Heidi M. Pascual*
Publisher & Editor
* 2006 Journalist of the Year for the State
of Wisconsin (U.S.-SBA)
For more Asian American
stories in Wisconsin, click:
Paying the ultimate price in
Asian sweatshops
About two months ago in Bangladesh, more than a thousand factory workers paid the ultimate price when the
building that housed their factory collapsed on them. It was horrible to watch bodies of women being taken from
the rubble of Rana Plaza, now dead because their employer refused to evacuate them even after “safety
engineers” had earlier told him to do so, as there were huge cracks on the building’s walls. More than a thousand
lives were lost due to deplorable working conditions aimed at more savings for the building’s owner. It is very
important to understand that these sweatshop workers sacrificed their wellbeing to provide consumers like us the
cheapest garments and to ensure big profits for Western corporations that outsourced the job to their local boss!

This is not the first time that sweatshop workers died in such a horrible way. I recall the fire that burned more than
300 factory workers in Pakistan two years ago as well as the fire in Tazreen factory also in Bangladesh, that killed
117 workers who jumped out from windows because the doors were locked, plus hundreds more injured.. And in
even in China, where most of our stuff come from, there was a chilling report of suicides by workers in a factory
that assembles iPads and iPhones, simply because they felt they had no other life outside of the factory itself.
Some of you might ask, why did these workers accept such an abusive treatment? Why did they not complain to
authorities in the first place? Didn’t they have labor unions? Didn’t they have laws and regulations that ensure
workers’ rights and safety in their workplaces?

You don’t have to be a factory worker in Asia to know the answers.

In poor or “developing “countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and The Philippines, for example,
working in a factory — no matter how little the pay is or how deplorable working conditions are — is much better
than earning nothing at all. People need money to feed and clothe their children, put a roof over their heads, and
buy medicines and other basic necessities. If you don’t know it yet, food in these countries isn’t cheap at all. You
ask, how about working the land? The wealthiest own the land, and land use is confined mostly to the owner’s
benefit. Oh, and many multinational companies use thousands of acres of land to plant fruits for export; I am sure
you all know that. I might add that even the seas have been occupied, either by huge fishing companies or oil and
gas folks who aren't from the place.

Western corporations take advantage of these countries’ cheap labor and government incentives that include 100
percent repatriation of profits, partial or complete land ownership, eternal land lease, industrial zones without
labor unions, military security protection, as well as weak safety and environmental regulations. In addition, getting
into the pockets of corrupt government officials ensures protection from future lawsuits by workers or groups
working for their rights. In many instances, lawmakers in poor countries are also factory owners or are deeply
involved in the outsourcing industry. Hence, the lack of genuine care for the welfare of these workers.

The injustice repeatedly committed to the poor factory workers in the service of global firms, especially in the face
of the recent Bangladesh tragedy, was rightfully described by Pope Francis as “slave labor.”

Yes, enriching a few through the sweat and tears of the many. The U.S. is no stranger to that, of course. In the
modern times, while slavery has been abolished here, it is flourishing somewhere else, and the culprits remain
the same — the powerful preying on the weak and the powerless.

With globalization, the problem is monstrous enough that it is almost impossible to solve. How can a poor country
provide employment to the masses of its people without foreign corporations building business infrastructure?
How can its economy pick up with no investors from foreign lands? OK, it is clear that poor countries need foreign
investments — foreign corporations that could help provide jobs to the people. But there should be a moral angle
to this arrangement, a legally binding document that protects workers from hazardous and dangerous working
conditions, as well as a decent wage. Safety audits must be done by independent bodies, financed both by the
government and its foreign counterpart, with representatives from the workers themselves. Labor unions must be
encouraged to form; they are the workers’ best bet to look after their overall wellbeing.

It is easier said than done, unfortunately. The governments of countries where sweatshops proliferate have a lot to
do with why these things happen. Can we expect, for example, China, to change work conditions at the Foxxon
plant which produces Apple’s iPads and iPhones, in order to solve the problem of worker suicides? How about
the ruling class of every society that owns capital but in the service of corporations abroad? Will they be willing to
sacrifice part of their huge profits by providing good working conditions and livable wages? And the lawmakers
who legislate incredible incentives to foreign investors without regard for their poor working people. Will they
introduce and/or fight for amendatory laws to change current labor-oppressive laws? That could be tantamount to
political suicide when no corporate campaign funds reach their pockets! And law enforcers, who look the other
way, because it is okay to do so.

For whom do they work and get their salaries and perks? Definitely not from the workers! Lastly, the corporations
themselves that provide the economic boost to a poor country and therefore an active participant with a lot of clout;
Will they be willing to do more to help workers that sustain their businesses?

Hmm, maybe, why not?

Large manufacturing companies should rethink their strategy for growth, one that could sustain their business
while treating their workers as human beings. It’s the right thing to do.