A Shout-Out to GlobalPost’s Labor Series ‘Worked Over’

Kari Lydersen

In its special report and ongoing series Worked Over: The Global Decline of Labor Rights,” the online news outlet GlobalPost offers up a rich and insightful diversity of stories about complicated labor struggles and situations around the world.

A May 3 piece details the lack of opportunities and jobs for youth in South Africa, who face a 51-percent unemployment rate and see trade unions standing in the way of government programs to create more jobs for youth, since unionists fear employers will use youth to replace older workers and undercut the power of unions.

The story notes that South African young people are as a whole highly educated, and this, combined especially with the legacy of apartheid — which relegated almost all black people to manual labor —means they are loathe to take even skilled labor jobs because of the degrading hoers and tillers’ image their parents acquired under apartheid.”

One story in the series highlights Spain’s overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated army of one million waiters” as a symbol of the way labor law reforms billed as making Spain more competitive and reducing unemployment have backfired and divided workers:

With food and drink so integral to Spain’s culture and services so important to its economy, waiters play a key role in society. But, [long-time water Mario] Castellanos explains, the relative drop in the profession’s wages, its unforgiving hours and the lack of opportunities to rise up through the ranks have undermined its social cache. And in many respects, the devaluation of waiting is representative of much broader changes in the Spanish labor market.

Another recent story — the one that GlobalPost says was the impetus for the special report — talks about Bangladeshi workers suffering deadly fires and other dangers in factories where luxury American clothing is made for Tommy Hilfiger and other retailers. The story notes that workers are unionized in just 10 or 15 of the country’s thousands of garment factories.

Bangladeshi garment-makers got international media attention after a December 2010 fire that killed 29 workers, and the industry and government promised sweeping changes. But, in fact, little has changed in terms of safety precautions or labor rights since the fire, according to GlobalPost, and repression of unions and worker organizing continues, as shown by the April murder of a prominent worker-leader.

While China has continued to make news for sub-par labor conditions and child labor, the GlobalPost story posits that the situation is actually far more dire in Bangladesh. That’s where some of the most heated battles over future global labor rights likely lie. The May 1 story by Maher Sattar says:

Finding that competing countries like China, India, and Vietnam are now too expensive, foreign brands are flocking to Dhaka to take advantage of the lowest wages in the world — less than half of the new minimum wage expected to be implemented in Cambodia, its closest competitor in terms of cheap labor. The typical Chinese wage minimum wage is now four to five times that of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh,” said industry veteran Zia Ahad, is the cheapest place under the sun.” And according to labor activists, local factory owners, international retailers and the country’s government want to keep it that way.

Several pieces in the report deal with labor rights in Colombia, including the lack of implementation of labor protections passed as a side agreement to the bilateral free trade pact that takes effect May 15; the ongoing violence against Colombian unionists; and the insidious role of so-called labor co-ops.”

The co-ops are a major point of contention because they often serve as glorified temp agencies providing cheap labor to farms and businesses. Yet their members are considered small-business owners” and are therefore banned from joining unions.

The explosive growth of the palm oil industry in Colombia — driven in part by demand for clean-burning biodiesel and cooking oil without transfat — and the industry’s dominance by the non-union co-ops has seriously undermined the union movement as a whole in the country, the report explains.

Sweating in the mid-morning heat, Eusebio Rodriguez leads an oxcart between towering palm trees to gather their purple-and-orange fruit, which is used to make palm oil. Rodriguez, who earns about $15 a day for harvesting a ton and a half of palm fruit, would like to sign up with the local union. That would mean perks, like sick leave and paid vacations, as well as a helmet and gloves to protect his body from the porcupine-like spines protruding from the fruit. Instead, Rodriguez belongs to a cooperative which offers almost no benefits or job security.

GlobalPost describes its special report Worked Over thus:

It’s been called a race to the bottom.” The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world’s international corporations — manufacturing, agriculture, service — to the lowest bidder. GlobalPost explores the human cost of such a race in an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand between governments, employers, unions and their workers. 

GlobalPost was founded in 2009 with the mission of producing web-only high-quality objective international news. It is a for-profit venture where every employee and correspondent is a shareholder,” and funds are raised through advertising, syndication and subscriptions to exclusive content. I don’t know what kind of pay, support or job security GlobalPost offers its employees and correspondents;like most new experiments that have arisen since the journalism crisis, it is probably too early to tell how it will fare in the long run.

But the Worked Over series, which mixes concise and hard-hitting analysis with colorful writing and beautiful slide shows, provides an encouraging example of how new media” digital journalism can improve coverage of otherwise overlooked, important international and labor issues — rather than eroding the depth and quality of coverage, as often seems to be the case with the shift to instant, hyper-local and celebrity news driven by the never-ending quest for web traffic.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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