Eric Mayne's Blog

"Race to the Bottom" No Cliché

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I was never great pals with former UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, though I think he appreciated my work.

He was fond of quoting a 2003 story I wrote for WardsAuto.com. In it, a Chinese Consulate official in Chicago boasted the hourly wage for laborers in his home country was $1.69, not the absurd rate of 60 cents claimed by critics.

I don't know the Mandarin word for gulag, but I suspect that official is in one now.

However, it's time for me to return the favor by quoting Ron.

He may not have coined the tagline "race to the bottom," but he certainly popularized it. And it's painfully accurate.

"Race to the bottom" refers to the desperate rush by Western economies to reconcile the cavernous gap in working conditions that benefits their so-called "developing" counterparts.

How expansive is this gulf? Wide enough to accommodate at least two-and-half men, as depicted in this infamous video that has nothing to do with Charlie Sheen.

I once tried, without success, to authenticate this video's origins. But I am confident the depicted plant is outside the U.S., where the UAW and other unions have waged and won fierce, sometimes bloody battles to outlaw such practices.

Fast-forward from those tumultuous times to today.

While American workers have protection from employers that trade personal safety for productivity, American consumers and investors continue to profit from Dickensian conditions.

Consider the fate of a 21-year-old stamping plant employee in China whose tragic story is outlined this week in a report by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.

Management at Yuwei Plastics and Hardware in Guangdong instructed "Worker A" to disable a machine's light curtain, an infra-red beam that prevents cycling if the operator reaches at the wrong time. The intent was to accommodate a production rate of one part every 12 seconds.

Not long after, he lost three fingers and two knuckles when his hand was crushed.

Worker A received $7,430 in compensation, but eventually was fired because his disabilty degraded his performance -- the same reason prospective employers cite today when they reject his job applications.

The Institute's report is titled "Dirty Parts" because, it says, Yuwei was producing components for Ford, Volkswagen, GM, Honda and Chrysler. Ford business accounted for 80% of the plant's output, which included parts destined for North America.

To its credit, the Blue Oval has swung into action.

"We take these allegations seriously and are investigating the situation," the auto maker tells Ward's in an e-mail. "Ford has a strong commitment to human rights and workplace safety, and we expect our suppliers to comply with local laws and our Code of Basic Working Conditions.

"We require all of our suppliers to ensure that our products – no matter where they are made – are manufactured under conditions that demonstrate respect for the people who make them."

Good luck with that.

The industry has never been so competitive. Supplier margins already are thin, a compelling factor in unregulated environments for improving productivity by any means necessary.

Further exacerbating the situation: auto makers can't be everywhere 24-7. And in uncertain economies where unions are non-existent or ineffective, there will be workers who succumb to need or greed and try to cheat death on the shop floor.

Enter the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act, which would prohibit health-and-safety scofflaws from exporting their goods to the U.S.

Incredibly, this proposed legislation has twice failed to pass muster in Washington, home to the genuises who approved with breathtaking speed the Dog and Cat Protection Act, which prohibits the import, sale or export of dog and cat fur.

Unless we get to the bottom of abusive labor practices, we'll end up at the bottom. In a hurry.

Just like Ron warned.

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