The Rules of Globalisation are Slanted Against Labour

By Glenn Ashton · 4 Mar 2010

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Picture: Imre Solt/GNU License
Picture: Imre Solt/GNU License

The world is familiar with the ugly face of the globalisation of labour, where poor African immigrants wash up on the coasts of Spain, Italy, Malta or the Canary Islands, dehydrated and dying after harrowing ocean voyages. This is the fate of ambitious, desperate immigrants who answer the siren song of globalisation to pursue elusive wealth and a better life.

Very few of these tragic cases are covered in the western media, unless it is to decry the threat of illegal immigration. We hear of a minority of incidents in which African immigrants are dumped in the Red Sea by piratical people smugglers paid to convey them to the middle east; of the deaths of Chinese and Pakistani immigrants trapped in closed containers or falling victim to merciless gangs of human traders; of the fate of thousands of desperate women promised menial but respectable jobs, instead trapped into lives of sexual exploitation.

It is obvious that people will seek better opportunities. Immigration was a major impetus behind the growth and power of the USA, as well as colonies like Australia, South Africa, and even Brazil and Argentina. These young nations absorbed poor, hard-working European under classes together with a smattering of better-educated or resourced fortune seekers.

The poor were encouraged to migrate to the dominions of the European powers to help enforce the colonial hegemony, through often-brutal means. After all, who better to abuse the colonised than the new colonialists, the new upper class drawn in turn from the lower classes? And central to this exploitation was slavery and its later iterations of indentured labour. These exploitative labour practices continue to today.

The real irony lies in how modern neo-colonialism repeats historically exploitative labour practices. Wage slavery, indentured labour and outright slavery continue under the modern corporate economic model despite claims to the contrary. 

By changing the rules of the game and accepting the trained economic elite from their erstwhile colonies, while simultaneously rejecting the working classes is indicative of the selective amnesia inherent to neo-colonialism. 

Modern globalisation is founded upon the tenets that the movement of goods and capital can be facilitated through the international harmonisation of banking systems, markets and trade. 

Globalisation is punted as a tide that will lift all boats; the rich in their gin palaces through increased opportunities and capital growth, the poor in their dugout canoes and rickety vessels through the mirage of trickle down economics. Of course this has all proven as illusory as its theoretical foundations.

The means of production – tools, machines, factories, infrastructure, financial and natural capital, are all worthless without human contribution – labour. Globalisation has increased the mobility of most inputs, particularly of factories, financial and natural wealth, but not of labour. 

Capital is mobilised via sophisticated banking systems, run by and benefiting those who own and have free access to capital. Materials are traded through open markets, freed from protective tariffs. This has predominantly benefited developed economies. 

Goods are made where the costs of production are lowest. The most important variable remains the cost of labour: The cheaper the unit cost of labour, the more competitive the widget. Without labour, nothing is produced – even robotic production requires human oversight.

The lack of mobility of labour is firmly at odds with the purported principles of globalisation. All the means of production can freely migrate, except for labour. Only under the most constrained and exploited circumstances is labour mobile.

This is consistent with our exploitative system of production. Just as resources are exploited, regardless of moral or ethical constraints, so to is the 'commodity' of labour mercilessly exploited, eroding our collective humanity. The labourers on the building sites of Doha have much in common with Central American workers picking fruit or working in meat processing plants in the USA, or women entrapped into selling their bodies to criminal cartels.

Certain categories of labour like “professionals” and tradesmen are far more legally mobile than unskilled labour. The lower down the skills ranking, the more exploited labour becomes.

One has only to examine that air-conditioned faux Nirvana, Doha. Professional expatriates live high on the hog, while labourers are exploited by labour brokers, unjust labour laws and constrained rights, all founded upon financial desperation. Labourers, mainly Asians, are secluded in ghettos when not working on the high-rise buildings, in the kitchens of hotels, fast food joints or in the homes of the wealthy.

The entire ethos of the corporate led capitalist system, and its globalised model relies upon exploitation of resources, labour included. Labour brokers lure workers and confiscate documentation, creating an indebted class of quasi-slaves, trapped in lives of indenture. 

People of all races, ages and sexes are exploited, around the world. This system, reinforced by inflexible attitudes to human migration amongst first world nations, remains a blot on the human rights landscape. This system has arisen, not by chance, but by design. The subsuming of democratic institutions by the unlimited power and imbalanced rights apportioned to corporate entities leads the world away from a just and fair economic model.

The fact is that there are more slaves today than at any time in human history, an estimated 29 million people in 2009. While this trade is actively managed by increased criminal involvement in human trafficking, it arises from the ethos of the corporate model of globalisation. This is not just about sex slaves but also about indentured labour, wage slaves and exploitative migratory labour practices. If all of these categories are included, the numbers of virtual slaves climb into the hundreds of millions.

Two major factors drive this exploitation. First, huge numbers of people are desperate enough to do almost anything to flee their miserable conditions, lured by the omnipresent siren song of satellite television selling the globalised lie - the flickering illusion that life appears better anywhere but home. The subliminal message is that a cornucopia awaits those who find the promised land.

Secondly, it is driven by the globalisation of all the means of production except labour. The OECD nations all want to benefit from the free movement in goods and capital, but not of labour. It is ironic that there is increasing need for young people to sustain the ageing workforces in places like Italy and Japan.

Illegal labourers play an essential part in the chain of production. The corporate solution is to utilise corrupt tax havens, free trade zones and to locate to countries or regions with curtailed civil rights like Burma, China, Vietnam or Thailand, subject to the rules of corrupt elites who benefit both themselves and the middle men on the backs of their poor.

Is there an end in sight to this great global game of exploiting of the poor of the world? The number of those in dire poverty remains well above a billion people, nearly one in seven humans. A third live on less than two US Dollars a day. The richest two percent of the worlds people controls more than 50% of the world’s wealth; the poorest half, less than 1%. It clearly benefits those who wield the most economic muscle to continue the status quo.

Unless we reconfigure the global model of doing business, our cumulative wealth will never trickle down but will continue to flow upwards, from the many toward the few. Unless we turn the hollow rhetoric of talk-shops like the World Economic Forum, where President Sarkozy of France recently called for a more moral, ethical capitalist system, into practice, nothing will change. 

Perhaps it is more relevant to ask whether capitalism, driven by the unprecedented power and focus of corporate lobbies, is capable of being changed. Constitutional democracy has long fallen victim to the narrow profit-centred interests of the corporate-political nexus and appears headed back toward slavery in all but name.

The exploitation of labour, the environment and the financial system by the profit motive must be curbed. The time does appear ripe. Global financial systems were recently rocked to their foundations and despite the positive spin generated by the pundits, remain shaky. 

While the failure of our system may have severe short-term effects, the long-term outcomes can be rendered beneficial if the perversity of the corporate profit driven system is challenged and checked.

If we fail, the majority of the world’s people will remain prey to a system designed to exploit them, just as we are exploiting our natural capital beyond the brink of sustainability. The so-called middle classes will be consigned to a slightly more dignified system of wage slavery, taking the blame for the excesses of the few. 

Perhaps the time has come to yank the corporate raiders from their pedestal and apportion our considerable global wealth in a more equitable manner? It is just a matter of deciding on the details of how we go about it. As Sarkozy's predessors once cried, “Vive la revolution!”

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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