Monday, 26 November 2012

Capitalism Good, Communism Bad—except for prison labour! IKEA and the East German police state.

An IKEA in Dresden, Germany. Retrieved from
I maintain a website on political apologies, which can be accessed here: I define political apologies quite broadly to include apologies by private entities such as churches and corporations as well as governments. Last week I read an article by Kate Connolly in Toronto’s Globe and Mail (see reference below) about one such apology. Peter Betzel is the head of the German branch of IKEA, the furniture and houseware giant based in Sweden. He has issued an apology to former East German political prisoners who while in prison had to manufacture products for IKEA. You can read the same article here, in the British paper, the Guardian:
East Germany was not a nice place. Spying was rife and the political police, the Stasi, were everywhere. Punishments for not being “loyal” to the Communist Party were draconian. From what I’ve read, a favorite punishment was to remove, or threaten to remove, children from their parents’ care if the parents did not toe the line. That’s what happened to one of the prisoners mentioned in Connolly’s article, whose three-month-old baby was taken away from her.
A standard punishment for not fulfilling your quota of IKEA products in the course of a day was solitary confinement. One of the prisoners mentioned in Connolly’s article, Alexander Arnold, said that if you produced less that 80 per cent of your quota, you’d be thrown into an isolation cell for ten days. The quota wasn’t for a standard eight-hour working day, either: the day was much longer than that. Such isolation is a form of torture. Imagine if you had to spend ten days, or even one day, without seeing or speaking to anyone. Arnold said he still has nightmares about his time in solitary.
Some people can endure solitary confinement. When I was a teenager in the mid-1960s, my parents had a friend from the then Czechoslovakia. He spent eight years in Communist prisons as punishment for trying to help someone else escape the country.  Seven years were spent working in mines without proper protective equipment. One year was in solitary confinement. He was a wonderful human being, warm and open, who eventually made a good life for himself in Canada in the hotel industry. But very few people can survive what he survived under such awful conditions and come out as whole, psychologically stable, friendly people. For some individuals, even one day in isolation can do serious damage.
My guess is that IKEA was not the only company to use East German prison labour. Just as we’ve learned over the years than many private German corporations were complicit in Nazi exploitation of slave labourers (Jewish, Polish, and others), so we will probably learn that East Germany sold its prisoners’ services to many Western capitalist corporations. And despite the efforts of many non-governmental organizations over the last two or three decades to monitor the buying habits of major retailers of consumer goods, corporations are probably still using products made by prison labour now. This is OK if the prisoners are well-treated, paid a reasonable wage, and not punished for not meeting quotas. It’s better to work than do nothing. But it’s not OK if conditions resemble the ones that prisoners had to endure in East Germany.
The German branch of IKEA owes compensation to each and every prisoner it employed, and lots of it, even if it employed them inadvertently and indirectly. Until that compensation is paid, I plan to boycott IKEA and I think that other people should do so as well. An apology is not enough.
Reference: Kate Connolly, “IKEA apologizes for prison labour,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), Nov. 17, 2012, p. A26.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Tess and the Republican Crazies

I belong to two women’s book clubs, and recently for one I read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, originally published in Britain in 1891. This was a scandalous book for its time.
Tess’ father, John Durbeyfield, is a layabout who discovers that his ancestors were a powerful family named d’Urberville. Seeking to ingratiate himself with a wealthy family of the same name, he sends his innocent daughter Tess to work for them (not knowing that they are an upstart family that took the name just to make themselves seem important). The son of the house, Alex d’Urberville, rapes Tess when she is asleep. She returns home pregnant and has a son, who soon dies.
Sometime later, Tess goes to work in a dairy, where she meets a clergyman’s son named Angel Clare (what could be more indicative of his own innocence?) who is training to become a farmer, and they fall in love. On their wedding night (before consummating the marriage) Angel confesses to Tess that he is not actually “pure”: he had a two-day relationship with a woman. Tess, confusedly thinking that the same rules apply to women as to men, then confesses that she was raped.  Angel leaves her, telling her that her “real” husband is Alex.
Now poverty-stricken and without hope, Tess goes back to work on a farm. Soon she encounters Alex again. He has had a temporary conversion to evangelical Christianity, during which phase he proposes to Tess to make amends for the rape. When Tess tells him that in fact she is married, Alex replies that he is her true husband and convinces her that Angel will never return for her. Tess eventually goes off with Alex: when Angel returns soon after, she kills Alex and hides with Angel for three weeks before being discovered and eventually hanged. Angel, it is implied, then marries her truly “pure” younger sister.
So what we learn from this book is that only 121 years ago in the United Kingdom, if a man raped a woman he became her true husband. We abhor this kind of thing now, when we read about marriage-by-rape being practiced in some parts of the world. Yet we still have to fend off the Republican crazies who argue that rape can’t produce babies or that if a child results from rape, it is “God’s will.” According to the New York Times, Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee for Missouri, said in August that in a “legitimate rape” (by which he presumably meant a “real” rape) women’s bodies blocked off pregnancy: Apparently Akin missed biology class as a youngster. Then Richard Mourdock, a Republican Senate candidate for Indiana, said in late October that it was “God’s will” if women became pregnant as a result of rape: So from their point of view, when Alex raped Tess it wasn’t a “legitimate” rape and she must have somehow consented, and anyway  it was God’s will that she became pregnant.
This would be funny if it weren’t so serious. These two Republican crazies were defeated in the November 6, 2012 Presidential election and apparently the Republicans are now thinking about whether it is a good idea to alienate every American voter who is not white, older and male. Nevertheless, it is worrisome that the Republicans not only had a candidate who thought that rape could not cause pregnancy, but also had an earlier debate among the various men contending to become the Presidential candidate about whether women should have access to birth control.
Without birth control, women are slaves to their own bodies. It is bad enough that there is still no universal right in international law for women to use birth control. Instead CEDAW (the clumsily named Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which came into force in 1981) says in its Article 16, 3, e that men and women have equal rights to “decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children.” Much good that does women when there is a disagreement with their men. Women should have an absolute right to use birth control, whether their male partners agree or not. And while I regard abortion as a social tragedy and wish for a time when no women would ever want one, in the world we live in now, women absolutely need the right to abortion on demand. Women have to control their own reproduction if they are to be able to support themselves and the children they freely choose to have.   
I was somewhat active in the struggle for women’s rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  By accident, I even took part in one of the first huge marches for women’s rights in New York City in 1970 or 71. Like many women of my generation, I thought that debates about whether women “asked for” rape, or whether they should have access to birth control, had been long settled in North America, even if in many parts of the world women still don’t have the right to abortion. I don’t relish the idea of having to go out on the streets again when I am in my 70s or 80s to defend women’s rights.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Unfree Labor in Canada

When I was a child in the 1950s, my mother told me she had a sister who had gone with her husband to live in Australia via a program called “assisted passage.” As I then understood it, a farmer had assisted their emigration from Britain by paying for part or all of the cost of their transportation to Australia, in return for which they had to work for him for two years. In my child’s mind, I thought this was very generous of the farmer. But in 1999, I finally met this aunt. When I asked her about her two years working for the farmer, she told me it was like being a slave.
Mexican migrant worker in Leamington, Ontario. Retrieved from
So I was interested in the research that Jenna Hennebry and Janet McLaughlin, two of my colleagues at Wilfrid Laurier University, have conducted on temporary workers in Canada. I live in the province of Ontario, where much farm labor is done by temporary workers from the Caribbean and Latin America, especially Mexico. These workers—mostly men—come to Canada year after year to work on our farms, but they are not permitted to migrate permanently. They stay every year for as long as eight months without their families, then they have to go home. They are not permitted to change jobs; they are tied to the employer who sponsored their migration and they have to live on the employer’s property. Although technically speaking they have some rights to health care, they often have no transportation to get to doctors and they are afraid that if they take sick time their employers will fire them. Employers can fire them at will: they don’t have to give cause; and as soon as you are fired, you have to go home. So it’s also not a good idea to complain about your working or living conditions, or your employer may decide to get rid of you and you will be deported.
According to Janet and Jenna, temporary farm workers in Ontario are not allowed to join trade unions; they are also excluded from provincial regulations about maximum hours and overtime pay. They are obliged to pay taxes and pay into the employment insurance program, even though they can’t benefit from it since they have to return home if they are unemployed. Not surprisingly, most of these hard-working people whom the Canadian government doesn’t want to stay in the country are Latinos or people of African descent.
Temporary workers in Canada aren’t slaves or even indentured laborers: they can quit their jobs if they want and go home. They are paid –often minimum wages—and their housing, such as it is, is provided for them. Technically speaking, their governments are supposed to protect them if they are abused in Canada. But in fact they are caught in a system that tells them that no matter how hard they work in Canada and how long, they can never migrate here. Yet our government claims that it wants people to migrate to fill gaps in our labor supply. “Canadians” born and bred don’t like farm labor jobs, which can last for many hours a day during harvest time.
Horacio Gallegos, a Mexican migrant worker in Leamington, ON 2002, retrieved
Also, like many other Western industrialized countries, Canada hasn’t signed the 1990 United Nations’ International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families. It seems that migrant-sending countries want migrant protection, but migrant-receiving countries don’t. Canada likes to boast about how it’s a country built on immigration, but it favors highly educated, highly skilled migrants, preferably those who can bring money into the country. Poor people, even if they work hard and can already speak English (in the case of Ontario) aren’t as popular, even though there is a shortage of Canadians willing to do unskilled farm labor. My guess is the reason the government doesn’t want to accept these workers as permanent migrants is that it would have to pay them unemployment benefits during the off-season.  And since they work such long hours, they might also become permanently ill as a consequence: by shipping them home, the government off-loads their health costs onto other governments or onto the workers themselves. Janet and Jenna say that seriously ill or injured workers are usually returned home.
Right now it’s fashionable to urge people to “eat local,” especially to eat food produced within 100 miles of where you buy it.  The idea is that your food will be healthier and you will support local farmers. But as far as I can determine from Jenna and Janet’s work, the farmers I would support if I followed the “eat local” policy might well be exploiters of temporary workers.  If I really care about human rights, I would do better to boycott Ontario farmers!

Jenna A. Hennebry and Kerry Preibisch. “A Model for Managed Migration? Re-Examining Best Practices in Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.”  International Migration, 2009.

Janet McLaughlin, “Classifying the ‘ideal migrant worker’: Mexican and Jamaican transnational farm workers in Canada.” Focaal--Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology,  vol. 57, 2010, pp. 79-94.

Janet McLaughlin and Jenna Hennebry, “Managed into the Margins: Examining Citizenship and Human Rights of Migrant Workers in Canada,” chapter prepared from Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann and Margaret Walton-Roberts, eds. Slippery Citizenship, in progress.