Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On capitalism and exploitation (falsely so-called)

The “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) crowd and others have frequently used the terms "capitalist" and "exploit" together where "exploit" is referenced in its negative connotation. Many times this application of the term refers to the "exploitation" of foreign workers. While acknowledging that, surely, some workers worldwide are likely subjected to truly coercive means (genuine "slave labor"), the "exploitation" term is wrongly applied on a far larger scale—generally by those with concealed motives or out of pure ignorance. Allow me to tell you why I say this.

For twelve-and-a-half years I lived in El Paso, Texas, which, as you may know, lies just across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. As a businessman, I had reason to know something of the so-called "Twin Plant" operations (or maquiladoras), where U.S. companies frequently had facilities both in Juarez and El Paso. I also knew folks who lived in Juarez, Mexico, on a personal basis and had reason to converse with them on many topics.

At the time (mid-1980s), the typical U.S. plant in Juarez was paying workers something under two dollars per hour (I don't recall the precise figures). The typical U.S. plant was relatively new, air conditioned, well-lighted, and the firm provided safety training and safety gear to its workers. In many cases the U.S. firm also provided a cafeteria for the workers; and in some cases, these U.S. companies also provided on-site day-care for working mothers. Working at, let us say, $1.75 per hour, a worker in such a plant could make $70 in a normal 40-hour week, not including the value of the fringe benefits such as day-care or a free company cafeteria.

Also, however, among my personal acquaintances, was a typical young woman who worked for a Mexican employer—a baking company. This woman worked in a hot (not air conditioned) bakery for up to 60 hours a week. There was no company cafeteria and no on-site child-care paid at the expense of her employer. This young woman took home, on average, $11 to $16 (US) per week. That amounts to pay in the range of thirty cents ($0.30 US) an hour.

The differences between the working conditions and pay supplied by that nasty old U.S. company "exploiting" Mexican workers (as folks ignorantly decried) versus the working conditions and pay at that fine, wholesome, and upstanding Mexican firm explained clearly why—for every opening at the U.S. company's plant—there were more than 300 people just standing in line, waiting to "exploited" under such circumstances. These Mexican workers could not wait to be "exploited" at five or six times the pay, and working a 50 percent shorter workweek!

It is impossible to compare wages across such economic boundaries. No, $1.75 per hour—even in the 1980s—would not be a living wage for a man with a family in the U.S. But for a worker in Mexico, it was a rich wage for which they were more than grateful.

Exploitation, in its negative connotation, cannot happen in the absence of coercion or fraud. Most U.S. firms—I am convinced—do not participate willingly in situations where fraud or coercion is being used to unfairly extract labors from people—any people. Nevertheless, thousands of ill-informed people—especially those with strong allegiances to unions—will wrongfully call what the U.S. firm  was doing (as described above) "exploitation." It is, but only in the positive connotation of the term. (If you don't know what that is, then look it up. You need to understand it.)

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