- Low Pay, High Profile: The Global Push for Fair Labor
Andrew Ross, self-professed advocate for international fair labor, has produced a book valuable to just about anybody, but particularly to labor activists, educators, and scholars.
Ross's scope is international and historical. Chapter topics range from the sweatshops of the nineteenth century to today's global sweatshop, and from the abuse and mistreatment of third-world populations to the exploitation of American academics.
The "high profile" of the title refers explicitly to the highly profitable mystique of the brand name, from Nike to "Made in Italy" to the Ivy League. Ross's introductory chapter details the strategy of targeting brand names in the garment industry by exposing sweatshop conditions at home and abroad. He describes corporations endlessly relocating in their quest for the lowest wages and least regulation, resulting in China now being the world's number-one garment producer. This is due in part to China's exploitation of its own refugees from rural poverty, victimized by Chinese laws depriving most such "internal immigrants" of civil rights, thereby reducing them to virtual peonage at the hands of garment producers.
This low-wage pressure from the bottom has affected higher-wage workers worldwide. Italy's small craft-workshop tradition, whose cachet has produced such a bonanza for Italian fashion labels, has been replaced by Europe's largest "underground" economy, based on the labor of immigrants. Britain, too, has seen the exploitation of such soccer "super teams" as Manchester United—whose name has been sold to Nike—as part of the world-wide explosion of sportswear branding.
China leads the world not only in garment production but also in the handling of e-waste. While the European Union has adopted stringent standards for both the manufacture and disposal of computers, the United States dumps more than half its discarded semi-conductor waste in China, where the effects of this most toxic of industries takes its toll on the Chinese population and environment.
Ross suggests that not only garment but also computer brand names are prime targets for activism, despite this tactic's vulnerability to industry counter-publicity. Even more necessary, but more difficult, is the activism that takes on regulations and organizing. With the United States's post-9/11 reversion to the Cold War tactic of nation-bashing, there seems to be little public awareness of the effect of international labor rights on Americans, or on the environment. Added to this is the Bush administration's continuing [End Page 106] refusal to join in international treaties of almost any kind, certainly including labor rights and the environment. Ross lauds the AFL-CIO's moves away from protectionism and urges much greater affiliation with international labor movements. And "labor and environmental issues" stresses Ross, "cannot be separated." Poverty and pollution form the true Axis of Evil.
Ross's final chapter consists of a historical overview of the "mental labor" industry (communications, the arts, the academy), where the increasing dominance of the sub-contracting model "has emerged as the number-one weapon in capital's arsenal of cost-cutting and union-busting." Though the book lacks a summation of Ross's argument, it would be hard for anyone to miss his point.