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Merry Chirsmas?

Merry Chirsmas says the fake-wood snowman made by an exploited third-world workerWalking with my kid through the drug store today, I saw this tchochke on the shelf. “Merry Chirsmas?” I thought to myself. “Haw! They spelled it wrong!” So I took a picture, thinking the whole thing was pretty funny.

After I got home, I thought about why it’s probably misspelled. Some poor sap in Honduras or Vietnam or Bangladesh has been spending 12 hours a day, for months on end now, spelling “Merry Christmas” with sparkly white glue on the front part of the fake green glitter belly of a snowman that looks like a crafty creation but is really the product of some third world sweatshop. That poor sap is taking home a dollar an hour while comfortable fat men like Nicholas Kristof refer to his or her job as “a dream” before tucking in to their prime rib. The poor sap isn’t paid enough to keep himself or herself out of grinding poverty, just enough to stay alive. Why? So some jerk like me can bring home a little whimsy for $12.49, not $13.49.

All of a sudden “Merry Chirsmas” doesn’t seem so funny any more.

Merry goddamn Christmas.

6 thoughts on “Merry Chirsmas?”

  1. Jon sanders says:

    I often wonder what the relationship is between the wages these employees earn and the median income level of the country they are laboring in. Most articles on third-world sweatshop operations do not discuss the relationship of these abysmal wages, by U.S. Standards, and what other employees in the local labor force make. What does an uneducated worker in a local industry, not affiliated with an international firm, make – compared with a similar worker in a multi-national.

    1. Jim Cook says:

      To me the relative wage is of less concern than the absolute effect of the wage, which is a poverty wage. Consider the case of Pakistan, where the minimum wage is not sufficient even to pay for a good food budget:

      1. Jon sanders says:

        When Americans consider the circumstances of third-world economic conditions, oftentimes, as in these comments, it is through the prism of living conditions in first-world countries and the resulting contrasts. Other circumstances need to come into play, including the responsibility of the governments to their populations, the effect of foreign aid to third-world countries, the wages vs cost of living in these countries, how the governments of these countries are addressing these problems, how wages paid by multi-nationals compare with wages paid for similar jobs by in-house industries, the relationship between economic classes and the perceived corruption and human rights situations. Our country has become great because of our form of government, the character of our people and adherence to our constitution. It doesn’t work for everybody.

  2. Leroy says:

    A Third World worker working for a local business makes 35¢ an hour (for example) but 40¢ an hour working for an “international firm” (hint, many of these firms – like Trump’s – are 100% American)… so what? They get to eat two meals a day twice a week now, instead of just once (assuming that they are working 14-16 hour days, six days a week)? We should collectively pat ourselves on the back?

    And even that is BS.

    The whole reason that these countries go to Third World countries is to take advantage of the extremely low prevalent wage… along with ZERO benefits. And either no excessive overtime prohibition laws – or laws that are ignored (China’s law limits overtime hours worked to 36, but authorities concede that in foreign factories – like Apple, where 17 people committed suicide in 2010 alone due to working conditions – is routinely ignored).

  3. Leroy says:

    This is an issue that bothers me extensively. I am on a fixed disability pension and yet donate (to the best specialist charity I could find) to help clothe, feed, shelter and educate two foster type needy Third World children. It is NOT the best answer, but the best that I can do (with my limited resources) until politicians and policies drastically change.

    One specific example:

    For a small country it is quite impressive that Bangladesh is the No.2 garment exporter in the world (surprise, surprise, China is first) with over 5000 factories and bringing in US$20bn a year. Subsequently, the textile industry is not a major part of the Bangladeshi economy – it is the Bangladeshi economy. Bangladesh enjoys a number of special trade deals with the European Union, the United States, Canada and Australia – a situation where Bangladesh has a vibrant industry and the West accesses some of the cheapest labour in the world. Hence many Bangladeshi garment factories produce clothes for some of the world’s largest clothing retailers. The list includes Wal-Mart (arguably the largest corporation in the world), JC Penny, Gap, K-Mart, Target, Irish textile company Primark, Germany’s Phantom Apparels, Ether Tex and in Australia, Big W, Coles, Portmans, Cotton On and Pacific Brands. Despite widespread condemnation and awareness, sweatshop labour is widely used in Bangladesh and across the world, especially in parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas.

    Sweatshop building conditions are well known for being below a tolerable standard. For these mostly female, mostly young workers, spaces are cramped, heavy machinery poses numerous health and safety risks, low ventilation and inadequate air-conditioning make it stifling hot and blocked fire exits, locked doors and barred windows make it nearly impossible to evacuate in an emergency. In actuality, factory fire deaths are the more common form of mass workplace deaths compared to building collapse. Only last year Pakistan endured a loss of 289 people in a factory fire in Karachi. A factory fire in Tarzeen, Bangladesh claimed the lives of 112 people. In both instances exits were either blocked or locked. Furthermore there have been a number of findings from reports that workplace managers have exploited their positions of power in various oppressive ways: violent beatings of workers, the use of fines and coercing sexual favours in exchange for continuation of work.

    However what many people don’t realise is that Bangladesh, like many countries with sweatshop labour, does have labour and building laws. However there are only a handful of inspectors for the thousands of factories that operate. Furthermore bribery and worse, generally lax enforcement make it easy to disregard labour laws and building codes.

    Foxconn Technology Group’s factory for the manufacture of Apple products in Chengdu, China, contained such harsh conditions for workers in relation to the workplace, housing, wages and work-hours that a number of them have committed suicide, mostly in 2010 (17) but suicides have continued in proceeding years.

    On April 24, 2013 – A garment factory building, Rana Plaza, in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed due to substantial structural faults. The building housed five different factories and officially, 3,122 workers were employed in the building but the actual amount of people working at the time appears to exceed this. The death toll has reached over 1,000 (officially 1,129) with 2,500 rescued. This human disaster is the worst case in history of workplace deaths in a single incident. Prior to the collapse workers repeatedly complained to building owner (including on the day before the collapse), Sohel Rana, of large cracks across walls but he ignored these warnings and sent them back to work.

    (So it doesn’t even have to be an international or transnational firm… it can easily be a locally owned firm – that sells to international, transnational, First World businesses.)

    1. Leroy says:


      The sweatshop debate has been quite contentious in recent history. Those that defend sweatshops argue that it is a necessary step in economic development for a poor country. 

      Firstly, even if sweatshop labour is a necessary stepping stone to economic development it does not justify the mistreatment and exploitation of people. We should acknowledge that sweatshop labour is an example of inequalities and exploitation being ingrained into global economic networks. If developing countries are trapped in a constant state of never improving wage or working conditions how will they ever actually economically develop? 

      Secondly, there is no denying that workers voluntarily enter their unsafe and poorly paid workplaces. However this does not indicate that they do not want to improve their conditions and wages.  In many sweatshops, workers are constantly threatened,verbally abused and beaten; under these circumstances workers do not voluntarily work long shifts or tolerate high-risk conditions – they are forced.  Additionally many of these workers are the sole income for their families and feel a strong obligation to continue in these oppressive work environments. 

      Thirdly, the fact that people in rural work and, sadly, on garbage dumps, dream of working in sweatshops clearly indicates that there needs to be a universal increase in living conditions in the poorest parts of the world. These varying levels of appalling conditions are surely the very reason why we should take action in changing these circumstances? 

      Fourthly, Bhagwati’s argument (*) of factory operations moving to a new location if better wages and conditions are demanded is very insightful and historically accurate. Transnational corporations have one primary objective: the ongoing increase of profit. If costs in wages and workplace conditions increased substantially it would only be logical to either move contracts to a country that either has advanced infrastructure and technology or to an even poorer country with cheaper labour. Considering that garment exports make up 80% of Bangladesh’s economy and employs over 4 million people a mass exit of garment contracts would completely devastate the country. This argument really exposes the deep-rooted unequal economic exchanges between poor and rich countries. This situation is not something that should be tolerated but rather must be addressed. 

      (*) The prominent international trade scholar, Jagdish Bhagwati argue that the poorest countries in the world’s most attractive feature to transnational corporations are their incredibly cheap labour. If they were to demand improved labour standards and a living wage then these corporations would instead simply move their contract to factories in other countries. Therefore these demands for improved working conditions and wages is in actuality a threat to the economic and social livelihood of sweatshop workers and has the potential to deprive these poor countries of future economic development.

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