Saturday, December 04, 2004

The spirit of Christmas

The ancient Egyptian pharos forced the common people to pull huge stones in to place, to build fantastic pyramids. The pyramids are the symbol of the glory of the pharo.

I go to work each day to help my employer build his pyramid. In exchange he gives me a little money (little compared to what he gets).

I take that money and give it to another corporation to help them build their pyramid. In exchange they make someone in Asia toil in a sweatshop to make some object out of non-renewable resources.

I give that object to you to show you how much I love you. (Huh?)

That item adds to the clutter of your life. You feel similarly obligated to do the same to me.

One day you throw it away, and it makes landfills a bit bigger.

Does this make any sense?


Anonymous said...

Though I agree with you that lots of gifts add to the clutter of life, I don't agree with your logic about how buying gifts makes some Asian toil in a sweatshop.
I've built (for free) many small homes in Mexico for people so poor it's hard to believe. The lucky ones find low paying work at (mostly) American factories and they are very glad to have these jobs. The fact is that, like the Asians you mentioned, they wouldn't be able to feed their families without these "sweatshops" and the products they produce. Over the years, conditions have drastically improved as the economy in the area has grown. Wages , working conditions, and living conditions have all dramatically improved to the point that I will probably be helping some other area next time I go.
Deciding to stop buying worthless gifts is a fine thing to do, but I wouldn't do it because you think you're somehow helping out poor Asians/Mexicans.


Jay Bazuzi said...

Cheers to you for generously using your time and work (not just your money) to help people who desparately need it. Did you do this as part of an ongoing program, or just on your own? I'm curious.

Does creating low-wage jobs in sweat shops improve quality of life?

It's a very difficult question to answer with confidence.

On the one hand, without that job, people would have no income at all. Some money, however small, is better than none, right?

Thinking about the effects of a minimum wage, similar effects appear. If you cut minimum wage in half, employers can afford to hire twice as many people. (The probably won't, but play along....)

Some people get screwed (1/2 the money), some people get saved (they get a job).

I think (but can't prove) that doing this actually screws over all the poor. If you have a job that doesn't pay enough to cover rent + food for the family, then you're losing ground but unable to move. You're totally locked in to the job; you have no choice in the matter. If your boss abuses you sexually, you can't complain. If working conditions are so harsh that they impact your health, and which means you won't be fit for work at age 45, then you're living in a downward spiral.

I keep asking myself whether the ultra-poor have an opportunity to *exit* civilization. Instead of being dependent on an employer, a grocer, and a public transit system, can they make the move to be dependent on only their own abilities? However sparse that life would it be, could it be an improvement?

If this is a possibility for the poorest of the poor, it weakens the threat of "Shut up & work or lose your job".

No clear answers for me here.

Anonymous said...

I got involved with a small non-profit that builds homes and medical clinics in northeastern Mexico through one and two week trips with my church. After four years of that, I started working directly with the organization and leading home construction during the summers. In only one week, we can finish the walls and floor of a concrete block home (standard in that area) and pour a concrete roof for a home that was built in a previous week. Effectively, one week of work is all it takes to make a huge, permanent change in the lives of an entire family.

While in Mexico, I lived in the same community I was building homes in. Over the years, the economic improvement of the area has been staggering. Ten years ago, the average home had a scrap piece of corrugated plastic or metal as a roof and a dirt floor, but today the area is full of sturdy and durable concrete homes.

I believe low-wage jobs are a necessary foothold for industry in developing areas. Support businesses spring up, infrastructure improves, and more industry moves to the area. Over time, the workforce (and their better educated children) gains skills and experience which attracts better paying jobs to the area. I have seen this happen in the matter of a few years in Mexico and I'm sure east Asia is no different.

I think the fundamental aspect of these areas that most Americans/Europeans don't understand is that there is no safety net. That is, if someone doesn't have at least a low paying job then his/her family is not going to eat. Therefore, I have to disagree with you that these low paying jobs screw over the poor. My best friend in Mexico had never been to school -- not even 1st grade. That lack of education is what has screwed them over more than anything else. Low paying jobs are generally the first of several steps out of poverty.

As far as the factories being "sweat shops", I think that term is often unfair. Just because a job doesn't pay much, doesn't mean people are being abused. I knew about tons of abuse related to drugs, alcohol, or bad parents abusing their kids, but I heard nothing of abuse at the factories. That's certainly not to say it doesn't happen, but, by and large, these are just factory jobs like we have in the in the US and with the same variety of good and bad managers.

You asked whether these "ultra-poor" could "exit civilization" and provide for themselves. I'm sure a few people could, but there are somewhere in the ballpark of 800,000 people living in poverty in and around where I built homes. Most don't have the skills to provide for themselves and there's just not enough arable land and resources to go around.

The path to escaping poverty for most people (no matter what country they're in) starts with any old job and ends with a better job. Entrepreneurs and other self-motivated people can succeed in any growth environment. Another friend of mine in Mexico supports his family quite well by selling donuts from a basket on his bike to workers waiting for the factory buses, for example.

Most of the economic growth and development of these areas originally stems from an industry looking to "take advantage" of cheap, unskilled workers. From what I've seen, it can also gives the workers the advantages they need to escape poverty.


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