues and convincing them that they will be punished if they vote for policies that destroy the American middle class and doom the workers of Bangladesh to death in their workplaces. We can also join anti-sweatshop organizations on our college campuses, work for fair trade products in organizations to which we belong, or protest in front of stores, exposing shoppers to the reality of the goods they buy and perhaps getting news attention when security evicts us from the premises. There’s lots we can do to raise awareness, and I go into this in more detail in the book.
Finally, our long-term goal needs to be holding corporations legally accountable for their actions no matter where they site production. We need to decide what standards corporations making products for the American market should be and take away the incentive to move production to nations where they can take advantage of lax laws and regulations.
I suggest fighting for laws that not only set these standards wherever a company sites production but give workers in these factories the power to take legal action in American courts for enforcement and apply them to all contractors and subcontractors, holding the American companies accountable for their suppliers. Otherwise, companies will continue to move to wherever the labor is cheapest and workers will continue to die making our products.
Making these changes to our economic system is doable. We already have laws banning the importation of elephant ivory or goods made by prison labor for example. It takes willpower to enforce those laws, but there are lots of examples in the recent past of how the American government, taking action to create global standards, can have a positive effect. We can do this on a massive scale if we make our politicians prioritize the world’s workers over their corporate funders.
None of this is easy, especially in a nation where corporations grab more power every day. But if we don’t visualize the change we want to see and think through the legal mechanisms to make it happen, the current system of global exploitation that brings down the American middle class while also not allowing workers around the world to live dignified lives will continue. For the good of the global 99 percent, we have to challenge this system and bring these corporations under control.