Originally posted on Talking Union:

 by Paul Garver

Insuregency Trap cover image

Eli Friedman’s Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China is indispensable for anyone trying to understand what is happening with hundreds of millions of internal migrant workers in China today. Postsocialist China has become the world’s largest manufacturing center and exporter to the rest of the world, and the future of Chinese society and of the global economy hinges on whether the new Chinese working class remains excluded from its social and political system.

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Originally posted on the followthethings.com blog:

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Originally posted on Listen Girlfriends!:

Designer Kahindo Mateene is producing a line of clutches using scraps from her line of apparel, Modahnik.

Designer Kahindo Mateene is producing a line of clutches upcycling scraps from her line of apparel, Modahnik .

When designer Kahindo Mateene came to the United States at the tender age of seventeen to attend college, her classmates couldn’t stop asking where she got her clothes. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo who had also lived and traveled extensively in Africa, Europe, and North America, the global nomad was a little taken aback by the attention she received for her vibrant, multi-cultural hand-made designs. After studying fashion at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago, Kahindo was finally able to pursue her dream of creating a line that would fuse her African heritage with western design sensibilities. In 2009 she launched Modahnik, a sophisticated, sexy couture collection that features bright colors and bold prints for the every-day, modern woman. Besides earning her respect in the fashion industry…

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CompendiumOfSocialDoctrineThe last week saw a watershed moment for Catholicism in the Anglosphere: the Catholic Bishops Conference for the U.S. state of Maryland endorsed the political objective of raising the minimum wage.

Why is this a big deal? For decades the Church’s hierarchy in the USA have been more inclined to speak out on personal morality issues. Pundits might attribute the shift to the Pope Francis effect but really it’s a moment that had to come sooner or later as the American Dream is manifestly not working out and the majority of the country is seeing their living standards go backwards.

What it draws attention to is just how anemic English-speaking Catholicism is on economic matters. Other than the Maryland bishops, who is seeking to apply the clear words of the Gospels or of papal and conciliar documents into specific, present-day proposals?

I was pleased to learn that a French author Antoine R. Cuny, a layman, has written a book called Finance Catholique; a wholesale critique of the existing system of global finance in the light of Christian values (alas it has not as yet been translated into English). He sets out in pretty direct language what financial practices are and aren’t acceptable to Christian morality. What a refreshing change from the timid, oblique suggestions English speakers have become accustomed to. This is his list of eleven ‘financial sins':

  1. Price volatility due to speculation
  2. Wage inequality
  3. Excessive use of leverage
  4. Commodification of workers
  5. Short-termism
  6. Losing sight of non-economic values such as scarcity & productivity
  7. Failure to share the profits from an enterprise
  8. Anonymity and disempowerment of investors
  9. Tax havens and tax avoidance generally
  10. Adverse effects on the environment
  11. Lack of transparency

In the employment relations field, there used to be an entire confederation of trade unions active in Latin America and Continental Europe which promoted Christian social doctrine in economic matters, the World Confederation of Labour. It merged with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (now ITUC) in 2006 and its voice disappeared into the secular arguments used by the larger organisation. Nothing against secular arguments, but there is definitely a loss of synergy with the pulpit, the result being that churchgoers waste time fretting about cultural trends that they can’t influence while not looking too closely in the mirror when they go to work.

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Greetings from Bogor, Java!

I’m attending the conference of the Asian Transnational Corporation monitoring network. Listening to the country reports yesterday there was a pretty clear consensus on what are the most pressing issues for labour across the region. They are:

  1. Living wages - In the majority of countries in the region, the minimum wage is not enough to live on.
  2. Subcontracting - An employer ploy to avoid labour regulations. The good news is that determined organising can counteract it despite the complete lack of legal levers to pull. I found it interesting that the representatives spoke of the disadvantages exclusively in relation to the loss of social welfare benefits and not at all about two other reasons I’m familiar with in Australia: difficulty in collective bargaining and the work/life balance problem of losing control over working hours.
  3. Union busting - Ranging from its most blatant forms of disappearances of union activists in the Philippines and Bangladesh through imprisonment in China to sacking and retaliation against union members (a method used nearly everywhere) to more subtle methods used in Malaysia and Korea of setting up toothless unions and/or denying registration of legitimate unions on spurious technicalities.
Indonesia seems to be making the most progress. So much so that businesses have been putting signs outside their factories advertising that they do not use contract labour. The thought crossed my mind that if they succeed in formalising the workforce and having a powerful labour-political nexus that will bring problems of its own. Then again, which would you prefer? A politics dominated by a compromised but still effective labour movement or a politics dominated by the close friends of capitalists? I know which I’d rather have.
One observation that remained with me was Hilmar Farid’s comment that Indonesia will work out differently to the Anglo nations because here the waves of economic change that took a century in Australia or the USA are all happening at once. People are coming in off the farms and finding themselves in advanced industries like electronics whose management have equally advanced anti-union strategies. Yet another reason to think twice before proffering advice.

Photo: Chinese Wal-Mart activist

Indonesia Pavilion at Expo2010

Indonesia Pavilion at Expo2010

This is where I was on this day three years ago: the Indonesia Pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

Indonesia is Australia’s largest neighbour but I knew embarrassingly little about it and it was only by random chance that I visited their pavilion at all (it happened to be located near the main axis).

If you ever get a chance to attend a World Expo, do! The next will be held in 2015 in Milan. It’s like being able to visit all the countries in the world at once. After I returned, what passes for ‘big issues’ in the daily papers have seemed incredibly trivial. It also sparked a desire to do something more meaningful with my spare time, which eventually took the form of this blog.

Conscious of the widespread poverty in Indonesia 482469_4532530598733_388566560_nI figured I could best assist by donating my knowledge on labour relations. With some research I discovered that there is a small office in Jakarta called the Trade Union Rights Centre and I travelled to Jakarta to meet with them in late 2010. Fair For All kicked off soon after. While the site is not country-specific, Indonesia has been covered frequently.

Looking back, you can see how it has gradually sunk in with me that Indonesians can look after their own. Moreover, they should look after their own. To have someone ride in and purport to fix things is problematic on two levels: Firstly, no matter how well-intentioned, that someone will carry their own cultural assumptions which will make the work more difficult than it needs to be. Secondly, the whole purpose of labour rights is empowerment and having someone else do it for you undermines this.

You can see the turning points in hindsight:

  • My very first post was about light manufacturing on Batam Island – drawn largely from the bleak portrait painted in the newsletter of the IMF (now part of IndustriALL)
  • About a year later after I had the opportunity to travel to Batam Island and see it for myself … and it’s not nearly as horrible as I expected. Moreover many of the island’s one million workers belong to the highly active manufacturing union FSPMI which has been winning double digit wage increases.
  • A few months later I learned that Indonesia’s three peak labour organisations – representing divergent ideological approaches – worked together to stage the nation’s May Day rallies. Who am I to lecture them, then? We can barely manage that here in Sydney!
  • Lastly in this post I recognised that Indonesia’s primary market is its own domestic one so, even if foreign multinationals could be forcibly signed on to better labour conditions, it still wouldn’t go a long way in raising overall living standards.

In short: Indonesians have their own thriving movement for progress which doesn’t need my help, not in a direct sense anyway.

  • You can read more on the website of the journal IndoProgress although if you don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia you’ll need to use translation software to follow it.

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The Las Vegas Strip World of Coca-Cola museum ...

The Las Vegas Strip World of Coca-Cola museum in 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the penultimate page of his book Story Wars, Jonah Sachs warns against a culture in which “consumption remains our highest value”. If we don’t change our values, he says, we will end up looking like the Negev, a desolate region of Israel containing the scattered ruins of several pre-Christian civilisations. This also is the implied conclusion of my favourite film, Baraka, which ends with scenes of several benighted human empires.

The line stuck with me. I think it represents a widespread view, that people being unreasonably materialistic are the problem and that, of course, “I’m” not one of them. The suspects are the SUV-driving, supersize-drinking, Walmart shoppers of the world.

That view is a distortion of reality.

We are all consumers: yes, even those of us who believe we are having a minimal impact.

Take a closer look at cars for example. For many years the eco-car of choice has been the Prius. While yes, it is more efficient than many other vehicles, it still relies on fossil fuels – plus it consumes more rare earth metals in its manufacture because it contains two engines: one gasoline-powered and one electric. Public transport is a little better but still not great, as it is ultimately powered (in my city) by coal-burning power stations. The emissions are merely hidden from sight.

Then let’s look at large retailers compared to, say, farmer’s markets. Believe it or not, because of their efficient distribution and need for fewer visits, supermarkets and their shoppers leave a smaller per-person carbon footprint than do farmer’s markets.

(I’m not going to defend bottled soda though – sorry Coca-Cola!)

My point is that this moralism isn’t helping; a person’s outlook does relatively little to alter impact on the planet and fellow human beings. Unless you are prepared to go the whole hog and travel everywhere on foot or by bicycle, make and then wash your clothes by hand, and go without a mobile phone or computer (really?) then ‘you’ and ‘they’ are in this together.

Moreover, how many people are really certified mindless consumers? Sure, now and then you might hear someone say “Yay, shopping!” but it’s pretty judgmental to extrapolate that their entire outlook is fixated on shopping. A short conversation would be enough to learn that such a person does indeed have higher priorities such as self-development and the quality of their relationships with family and friends. People don’t buy Coke because they want the chemicals, they buy it because they associate it with having a good time.

In his one throw-away line, Jonah Sachs did not say any of this. Quite the opposite: generally his book is directed at companies, imploring them to appeal to the best in people, so I suspect he would agree that we can’t rely on individual-level change to fix the problems we have created for ourselves. Even those who have seen the light are still contributing to it.

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