Disclaimer: I am not, nor do I claim to be, Noam Chomsky. I wrote a paper for my English 101 class, and I thought that it didn't suck. The information contained within has been cross-checked and cited for accuracy. That does not mean, however, that this information is up-to-date or infallible. Everything here was true on July 23, 2002, but things change. Node Your Homework!

Corporations and Labor Abuse

Americans buy billions of dollars in corporate products everyday, rarely giving thought as to where those products came from. Certainly, no one would knowingly buy bananas that were picked by an underpaid eight-year-old. However, it may come as a surprise to many people which trusted corporate names have been proven to exploit their laborers. Dole and Wal-Mart have all been caught practicing unfair or even forced labor. Millions of Americans buy products from these corporations every day, inadvertently endorsing their unsavory labor practices. The American people should be aware of companies that use unfair labor, so they can boycott their products in favor another whose manufacturer uses safe, reasonable labor practices.

            Unfair labor practices can be defined in many ways. Most will agree, however, upon a few common denominators. The use of fear to keep worker production up is an unfair labor practice. A supervisor cannot threaten to dismiss an employee for work-related illness or injury. Making employees work off the clock, for whatever reason, is illegal. Production and distribution monopolies in a town or area ensure a large working pool and keep wages low. Using child labor to keep up production is not only unfair but a human rights crime. Outlawing the right to assemble or form unions disenfranchises workers. Some multinational corporations use tactics like these to ensure a product for their market, which most often times is the United States.

            Many people are skeptical about the rather outrageous claims laid against corporate labor. Some see it as a chance for leftists and labor unions to gain ground against laissez faire conservatives. It is agreed that not all corporations use unfair labor tactics. It can also be said that some questionable activities occurring in corporate production lines are neither ordered by the corporation nor known to them. However, regardless of the percentage of corporations that use unfair labor, or their lack of knowledge regarding it, inequitable labor practices are a problem that needs to be addressed. Corporations cannot use the infrequency of labor abuses or ignorance of it as an excuse for inaction.

            Food manufacturers constitute much of the labor abuses on the books today, along with retail corporations. For example, Dole, as well as several other multinational corporations buy bananas from plantations in Ecuador, the source of 25% of US’ bananas (http://www.hrw.org/). Bananas are Ecuador’s most important export, and their only tie to the European Union. In fact, bananas make up nearly five percent of Ecuador’s GNP (http://www.economist.com/). These plantations have been notorious for the horrible conditions of their workers. The Human Rights Watch surveyed Ecuadorian banana plantations, looking to make certain worker were being treated fairly. On the plantations, HRW found that child labor was rampant. The study indicated that 41 of the 45 child laborers questioned said they began working between the ages of 8 and 13, and most of them had to drop out of school to maintain their jobs (www.hrw.org). Experts in Ecuador’s banana industry admit that 7,500 laborers in the fields are not of legal age (www.economist.com). These facts go against Dole’s statement regarding child labor. According to dole.com, “Dole does not knowingly purchase products from any commercial producers employing minors. It is Dole's policy to observe all local labor laws.”

            Dole’s website disagrees with several other points on Human Rights Watch’s study. Regarding wage, Dole.com says, “Dole pays wages and benefits that are competitive within its industry and that allow workers and their families to have a good standard of living…” However, the children interviewed for HRW’s study earned $3.50 a day, 60% of the minimum wage for their field (http://www.hrw.org/). Dole.com makes a deceptive statement regarding unionization as well: “Dole respects the freedom of the individual worker to join the union of his or her choice or to refrain from such membership.” Dole’s plantation suppliers use subcontractors to hire their workers, giving them “temporary” worker status (http://www.hrw.org/). Temporary workers have no right to unionize. If a worker tries to organize a union, he can be fired and the plantation would receive only a $400 fine, easily recouped with their wage violations. Because of abuses like these, the Ecuadorian banana worker’s standard of living has not risen in 50 years (http://www.focusweb.org). Because Dole is a major buyer of Ecuadorian bananas, they have quite a bit of power as to what the plantations do. Moreover, because the US consumer is a major buyer of Dole, we have quite a bit of power over what Dole does. If the consumer makes a stand against child labor and unfair wages, Dole will have to as well. It is vital that the public gets involved; the power that we can exert to benefit the lives of wageworkers is amazing.

            Dole’s iniquities are not unique in the food industry. Del Monte and Chiquita both use the same plantations as Dole (www.hrw.org). The appalling conditions banana workers are often subject to are mimicked in almost all areas of food production. Canneries in India, pineapple plantations in the Philippines, and even migrant produce workers here in the United States all claim similar abuses (ww.hrw.org).

            The actions of Dole or the food industry as a whole are not an isolated case of labor abuse in the corporate world. The largest retailer on earth, Wal-Mart (www.walmart.com), has been caught using sweatshops, one of the most inhumane forms of labor. Generally speaking, sweatshops are textile production factories where workers come before dawn and leave after dusk. The work is extremely repetitive; sometimes a single worker can perform the same task thousands of times a day. Laborers in sweatshops are most often times women, and the wage is by piece (item being manufactured).

            Wal-Mart takes pride in being an “All-American” store (wal-mart.com). Wal-Mart employs senior citizens (many of whom are veterans), is continuously decked out in red, white, and blue, and closes for Memorial Day. What Wal-Mart doesn’t advertise, however, is that 85% of their products come from overseas factories, primarily sweatshops (www.pbs.org). Those few products not directly from overseas factories are often times shipped to the US in pieces, and assembled here. Thus, Wal-Mart can proudly display that those items as “Made in the USA.”

            Several investigations of Wal-Mart’s overseas factories show gross disregard for human rights and labor laws. The Li Wen factory in China was investigated, showing many of the laborers to be 14-18 year old girls (www.nlcnet.org). Workers in the Li Wen factory were obligated to work 24-hour shifts during rush periods, making Kathy Lee’s line of clothing (www.pbs.org). Those who refused to work the grueling shifts were docked a large amount of pay, or simply fired  (www.nlcnet.org). During those 84-hour weeks, they could make up to .34 cents an hour, an almost princely sum compared to the normal rate of .18 cents an hour (www.pbs.org). Wal-Mart has a “Code of Conduct” that all employees are protected by; none of the workers at Li Wen factory had ever heard of it (www.nlcnet.org). Employees have no right to assemble or to form unions, and those who try are fired. Even in the US, Wal-Mart has tried to stifle union organizers (http://www.statenews.com/). Wal-Mart employs at least four other sweatshops in China alone, with holdings in Hungary, Taiwan, and Malaysia (where they buy their US flags) (www.corpwatch.org).

            Wal-Mart’s strive to bring the American consumer the lowest price “Always” has caused them to use even more unfair labor practices. Wal-Mart has decided to move out of Tianjin Yuhua Garment Factory in China in favor of a factory to the south. The new site of Wal-Mart’s manufacturing is even more lenient on wage and worker regulations (www.pbs.org). This means Wal-Mart can afford to bring more products at cheaper prices to US markets, at the expense of perhaps hundreds of Chinese livelihoods.

            Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, built his empire upon a code of conduct that can be found at every store and on the Wal-Mart website. Wal-Mart’s extensive use of sweatshops seems to go against Mr. Walton’s number one rule, which is “Respect for the individual (www.walmart.com).” In spite of Wal-Mart’s breech of Sam’s first rule, they adhere religiously to his ninth:

Rule Nine

Control your expenses better than your competition. This is where you can always find the competitive advantage. For 25 years running - long before Wal-Mart was known as the nation's largest retailer - we ranked No. 1 in our industry for the lowest ratio of expenses to sales. You can make a lot of different mistakes and still recover if you run an efficient operation. Or you can be brilliant and still go out of business if you're too inefficient. (www.walmart.com)

Apparently efficiency would include using the forced labor of 14-year-old girls.

            Ironically, Wal-Mart has the largest gross income of any corporation, generating $118 billion in 2001 alone (www.walmart.com). Wal-Mart’s income was more than 98 times that of the entire nation of Honduras, one of their primary garment sectors (http://www.nlcnet.org). Wal-Mart’s CEO, David Glass is paid $2,000 an hour, plus vacation, stock options etc. (http://www.nlcnet.org). That is more than 6000 times the amount Chinese women in his sweatshops make. With this kind of budget, there is no reason for Wal-Mart to pay slave wages to its laborers. The discrepancy in Wal-Mart’s “Good.Works.” policy is painfully obvious.

            Dole and Wal-Mart aren’t the only companies with such a bad track record with their labor; they are only the most well documented. Many more corporations are guilty of similar crimes, but go unchecked. To be fair, however, there are a number of corporations who take pride in their labor relations. Timberland, Levi Strauss, and GAP are all making changes to the way they do business, to ensure equitable treatment of their employees. For a more complete list of so-called “clean” brand names, greenpages.org and coopamerica.org can help.

The question remains as to what to do about corporate abuse of foreign labor. No one likes to think about eight-year-old children picking the bananas that go into their eight-year-old’s school lunch pail. Corporate self-regulation seems not to be the answer. The injustices suffered by those at the Dole plantations and Wal-Mart sweatshops occurred under such self-regulation. The US government must be pushed into action on behalf of corporate workers. This involves cooperation between the US and those nations involved in low wage labor.

More importantly, however, the fight to end labor abuse involves concerned consumers and corporations. Boycotts against “tainted” products and lobbying to match that done by big business is the job of the American citizen. When news about Kathy Lee’s sweatshop-made clothing hit the public, a boycott against her products was instituted by thousands of concerned buyers. Kathy Lee publicly disclosed she had no idea her clothes were made from sweatshops, and has since been a crusader against them. Public consciousness and unity are an incredibly powerful tool for change.

Ending labor abuse worldwide is a very large task, but it is by no means an impossible one. It’s important that the public remains vigilant of the items they buy and where they come from, to ensure every worker in the world receives a chance at a fair job. As citizens of the United States, we are in a position to demand reform of these atrocities, and must do so for the sake of our fellow man.


  1. The Economist. “Banana skins.” Apr 25th 2002 From The Economist print edition. http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=1101652. July 23, 2002.


2.      National Labor Committee. “Wal-Mart Sweatshops in Honduras.” http://www.nlcnet.org/walmart/honwal.htm. July 23, 2002.


3.      http://www.walmartstores.com/wmstore/wmstores/HomePage.jsp. July 23, 2002.


4.      Human rights Watch. “Ecuador: Widespread Labor Abuse on Banana Plantations.April 25, 2002. http://www.hrw.org/press/2002/04/ecuador0425.htm. Available in print. July 23, 2002.


5.      Johnson, Aaron. The State News. “Student makes stand with billboard.”
http://www.statenews.com/article.phtml?pk=9821. Available in print. July 23, 2002.


6.      http://www.pbs.org/storewars/stores2.html. July 23, 2002.

http://www.pbs.org/storewars/sweatshops.html. July 23, 2002.


7.      Coffey, Gerard. Focusweb. “Ecuador, The WTO, and the Big Banana” http://www.focusweb.org/publications/2001/Equador_WTO_big_banana.html. July 23, 2002.


8.      www.dole.com.


            http://www.dole.com/company/business/lbr.policies.ghtml. July 23, 2002.


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