Imagine making only $15 a month. Not possible? Imagine, then, making $75 a month. Imagine that you’re working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. That’s just under 40¢ an hour. Would you work for that little an hour? Would you work with no safety regulations, no breaks (either for the restroom or for lunch) and no proper equipment? Would you do it for no other reason than to be able to put some kind of food on the table?
In the United States, citizens aren’t expected to work for that small sum. In fact, our federal minimum wage per hour is over twice what people in some countries make per day. If an American citizen went to apply for a job and the potential employer offered the position at less than $1 an hour, that employer would not only be laughed at, but reported to their state’s labor board. There was a time in this country’s history when there were no laws regulating sweat shops or inhuman working conditions. That time has past. We live better now because we no longer accept that working for that little amount of money is good enough for us.
Other laws that protect us– such as safety standards, required break times and Worker’s Compensation– were put into place because Americans decided that we were better than that. We formed unions, went on strike and demanded better for ourselves. We’re hard workers and we deserve to make a living wage for our efforts. The idea that any American child should be forced to work 12 hours a day in a factory so her family can afford the shack in which they live horrifies us. Yes, we have poverty, but not like we did in the past. And if a child is going hungry because her mother doesn’t make enough money at work to feed her, there are agencies that will help (at a bare minimum if nothing else).
This isn’t the case in other countries– such as Bolivia, where jewelry we buy at Walmart is created. According to the linked article:
Aurafin’s1 factories in Bolivia, Peru, and the Dominican Republic would provide the labor for turning the precious metals — mined in Utah and Nevada — into jewelry. An innovative website makes the process transparent: Plug in the batch number from those new earrings and watch them move from a Southwest mine to an abroad factory and to a Walmart near you.[...]
“Basically, we make between $75 and $85 a month,” Julia says, which is less than half of what Bolivian economists consider sufficient to cover basic necessities. “Sometimes we can make [more] during the high season. It means working six days a week for 12 hours,” she explains. “But that’s giving up your life.”
This is Aurafin’s “official” plant. According to the above article they have other workshops, called talleres, that are located in repurposed houses. The conditions in the talleres are worse than in the main factory. Nearly no lighting, no suitable seating, no proper equipment– for instance, nothing to magnify the small parts that they’re working with, such as small gold chains and clasps. Aurafin claims that they’ve subcontracted work to these shops and they aren’t responsible for the conditions there. However, when the workers try to organize it’s Aurafin that shuts the shops down and fires the employees.
According to a 2005 New York Times article2, José’s workplace was one of 17 subcontracted outfits used by Aurafin, accounting for 1,600 jobs. Records released in 2008 by the Aurafin factory confirm that 11 percent of its costs, or $918,000, went toward paying the workshops to produce jewelry — meaning a yearly per-worker salary of about $574, or less than $50 each month.
From the outside, the workshops are unrecognizable: a two-story house with a garage door open that signals to employees that the shop is operating, for example. Inside, according to Jos and Elvio Mamani, another former workshop laborer, there’s nothing more than benches and chairs. Mamani has worked in various Aurafin talleres over the years and says that some of his fellow workers were as young as 14, under Bolivia’s legal minimum of 18. Lighting is scant; there are no robotic magnifying glasses. “Your work materials are your hands, some tweezers, and the gold,” says Mamani.
Imagine trying to feed a family, buy clothes, provide simple medicine3, pay fees for a school or pay rent on less than $50 a month. José and his coworkers do this work because there is nothing else for them and they have to provide something for their families and themselves. And companies like Aurafin exploit that desperation. They know that these people are at points in their lives that they’ll do anything and put up with anything to make some kind of money. They know that the laws in these countries are lax or nonexistent so they increase their profit margins by decreasing worker pay, safety measures and proper equipment. Their workers produce goods, such as gold jewelry, that can then be sold to American for incredibly low prices. They rake in the profits– on the backs of the poor of other countries.
Our own country used to have a culture of sweatshops, low wages and corporate exploitation. However, that ended when Americans decided to fight for the labor laws we take for granted today. Less than a hundred years ago, women were working beside their children in factories with no safeguards and for little money. Today we save money because the companies that would exploit us instead are forced to go to other countries and use the citizens there. While we are aware that our lovely gold chain recently purchased from Walmart wasn’t made in this country, we ignore evidence that the people who made it are suffering for pennies an hour.
Is it any wonder that the people of those countries are finding ways to come to the country to benefits from their exploitation? If we as a country want to stem the flow of undocumented immigration, perhaps we should examine why we support companies that deny people a decent living wage, humane working conditions and dignity. When those people can find no recourse in their own countries, when their living conditions are so terrible they have no other choice, they find a way to come here. If people have no reason to leave home, they won’t. They come here so they don’t have to live there. Is it any wonder considering the way they are treated by American companies?
The reason these corporations use cheap labor from these countries is twofold: they can and they profit. Yet these companies aren’t content with the profits from exploiting the desperate, they’ve decided they want to find ways to create those conditions back here. They donate to political candidates who will then vote to take away the laws that protect Americans from those conditions. They are trying to bring their slave wages and sweatshop conditions back home to us.
Considering all of this, wouldn’t a better fight, instead of against immigration and unions, be to take our own labor laws and policies to these other countries? We should encourage the citizens of these other countries to stand up and demand what we have here– perhaps going further. We should encourage the people to stand up to their governments and demand they implement policies that force these companies to respect them. If everyone in the world made a living wage for the work they do, then everyone would be able to afford the products these companies make– and maybe these companies would finally realize that paying their employees actually increases their bottom line.
Afterall, why should we lower our standard of living when we can raise theirs?
Image is Public Domain and Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.