Saturday, June 26, 2010

Traveling across the South to research the rising black-brown-white worker movement

I will be traveling to North Carolina this coming week to gather research on what I see as a growing movement in the U.S. South that brings together the civil rights and labor movements on behalf of immigrant workers and others among the lowest paid workers in our global economy. Indeed, this is part of a larger movement across the Global South, something I witnessed during my recent visit to Singapore.

These issues were at the heart of the recent U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, an extension of the World Social Forum and its call for increased activism on behalf of workers around the world. The Detroit meeting included black, Latino, Asian, and white activists.

North Carolina, the nation's least unionized state despite lingering perceptions of it as the South's most progressive state, has been the site of much activity in recent years. Most recent have been actions by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and the National Farm Worker Ministry to get Winston-Salem-based tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds to put pressure on growers to provide better working and living conditions for the 30,000-strong, mostly Latino workforce in the state's tobacco fields.

The Rev. Carlton Eversley, who attended the Detroit meeting and has been active in the labor action involving R.J. Reynolds, told me today in an interview that he and other religious/labor leaders visited a labor camp for migrant workers in Wilson, N.C., in August 2009 and were shocked by what they found.

"It's almost too difficult to describe. One hundred and twenty five guys in wooden barracks, seven guys in a room, no windows, no ventilation, no linen, no bedsheets, no closets, very hot, very unsanitary, swarms of gnats. You felt like these were conditions that should not exist in our state or our country. I felt like you were leaving the United States and going to some kind of Third World situation."

His comments were particularly striking for me, having just returned from Singapore, where very similar living conditions exist for the migrant workers there (I'll have a full report on this in the near future).

In southeast Asia, workers in the auto industries in China and India are standing up for their rights, demanding better wages, working conditions and union recognition. Garment workers have organized in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Groups like the Asia Floor Wage Alliance are calling for social justice and working hard to bring a spotlight to worker conditions.

In the U.S. South, FLOC, the National Farm Worker Ministry, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Southern Faith, Labor and Community Alliance are doing similar good work.

I'll be traveling across the South in the next few days, particularly in North Carolina, to talk to workers and activists, and I'll be reporting back to this blog.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Global South - immigrant workers at the oil spill get carded, police raid striking Mexican miners, and a Chinese plant opens in South Carolina

Here's a round-up of recent labor news that puts the U.S. South directly in the middle of the Global South:

The British Petroleum oil spill that is threatening the entire Gulf Coast and beyond has now entered the national debate over immigration and undocumented workers.

At the request of St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stephens, officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement interviewed immigrant workers at oil spill command centers in Louisiana, checking their documentation and status, recalling the same kind of paranoia that led the state of Arizona recently to adopt one of the nation's harshest anti-immigrant laws.

Stephens said he called in ICE out of fear that criminal elements had come into the area along with the workers now involved in the cleanup. However, immigrant rights advocates say officials like Stephens are doing the same kind stereotyping that is going on in Arizona, where police now can stop any immigrant without reason or provocation to check for legal status.

Across the border in Mexico, workers are fighting another kind of battle. Federal police officers this month swarmed into the open-pit Cananea copper mine just 25 miles south of the Arizona border to bring an end to a three-year-old strike by more than 1,000 miners. The police action against the strike, as reported previously in this blog, was anticipated by many who see the current government as engaged in a campaign to destroy independent unions in Mexico.

Around the world, workers are beginning to stand up for their rights in the workplace. Chinese workers at Honda plants in Guangdong province have effectively shut down the Japanese company's operations there, striking for better wages. What's more they're getting a discreet nod of approval from the Chinese government, which is growing weary of international companies that exploit workers and resources for their own bottom line.

Ironically, Chinese companies are showing increasing interest in opening up foreign plants of their own--and guess where? The U.S. South.

The Yuncheng company, which has three plants in Dongguan in southern China (the industrial city and region so vividly described in Leslie T. Chang's compelling new book, Factory Girls), now operates a plant in Spartanburg, S.C., where workers manufacture cylinders for use in bottle labeling.

Yuncheng was lured to Spartanburg by the cheap cost of land--6.5 acres cost it a mere $350,000, just 25 percent of the cost of a similar parcel back home in China. Other expenses such as electricity are also cheaper.

Of course, U.S. workers earn 10 to 15 times what Chinese workers earn, but South Carolina offers a payroll tax credit that will enable Yuncheng to absorb the extra labor costs and still make a good profit.

According to Fortune magazine, Yuncheng is just one example of China's growing investment in the U.S. The Tianjin Pipe Group is planning a $1 billion plant--the biggest Chinese plant ever in the U.S.--in Corpus Christi, Texas. The plant will produce pipe used in oil drilling.

Is the U.S. South looking more and more like one of those so-called "Third World" countries that once lured our textile plants away?

Monday, June 7, 2010

On the road to Singapore--investors, immigrant workers, and a curious journalist

(The photo you see here is one of men playing what one local called "Dam", a form of checkers, in Singapore's Chinatown. The photo was taken by Suzanne Centenio Atkins.)

SINGAPORE – Taxi driver Abo Rhaman B Abo Samad sees himself as an “ambassador” for this city-nation, an economic powerhouse in Southeast Asia yet something less than a full-scale democracy.

And he’s not shy about offering his opinions to the Americans in the back seat. “Lots of foreigners come here to work. Everybody has a job if you’re not too choosy. I was a security guard making eight hundred to nine hundred (Singapore) dollars salary. I had to upgrade myself. Now I make four thousand a month (roughly $3,000).”

Abo gives credit for that upward mobility to the half-century rule of the People’s Action Party (PAP) and to Lee Kuan Yew, the founder and longtime ruler of modern-day Singapore who, though officially retired at 86, is still very active as its “Minister Mentor”. “He’s a smart man, a swell leader, a great leader. We have nothing, no natural resources. This man took us out of nothing.”

Over the two weeks I recently spent in this fascinating city of five million, I found that not everyone agrees, but with its pulsating, people-filled streets, towering skyscrapers, and busy ethnic enclaves of Buddhist and Hindu temples, Moslem mosques, vendor and shophouse-lined alleyways, Singapore is still undeniably one of the Pacific Rim’s economic “tigers”. It’s Asia’s cleanest and least corrupt city, even though its colonial past still lingers in places like the Raffles Hotel, where writer William Somerset Maugham plotted his exotic stories about lonely expatriates and spell-casting natives.

Singapore seems an isle of tranquility in a trouble-filled region. While I was there, the streets of Bangkok turned red with blood as Red Shirt protesters raged against the government. North and South Korea rattled sabers over the sinking of a South Korean warship. Worker suicides and bizarre attacks on children and women revealed the dark underside to China’s economic boom.

Singapore is not immune, however. During my visit, Indonesian police raided a terrorist hideout in Jakarta and found plans indicating that one of the subway stops I used everyday was a bombing target.

The immigrant worker issue that seems universal today—from China to Mississippi—is also a major topic of conversation here in this nation founded by immigrants. A half-million workers from Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere do the backbreaking work of this city. Many are huddled into crowded, rat-infested dormitories with little relief from the sweltering tropical heat, reliving the conditions that faced the 19th century immigrants depicted in Chinatown’s Chinese Heritage Centre.

“The government keeps raising taxes, putting pressure on people, particularly small businessmen,” a convenience store owner in western Singapore told me. “You have to work very hard to make it. You have to get up early and go to bed late. People are scared to speak up. Even the rich are scared to say anything or they will lose what they have.”

Singapore slaps hefty taxes on convenience store “sin” items like alcohol and horrific depictions of cancer-ridden smokers on cigarette packs, but the tax structure works quite well for the wealthy, who pay in income taxes just half what their U.S. counterparts pay. The city offers public health care but few other benefits to residents. Wages are low even though profits are high.

This is the city where American Michael Fay was famously caned for theft and vandalism in 1994. The Singapore Police are notoriously tough. No jaywalking, and no eating and drinking in the subways. Graffiti artists face up to three years in prison--plus the cane--if they get caught.

The pages of the Straights Times—the city’s leading newspaper--are thick with stories and advertisements. The business news is top-notch, so is foreign coverage. The feature stories can be excellent, such as the one about karaoke lounge hostess Li Hong Yan. The Chinese immigrant’s naked body was found floating in the bungalow swimming pool of a wealthy businessman.

Yet criticism of the government is practically nonexistent. The press practices what the Chinese call kiatsu, self-censorship. When one of modern Singapore’s founders, Goh Keng Swee, died during my stay, a daily flood of hagiography followed. Ang Peng Hwa, who heads the journalism program at Nanyang Technological University, says Singaporean journalists rarely do investigative reporting. “Singapore is so small. Everyone knows everybody, and you’d see that person you investigated on the street the next day.”

Well, taxi driver Abo asks, who needs critics of Singapore anyway? “They are stupid. They haven’t been to Myanmar (Burma), or to Thailand where they are fighting.”