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The Human Lives Behind the Labels: The Global Sweatshop, Nike and the Race to the Bottom

By Bill Bigelow

The paired soccer ball writing assignment was a spur-of-the-moment classroom introduction to Sydney Schanberg's June 1996 Life magazine article, "Six Cents an Hour." Schanberg, best known for his New York Times investigations of Cambodia's "killing fields," had traveled to Pakistan and posed as a soccer ball exporter. There, he was offered children for $150 to $180 who would labor for him as virtual slaves. As Schanberg reports, in Pakistan, children as young as six are "sold and resold like furniture, branded, beaten, blinded as punishment for wanting to go home, rendered speechless by the trauma of their enslavement." For pennies an hour, these children work in dank sheds stitching soccer balls with the familiar Nike swoosh and logos of other transnational athletic equipment companies.

Nike spokesperson Donna Gibbs defended her company's failure to eliminate child labor in the manufacture of soccer balls: "It's an ages-old practice," she was quoted as saying in Schanberg's article, "and the process of change is going to take time." But as Max White, an activist with the "Justice. Do It NIKE!" coalition, said when he visited my global studies class last month, "Nike knew exactly what it was doing when it went to Pakistan. That's why they located there. They went because they knew child labor was an 'ages-old practice.'"

My initial impulse had been to teach a unit on child labor. I thought that my students would empathize with young people around the globe, whose play and education had been forcibly replaced with the drudgery of repetitive work -- and that the unit would engage them in thinking about inequities in the global division of labor. Perhaps it might provoke them to take action on behalf of child workers in poor countries.

But I was also concerned that we shouldn't reduce the growing inequalities between rich and poor countries to the issue of child labor. Child labor could be entirely eliminated and that wouldn't affect the miserably low wages paid to adult workers, the repression of trade unions and democratic movements, the increasing environmental degradation, and the resulting Third World squalor sanitized by terms like "globalization" and "free trade." Child labor is one spoke on the wheel of global capitalism, and I wanted to present students with a broader framework to reflect on its here-and-now dynamics. What I share here is a sketch of my unit's first draft -- an invitation to reflect on how best to engage students in these issues.

The Transnational Capital Auction

It seemed to me that the central metaphor for economic globalization was the auction: governments beckoning transnational corporations to come hither -- in competition with one another -- by establishing attractive investment climates (e.g., by maintaining low-wage/weak union havens and not pressing environmental concerns). So I wrote what I called "The Transnational Capital Auction: A Game of Survival." I divided students into seven different "countries," each of which would compete with all the others to accumulate "friendly to Capital points" -- the more points earned, the more likely Capital would locate in that country. In five silent auction rounds, each group would submit bids for minimum wage, child labor laws, environmental regulations, conditions for worker organizing, and corporate tax rates. For example, a corporate tax rate of 75% won no points for the round, but a zero tax rate won 100 points. (There were penalty points for "racing to the bottom" too quickly, risking popular rebellion, and thus "instability" in the corporate lexicon.)

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