Friday, April 17, 2015

The ugly image behind the free trade illusion

Yesterday, leaders in Congress reached an agreement on legislative language that gives President Obama authority to "fast track" the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a secretive free trade agreement that could cost scores of American jobs and worsen income inequality. This agreement is ironic because lawmakers have seen little of the language in the TPP, save the chapter divulged by WikiLeaks which explicitly gives corporations the right to sue states for imposing "harm on their profits" in the form of basic health and environmental regulations. 
This congressional groveling to the elite of the business community is outrageous, but very difficult to visualize. It's hard to see free trade even when it's right in front of our faces. For many of us, a typical day starts by getting dressed, eating breakfast and going to work. We put on our clothes (sewn in China) eat our breakfast (grown in Colombia) and drive our cars (manufactured in Mexico) not thinking twice about any of the aforementioned and how our unchecked consumption keeps individuals half a world away living their lives as wage-slaves.

Female garment workers in Bangladesh.
They live in nations like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Venezuela. They have little money and often fewer rights. They face dangerous conditions at work, and deadly conditions if they attempt to better themselves by organizing their places of employment. Over 15 percent of all American goods relative to GDP are imported and many come from countries where workers are not afforded nearly the same rights we retain domestically.

The Teamsters were recently given a unique and rare opportunity to get a glimpse of the other side of our shopping sprees. Estella Ramirez, the Secretary-General of SITRASACOSI, the national garment workers union in El Salvador came to IBT headquarters to give a speech on working conditions and unionization efforts in her home country. Her appearance was particularly meaningful to the Teamsters as an organization because a Teamster organizer, Gilberto Soto, had been killed in El Salvador a few years earlier. She spoke of the Salvadorean government and how corruption through bribery (by companies like Adidas) prevented any meaningful gains in human rights. She spoke of the exploitation by nefarious managers and how in some cases, they forced female workers to give up their breast milk so they could sell it on the side. One of the most inspiring moments of the evening was when she told the audience that she and her fellow workers would never give up the struggle -- no matter how tenuous the conditions or how daunting the task, they would march on in solidarity.

Estella Ramirez (second from right) and co-workers rally outside a factory.
"Buy American" isn't just a catchy political phrase or a way to boost our economy: it is a matter of life and death for the workers on the other end of the outsourced work. We can hold companies that offshore their production accountable with our wallets.