Consumerism and Cheap Labor (2 of 6)
Excerpted from a post I contributed at Sex In The Public Square on February 25th, 2008.
The hype and focus on sex trafficking encourages North Americans to ignore capitalist- and consumer-driven demand for cheap labor in other markets such as agriculture, textiles, automotive manufacturing and domestic labor. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) makes it easier and lucrative for corporations to export manufacturing jobs to Mexico where workers are under-paid and labor and environmental provisions to protect workers are not enforced. This, in turn, gives workers incentive to cross borders in search of better opportunities. However, workers without legal documentation to be employed in the US are far more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
The sex trafficking obsession relieves us of guilt and accountability as consumers. We get to tell ourselves that we are ‘saving’ those poor, unfortunate foreign women- all the while pouring money into sweatshop labor and slave-wages for agricultural workers each time we make a purchase. How often do we as North American consumers actually consider where our products come from? Further, how often do we hold the corporations that profit from cheap labor accountable for the human rights abuses that they perpetuate?
The demand that drives the exploitation of human labor is not a demand for sex. It is a demand for cheap products. Look around you right now, how many of the items in view do you know the source of? Not just the store where they were purchased, but the source of the material. Where did the tiny little screws holding together these computers that we’re using come from? Are we willing to pay more for these products in order to ensure that laborers are paid fair wages and have safe working conditions? We do have responsibilities as consumers to be conscious about how we spend our money.
Check out The Story of Stuff for an in-depth look at how consumerism in North America affects labor markets, living conditions and the environment in developing countries.
If you actually care about ending human trafficking, it is critical that you look beyond the media glare on sex trafficking and understand the broader conditions that influence labor migration. Check out Laura Agustin’s book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry.