Playing Dumb for Fun and Profit

By now, everybody knows the drill. An American or European company (typically a manufacturing or food-processing enterprise, but increasingly expanding to include IT operations) sets up shop in a stable Central American or Asian country in order to take advantage of ridiculously low wages and weak or near non-existent environmental laws.

A company wishing to manufacture athletic shoes in Ohio, for example, considers what awaits it: Employees wanting decent wages and benefits, unions seeking representation, state and federal laws requiring that women and ethnic minorities be hired, state and federal laws requiring that overtime be paid, state and federal statutes requiring a safe workplace, and state and federal laws requiring that the operation not pollute the environment. That's how a progressive society conducts its business.

Compare this to a shoe factory in, say, Honduras or Bangladesh, where precious few of these requirements even exist. Granted, some may actually appear on a document somewhere, but if they do, it's purely for show, purely to give American congressmen an excuse for voting in favor of those predatory trade agreements that have been systematically eroding the American middle-class for decades.

And on those rare occasions when a non-profit watchdog blows the whistle, and international corporations are made aware of labor and/or environmental violations occurring at their factories in faraway Central America, they claim to be stunned. They profess ignorance. They play dumb. ("What? Labor violations in Honduras? We're shocked... shocked, I say.")

In reality, the majority of those high-minded labor and environmental "protections" included in trade agreements are viewed from the outset as being as deceptive as an old-fashioned Ponzi scheme. It's a fact. But it's also a fact that inclusion of those protections is imperative. Indeed, it's mandatory. Without their inclusion, those hypocritical Democrats in Congress couldn't bring themselves to vote for ratification.

Of course, the difference between provisions being casually mentioned in a document, and provisions being rigidly enforced by the host country, is the difference between math students at MIT and football players at the University of Alabama. Accordingly, with the ink on these trade agreements barely dry, the whole phenomenon quickly devolves into a case of, "Goodbye, progressive change"... and "Hello, Nike."

More bad news. Just when we thought things couldn't get worse than those festering hellholes that pay their workers, including children, a pittance -- barely enough to subsist on -- we learn there's something even creepier in existence. Question: What could be worse than toiling in a sweatshop? Answer: Toiling in one as a virtual slave.

Nestles SA (headquartered in Switzerland), the largest food company in the world, announced yesterday that workers in Thailand (many of whom are citizens of dirt-poor countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh) who are employed by subsidiaries of Nestles SA, were being coerced to work or even be sold into slavery in order to fulfill the needs of the thriving Thai seafood industry, which exports $7 billion worth of products per year.

How does this amount to "slavery"? It's a two-step process. First, the brokers promise these people an opportunity to "better themselves" by tricking them into borrowing money for their transport, job placement, and "supplies." Second, once they're hired, they're told they won't be allowed to quit until all that money is paid back. After all, a person can be thrown in jail, and his family back home ruined, for not honoring a debt.

Needless to say, given the combination of low wages and smoke-and-mirrors debt accumulation, these hapless workers are rarely able to pay what they owe. Basically, they're stuck there, trapped in one of the crappier jobs on God's earth. It's the Third World trifecta: miserable work, long hours, low pay. On the upside, we all get to eat cheap shrimp.