Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

The Price of Cheap: Slave Labor, No Jobs

November 27th, 2012 | Jonathan Tasini

Cheap. Low prices. Bargains. It’s the American way of recent decades–a promise we’ve been given by everyone from politicians to corporate marketing campaigns. And most people find it hard to see the devastating cost to us as a society. But, sometimes things happen at once that can give a very clear picture, if you look. For your consideration.

First, a now well-known episode:

While Twinkies have a reputation for an unlimited shelf life, the company that makes the junk food may not.Hostess Brands, the bankrupt maker of cream-filled pastries like Twinkies and Ho Hos, said on Friday that it planned to wind down its operations. The decision comes a week after one of the company’s biggest unions went on strike to protest a labor contract.

Richard Trumka has it exactly right:

“What’s happening with Hostess Brands is a microcosm of what’s wrong with America, as Bain-style Wall Street vultures make themselves rich by making America poor,” Trumka said in a public statement. “Crony capitalism and consistently poor management drove Hostess into the ground, but its workers are paying the price.”…“These workers, who consistently make great products Americans love and have offered multiple concessions, want their company to succeed,” Trumka said in the statement. “They have bravely taken a stand against the corporate race-to-the-bottom. And now they and their communities are suffering the tragedy of a needless layoff. This is wrong. It has to stop. It’s wrecking America.”

Second, some of those cheap goods people snap up at Ikea were made by slave labor:

Ikea has long been famous for its inexpensive, some-assembly-required furniture. On Friday the company admitted that political prisoners in the former East Germany provided some of the labor that helped it keep its prices so low.A report by auditors at Ernst & Young concluded that Ikea, a Swedish company, knowingly benefited from forced labor in the former East Germany to manufacture some of its products in the 1980s. Ikea had commissioned the report in May as a result of accusations that both political and criminal prisoners were involved in making components of Ikea furniture and that some Ikea employees knew about it.

And, lastly, Black Friday is approaching–and Wal-Mart workers are asking for people to assist in their fight back against the Beast of Bentonville, the paragon of low-cost.

So, the lesson:

If we pull all those strands together–the destruction of the lives of thousands of workers who made Twinkies; the sweat that brought people the couch or bed they picked up in their car at Ikea; and the hard times hundreds of thousands of people have to endure to eke out a tiny paycheck from Wal-Mart–it tells the tale of America.

Cheap means the end of the middle-class, not to mention the mythical American Dream because cheap means minimum wage jobs, no health care, no pensions.

Low-cost means paychecks that don’t make it possible for a worker to get through the end of the month without seeing her or his financial debt grow larger.

Bargains are only beneficial to the fat-cat CEOs who pocket obscene paychecks because hidden behind that “bargain” price is an endless cycle of poverty and despair: to give millions of people “bargains”, CEOs manufacture products in low-wage countries or low-wage factories, and, the, they pay–or fire, in the case of Twinkies–workers every declining wages…and, then, those same workers don’t have enough money to buy much–so they are forced to, then, shop at the very low-wage stores–Wal-Mart being the prime example–that are the engine for the destructive cycle.

Just something to think about everytime we are assaulted by a TV ad, or coupon or billboard promising a bargain.

It isn’t more than a bargain with the devil of the bankrupt so-called free market.

This article was originally posted on Working Life on November 16, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is is a strategist, organizer, activist, commentator and writer, primarily focusing his energies on the topics of work, labor, and economy. In 2006, he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary.

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