We live in an increasingly brutal 19th century economy of savage capitalism, dominated by transnational corporations who roam the world looking for the most vulnerable workers and the most compliant governments. They succeed by playing countries off against one another and by pitting workers against one another as well. This economy affects not just workers in manufacturing and service industries, but has and will affect construction workers everywhere.Linked here is an outstanding speech by Garrett Brown, Coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network who concisely explains why foreign debt, trade treaties, immigrant rights and union rights are health and safety issues.
Garrett made this speech to a group of building and construction trades workers who were attending an annual "skills enhancement" seminar held in San Diego, with a field day in Tijuana, Mexico. Despite their initial hostility to immigrant workers in the U.S., they ended up giving him a standing ovation for an essentially "pro-immigrant" speech.
A little education can go a long way toward confronting the emotional hostility generated by the bigots in this country and focus peoples' energy toward addressing the real problems. The points he makes here are essential to understanding the economy we live in and strategically addressing the problems facing workers.
NAFTA and other trade agreements, for example, have not only been a disaster for American workers, but they've been a bigger disaster for Mexican workers, contributing to the illegal immigration problem in this country:
One of the inescapable byproducts of the new global economy and its trade rules are, as we have discussed today, massive immigration. The case of Mexico is quite clear: millions of farmers driven off the land, increased unemployment in the cities, deepening poverty throughout Mexico. The only place for starving people to go is wherever there are jobs – and that means to the U.S.And the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), muscled through the Congress recently by Tom DeLay and friend will bring a similar disaster to Central America.
It’s worth thinking about what we – you and I – what would we do in these circumstances? I think we would do just the same as Mexican workers and farmers have done – we would come north looking for whatever work we could find to keep our families and communities alive.
Immigration has become essential for Mexico’s survival. In 2004 the “remittances” – or money sent by immigrant workers in the U.S. to their families in Mexico – amounted to $16 billion. Remittances are now the second greatest source of foreign income for the country – second only to oil sales and ahead of tourism and the maquiladoras for Mexico. Without these remittances, Mexican families would not survive, their towns and communities would not survive, and the country would be even poorer than it is now.
In the United States, according to Brown, the global economy has affect American workers in three ways: increased competition among workers for scarce jobs, more concessions by city and regions to attract business, and an accelerated “race to the bottom," putting pressure on wages and working conditions, and increased pressure from business to weaken workplace safety protections.
So what can we do about it?
- Educate: Workers need education not just about technical health and safety issues, but also
a second kind of education, also essential, which is fundamentally political in nature. This is education about what workers’ rights are and how they can meaningfully exercise these rights; and also to understand the global context of occupational safety and health and what impacts it.
- Organize: Not only do we need to organize the 40-50% of American workers who say they would like to belong to unions, but we can't overlook the organizing potential of immigrant workers:
Many of the immigrant workers coming to the U.S. – especially those from Central America – have had extensive union experience at home, and in an atmosphere where union activism can result in your death. So these workers represent a great potential resource for U.S unions.
Moreover, the cold, hard reality of the global “savage capitalism” will be the greatest recruiter for unions offering real protections for workers. Health and safety issues have long been recognized as one key way to organize workers in their own defense. It is increasingly recognized and documented that there is a positive “union effect” on workplace health and safety when there is a union on the job.
In fact, one of the most important health and safety measures in any workplace is to have informed and active workers as part of a member-controlled union on site.
- Solidarity among all working people in the global economy, which will be difficult with all the anti-immigrant feelings being generated in this country.
Our future depends on us seeing Mexican or Chinese workers – in the U.S. or in their countries – as “fellow workers” with the same problems and goals as us; fellow workers with the same employers and the same enemies as us; fellow workers with the same dreams for themselves and their families as us; and fellow workers with the same future as us.
- Political Action: Only through political action can we ensure that we have protective regulations are enforced, and workers who are educated about health and safety conditions, as well as their rights.
We also need political action to cancel the crushing foreign debts in Mexico, Central and South America, Asia and Africa
The biggest threat to workplace safety in the developing world is the unpayable (actually already paid many times over) foreign debts owed by countries like Mexico, which makes promulgation and enforcement of occupational health regulations economic suicide and a political impossibility.
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