‘Free trade’ zones more like concentration camps


The protesters in Melbourne who disrupted the World Economic Forum last month [September 2000] were predictably portrayed by the media as a motley group of sinister extremists who had recruited assorted retarded yobbos to help make up the numbers. Images of violent, bloody scuffles between protesters and baton-waving police were shown on TV [television], and several people were seriously injured. Many people wrote off the protest as anarchist-inspired hooliganism. But was it?

Page 14 The Issue October 2000
"Protests highlight suffering in slave zones"

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   According to statements made by the protesters themselves, violence was the very last thing they had wanted. Not all of them were "radicals"; many were elderly church-going, decent citizens who merely wanted to stand up and be counted in an issue that is causing increasing concern around the world.
   The issue is globalisation -- that "inevitable", undefined, all-encompassing entity which has been foisted on the unsuspecting population of the world, supposedly for their own good. As with so many economic and social issues these days, anybody who dares to criticise is written off rather patronisingly as missing the point or lacking understanding. Peter Costello, for example, is reported as lamenting that the protesters clearly don't yet fully appreciate the benefits of foreign investment and free trade. Telstra boss Ziggy Switkowski agreed, saying that protesters had an "imperfect understanding" of the forum's agenda.
   But could that, on the contrary, people around the world are beginning to understand only too well and don't like what they see? For some time now there has been a growing backlash on free trade in particular, with large and very vocal protests held in many parts of Asia, Europe, USA and South America.
   Always it is the same message: globalisation is not improving the living standards of poor people, nor does free trade create more jobs and enrich the community. Indeed, it is apparently having the opposite effect.
   The so-called free trade zones were initially created in the sixties in five countries and now there are hundreds of them around the world. The "investing" companies which use these zones are predominantly from the US and Asia and, by 1998, they controlled over 60% of the international export market and provided jobs for over 20 million workers. Thus (according to industrialists and government leaders) poor countries enjoy increased prosperity, while all the investors benefit because of most attractive conditions.
   All this sounds like a success story but in far too many instances, the factories involved are nothing less than concentration camps. The 3,800 foreign-owned assembly plants located along the US-Mexico border, for example, are called "maquiladoras" -- manufacturing mostly for export and enjoying magnificent tax breaks and other concessions, but the workers are locked in and forced to work 16 hours a day for which they are paid a pittance, sleeping on the factory floor at night. Facilities such as toilets or garbage disposal are often non-existent and if a worker becomes ill or is injured, there frequently is no medical assistance.
   For example, in one Lebanese-owned textile factory in El Salvador, the machinery was badly designed and in such poor condition that one young male lost his arm when it was ripped off. At the time of the accident there was no-one to help him. The factory's doors were locked, the phones were out of order and the guard was asleep. He picked up his arm and looked around for somebody to help him but no-one would -- they were too afraid of the consequences.
   But most of the workers are predominantly young women, forced to stay in these hell-holes in order to support their poverty-stricken families. They have no rights whatsoever and any attempt to complain about their conditions or stand up for themselves results in them being fired as in the case of one pregnant woman who worked for a Korean textile company and developed a severe pain.
   Refused permission to see a doctor, she went to the bathroom where she suffered a miscarriage. She had to wrap the baby in strips of cloth and bury him at home after work that night
   After this experience, she rebelled against the company and tried to organise a workers' union with the other women. However, not only was she immediately fired but all the others who were supporting her received death threats and had to leave their homes.
   But, while workers are treated like sub-humans, the companies involved in this UN-supported "development strategy" are reaping the benefits. In Sri Lanka, for example, the government offers very attractive conditions such as up to 20 years' complete tax holiday, allows the importation of duty-free items and, incredibly, even up to 100% repatriation of profits, depending on the project.
   There is also the question of the damage caused to the environment by these profit-driven companies. Until as recently as 1969 places like Mexico had no environmental protection laws. Factories operated there without any guidelines and now, although there are laws, they are not seriously enforced.
   Such neglect has shown itself in many devastating ways but none more so than the large numbers of severely-deformed babies born just over the Mexican border in a town called Brownsville in the USA, where chemical spills and toxic fallout had drifted from 40 to 50 of the factories located in Matamoros. The deformities included spina bifida and the hideous condition known as anencephaly (no brain or head crown).
   And so the exploitation of vulnerable people continues -- all under the respectable-sounding name of "investment". Meanwhile, it is largely only because of the efforts of demonstrators in places such as Davos, Seattle, Melbourne and, more recently, Prague, that some attention is now being paid to the greed of so many large companies around the world, which put profits before people. It was, for instance, mainly thanks to the noisy protests which highlighted the sweatshops set up in Indonesia by the multinational firm Nike where workers were paid the equivalent of $2 to produce joggers sold for over $200.
   Therefore, let us not be too quick to criticise or belittle people who take part in these demonstrations. In any large gathering, there will always be some whose only wish is to cause trouble for one reason or another. But it is the idealistic majority who are promoting a growing awareness of the appalling circumstances of so many people -- and for that we should be truly thankful, if ever we are to make the world a better place. They are the same ones who help to establish the increasing network of health and safety support groups around the world, offering information, technical assistance and instruction to the workers of the "maquiladoras". All network members, including highly-specialised physicians and nurses, donate their time and expertise free of charge.
   We should listen to people like Domingo Gonzalez, of the Maquilas Justice Coalition in Matamoros, who said: "Development? After 30 years we have come to realise that we are developing in the opposite direction. We are heading towards under-development. The industrial parks may be very beautiful, but that is the only thing the workers can enjoy. When they go home at night, they return to slums. I still remember the big promises they made that these factories would bring important development to our region. Well, development came and it bulldozed us out into the streets. The consumer is the only one who can influence a major company to respect the laws. We need to inform people, state the facts, because in the end the only real judge is the consumer."

-- © June Beckett, The Issue, October 2000, p 14-15. E-mail info@theissue.com.au. Letters to PO Box 4328, East Gosford, NSW, 2250, Australia

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