Competing to Supply Retail Giants

By Kirstin Downey, Washington Post, Tuesday 10 February 2004; Page E03

Multinational retailers and grocery chains are driving down wages and lengthening work hours for millions of female workers around the world as competitive pressures spread, according to a new report by Oxfam International, a relief and development agency that operates in 120 countries.

The report synthesized separate research campaigns, prepared by worker advocacy groups in 12 countries, and included interviews with more than 1,000 workers, factory and farm owners, global-brand executives, exporters, union leaders and government officials. It found that many companies have responded to the competitive pressures of offering fresh and fashionable products at low prices by hiring young women or migrant workers, often as contract workers instead of permanent employees.

For example, in China's Guangdong Province, which is becoming the world's manufacturing hub, young women work up to 150 hours of overtime each month beyond their standard schedules, and about 90 percent lack health insurance, the report said. Tomato pickers in Florida are paid as independent contractors on a piece-rate, leading to 77-hour work weeks, it added, while in the United Kingdom, assembly kits that home workers are told will take 14 hours to complete actually take 40 hours.

The business model, focused on maximizing returns for shareholders, demands increasing flexibility through ‘just in time’ delivery, but tighter controls over inputs and standards, and ever-lower prices, the report said. Under such pressures, factory and farm managers typically pass on the costs and risk to the weakest links in the chain: the workers they employ.

For many producers, their labor strategy is simple: Make it flexible and make it cheap. Faced with fluctuating orders and falling prices, they hire workers on short-term contracts, set excessive targets, and subcontract to substandard, unseen producers.

The report named many multinational companies, and said that the corporations need to better monitor working conditions in factories that make their products and that governments need to get tougher in enforcing labor laws.

It also singled out the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for blame, saying these large lending institutions favor countries that permit easier hiring and firing, fewer benefits and longer periods of overtime—which it said contributed to a loosening of employment and living standards.

David Dollar, director of development policy research at the World Bank, said the workers' situation needs to be viewed in a larger context. Even if one group appears to be what he called the losers today, the long-term economic benefits of free trade and globalization mean that entire countries will benefit eventually. He said that investment flows to countries that raise their standards, rather than to those that allow living conditions to deteriorate.

Over a short-term horizon, it's hard to see that everyone is benefiting, but this is the best economic system we've found, Dollar said.

He said workers compete aggressively to work at these factories and corporate farms.

Those are coveted jobs, Dollar said. It's a choice they are making compared to other choices that might make. Factory employment can be a relatively attractive option in places with high rural unemployment.

Another report issued yesterday, by labor activist Charles Kernagahan echoed the Oxfam study. It said that workers making bobble-head dolls in China are forced to work 18- to 20-hour days with a mandatory seven-day work week, and are paid less than the minimum wage.