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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The flip side of globalization

You sometimes hear the argument that the global economy benefits the urban poor of the world by providing jobs for them. Many, like NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, argue that sweatshops are necessary for economic growth and offer a possible escape from poverty.

The part that's missing in that argument concerns land and power. People who own a small plot of land can grow their own food, putting control over their lives in their own hands. The lives of people who work in sweatshops are completely in the hands of the owners of the sweatshops, and by connection to the global economy. Globalization has resulted in concentrated wealth--particularly in terms of land ownership. Big money for development or mineral exploration or large-scale corporate agriculture can generally buy or swindle peasants out of their land, which causes them to become urban poor, making Kristof's sweatshops so "necessary." It happened in this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries--a nation of farmers became a nation of laborers. It has been happening in Mexico--we saw in Chiapas how transnational corporations like Coca Cola and GE are endeavoring to buy or take the land which has historically been farmed communally by Mayan farmers. (Chiapas has 30% of Mexico's fresh water--Coke wants to bottle it; GE wants to dam the rivers and sell the electricity.) People who were self-sustaining now work at the mercy of maquiladora bosses in Juarez or as "illegal" migrant labor in the US.

And this is happening big time in China, right now. The NY Times has a lengthy article today about how rural farmers are being run off their communally-farmed land by developers. In one village, the residents staged a protest. The government response indicates how much "globalization" is really benefiting the Chinese masses:
By April 27, Yulin officials had lost patience. The protests were causing work delays on the development zone. So, villagers say, police officers and more than 300 construction workers surrounded the women as a district official harangued them through a megaphone.

"You're crazy!" shouted the official, Ji Shengrong, according to an account later drafted by villagers. "Your heads are filled with sand."

One woman threatened to complain to higher authorities in Beijing.

"So you dirt-poor trash think you can oppose the city government?" Mr. Ji scoffed. "You don't have a chance in hell."

The police then began dragging protesters to jail. When relatives from Sanchawan tried to come to their aid, the police blocked roads and bridges leading to the site.
Globalization doesn't spread the wealth--it concentrates it. And, contrary to what Kristof and other apologists for sweatshops say, the only people who benefit from your buying sweatshop goods are the wealthiest people of the world. Money is power, and almost all of the money you spend on sweatshop goods goes to the bosses.