Sunday, May 5, 2013

May 5: Brian Mulroney (and us).....

...and those hundreds of women burned to death in Bangladesh.

There can't be the slightest doubt about it. The owners of garment factories in Bangladesh knew that the chances of a disatrous fire in which hundreds of their workers would die were almost a sure thing. So did the Canadian and US buyers who imported their products. It  had all happened before - right here.

Contrary to popular belief, women have always been in the labour market. The idea that they once stayed home and did nice things while the men worked was true enough for the middle class and the rich. But the reality for most women was that they had to go to work. Just as today, it was rarely possible for a family to live on one income.

To the end of the nineteenth century in Canada and the US, women worked in the lowest paid and, often, most dangerous jobs. One such industry was the garment trade. It employed women to work long hours, usually for less, much less, than a dollar a day. (Indeed, as late as the 1930s, women in Montreal's Jewish ghetto were cutting out and sewing shirts for Eaton's department stores - and at the same salaries their grandmothers had received fifty years earlier.)

The factories were rickety because they were cheap; and cheap, as Health Minister Flemming and his sigma six blackbelts will tell you, is efficient. Crippling accidents - and fatal ones - were common. But who cared?

Women were locked in the factories for the whole of the working day - with no provisions for fire exits. And, of course, there were fires. And hundreds of women died. Then unions came along, and ruined it all.

Unions put pressure on to install safety features, to prevent fires, to ensure there were exits, and to raise wages so that the women could live on them. And all of this, as any sigma six blackbelt can assure you, was innefficient. But big business had no choice.

Big business in Canada and the US relied heavily on government protection from foreign competition. In particular, the Conservative party of Canada worshipped at the altar of the protective tariff. Then, in the 1980s, Canada elected a prime minister, Brian Mulroney, who had the wisdom to see that free trade would be better.

Well. Not quite. Brian Muloney had devoted  his life to kissing up to the very rich. By the 1980s, the very rich realized that they didn't need protection any more. In fact, they could make more money without out. So they told Brian to get on his horse, get rid of the tariff, and get a free trade deal with the US. The change was happening in the US as well.

Why was business so keen on free trrade?  Well, for one thing, it would mean they could establish themselves in very poor countries; and they could force business terms on those countries - no minimum wage, no safety legislation, no benefits - and no taxes since these small countries had no choice.

It was even better than Haiti under American dictatorship. Haiti had no taxes on business, wages were (and are) under $5 a day, no overtime pay, no sick leave, no benefits, no education, no health care. It was pretty efficient, but...

In Bangladesh, you could get all that at a daily pay of a buck fifty. And there were no unions  It was very efficient. So, rickety factories of the old sort with no safety features - and with locks on the doors to make sure the women stayed on the job - were built in Bangladesh. Everybody in the garment trade knew what this meant. Everybody knew what the risks were. As well, Canada and the US had the power to force poor countries to accept their terms - no environmental protection, no unions, lots of police and soldiers to kill anybody who objected.  That's why a quarter of a million innocent people were killed in Guatemala. But who cares? Our news media didn't even report it.

Even now the ducks are being lined up for more of the same in Venezuela. And that's why there are now American troops (and lots of mercenaries) in virtually every country in Africa.

In this way, millions of jobs were exported from the US and Canada. (That's why Detroit and many other American cities are almost ghost towns. That's a reason why Canada and the US have terrible employment figures now. That's why the boom days of the 50s and 60s aren't going to come back.)

And there were even better things in the deal. The shortage of jobs in Canada and the US meant big business could smash unions. It also meant it was now possible to get away with lower wages here, too. Oh, and contracting out jobs and even whole companies meant much lower taxes. There's a reason why there's such a huge gap in income between the rich and the poor in this country. There's a reason why the poor have been getting poorer for some thirty years and more, while the rich have been getting astronomically richer - even in a time of recession. (In fact, especially in a time of recession.).

There was, of course, a price for all these good things. That price was paid by those hundreds of women in Bangladesh who were locked into a burning building who died, screaming in agony and horror.

But don't feel left out. There is every chance that Canada will soon be just like a third world country. Even now, Harper is pushing a deal with China that would destroy environmental protection for the sake of mining, that would allow China  to ignore Canadian workers and bring over its own, very cheap labour. It will probably also allow the massive but cheap export of huge quantities of fresh water to China.

People criticize Mulroney for accepting a $250,000 dollar bribe in a hotel room. I don't think that sort of criticism is fair. After all, accepting a bribe is probably the nicest thing Mulroney ever did.

 

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