Sleep- deprived women

A woman’s right to a good night’s sleep, some quiet time alone, regular vacations – these are among our goals, along with men’s right to the same, and good jobs, social equality, and security for all.

“Wal-Martization” is another word for capitalist globalization. It has brought tens of millions of workers worldwide the sleep deprivation that comes with unnecessary night work, the overcrowding that accompanies great poverty and insecurity, seven-day workweeks, no vacations, and massive overtime that often is never even paid. Women, with the burden of responsibility for children and often the worst-paid jobs, have suffered some of globalization’s greatest blows.

A recent report by Oxfam, based on a 12-country survey, carefully documents these results of capitalist globalization (“free trade”). “Trading Away Our Rights” focuses on women workers, and portrays the terrible parallels in global factory conditions from Bangladesh to Morocco, Sri Lanka to the U.S., and from the garment industry to flower fields.

“We have a very young workforce of women,” says a garment factory manager cited in the report. His factory in Morocco produces for Spain’s “Wal-Mart,” El Corte Ingles. “We prefer hiring women because they are more disciplined,” he continues. “At times, the women have to stay up working all night and they understand perfectly the need for that flexibility.”

“There are people working day, night, day, night, without sleeping, because they are told, ‘You are not meeting the target, and the shipment is near,’” says a sewing machine operator for a contractor in Kenya producing for Wal-Mart.

“I used to send workers to the hospital every week – they were suffering sheer exhaustion, fainting, losing their minds,” says a former subcontractor in Thailand. “When my child was sick,” reports a Cambodian garment worker, “I had to leave her for work, because if you didn’t do overtime, they would dismiss you – it didn’t matter whether it was day or night.”

“Once, we started at 10 in the morning and finished at 6 in the morning the next day,” a woman contracted to pick grapes for Dole in Chile reports. “Since there is no transportation, you cannot say, ‘This is it, I’m going home.’”

Closer to home, “In the past six years, there have been five federal prosecutions for slavery in Florida’s agricultural sector.”

The facts in the Oxfam report are powerful. Yet its conclusions are weak and ineffective. It calls on Wal-Mart, Target, Nike and others at the top of the chain “to make respect for labor rights integral to their supply-chain business strategies.” The meat of the report portrays profound hostility to workers.

Similarly, the report calls on “the IMF and the World Bank to promote workers’ rights throughout their operations.” Yet the report recounts how “the IMF and the World Bank throughout the 1980s and 1990s recommended and required, through loan conditionality, that governments make their labor laws more ‘flexible.’” Both the IMF and World Bank “pushed policies to increase the use of temporary contracts, reduce maternity and social security benefits, extend overtime, and cut minimum wages” in countries across the globe.

In stark contrast, the right to union organization and collective bargaining was left aside. In 1999, James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, said that the institution did not support these rights, because it ‘did not get involved in national politics.’” The IMF and World Bank serve Wall Street, which also controls Wal-Mart, Nike & Co.

The report does not address debts to Wall Street, even though debt lies behind governments’ documented collusion with local employers to weaken and cheapen labor.

Oxfam’s report (maketradefair.com) is worth reading. The conditions it portrays are social and political explosions certain to happen. For those explosions to be productively channeled requires strong unions and international political working class unity. Women’s participation at every level is essential – and mighty. That points the way to assuring the right to quiet time, and a good night’s sleep for all.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.