Sunday, February 12, 2006

The World Trade Organization

I first visited Singapore on business about 1980.  It is a tiny country.  It was already quite prosperous by Asian standards.  Today it can be considered wealthy by most standards.
I was there, as were many Americans and Europeans, to take advantage of very low cost labor.  

As an idealistic thirty something young man, I had struggled a bit with guilt over the idea of hiring Singaporeans willing to work for very low wages.  The word exploit was determined to assert itself into my thinking.  However, as I visited our factory, I was struck by how similar it was to our facilities in the U.S.  The building was simple, but nicely constructed.  A bell rang twice a day, and assembly line workers, engineers, and management would all gather in the hall for snacks and tea.  There was a pleasant cafeteria where a food server was determined to dredge the soup for an extra chicken’s foot for me, an honored guest.  The workers chuckled as I toured the line.  To this day they assure me that I am an exact twin for Kenny Rogers.  Just a year or so ago a young factory planner convulsed with laughter when, apropos of nothing, I said “You think I look like Kenny Rogers, don’t you?”

There is no worker’s paradise in this world.  I have been in many factories since, some worse, some better.  Some of those factories were in the U.S. or Europe; others have been in various parts of Asia.  I certainly understand that some truly wretched work places exist in this world.  The bidi factories in India are an infamous example.  Go here research/factsheets/pdf/0037.pdf if you need convincing.  Or read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair if you would like a home grown example.  However, I also know that many of the alternatives to an industrialized society are not nearly as lovely as we might hope.

There are no agrarian paradises, for the same reason there are no industrial paradises.  We humans miss the mark, and miss it often. A less popular word for this is “sin”.    I am told that even farm work with internal combustion engines is tough.  I am told by folks who have actually farmed using only animal and human muscle, that it is very hard work indeed.  It is hard work that must be shared by the whole family.  Taking one day a week to rest is audacious act of faith in those circumstances.  My oldest daughter lived in Tanzania for a few months. She told me of whole villages who were chased off the best land and away from water sources by their more aggressive neighbors.  She saw a culture where the men lounged while the women bore the entire burden of farming, child rearing, and keeping house.  During my first trip to Singapore, a day trip driving through the Malaysia jungle and plantations, brief though it was, was enough to convince me that using a machete or a hoe for twelve hours a day in humid 100 degree air might be a tough way to earn a living.  Certainly it can be tougher than spending long hours assembling widgets for someone twelve thousand miles away.

At last this brings me to the World Trade Organization.  It happens that I know almost nothing about the World Trade Organization other than that it purports to promote world trade.  I know only a little more about those who are opposed to the World Trade Organization on the grounds that it promotes a system whereby richer countries exploit poorer ones, especially by using their populations as a source of cheap labor.  It would seem that hiring workers for factories built in other countries is seen as being the modern version of the slave plantations at home and abroad in the nineteenth century.

Sadly, in most of the world, oppression and exploitation are certainly common.  It may be home grown, or it may be instituted by folks from other countries.  The folks who institute such oppression may be rich or may be dirt poor.  Exploitation is an equal opportunity enterprise.  All colors, all faiths, all ages, and both sexes may promote it or may suffer it.  To impugn “multinational corporations” as the biggest perpetrators of such injustice strikes me as foolish.  It is foolish to think that willing workers vying for a job at wage that will better their lives should be seen as ill treated.

I am, however, willing to scrutinize my own motives and actions.  Am I best using the riches with which God has blessed me?  Do I feel compassion for those folks who must work much harder and who have much less?  Am I personally doing more each year to help those who are oppressed?  What part do I play in promoting injustice?

I invite my readers to do the same.  Once you have done so, do not purchase the sneakers or the MP3 player if you are convinced that the company that manufactured them is doing more harm than good.  
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