When I talk about workers, particularly in poor countries, being exploited by large companies, a frequent retort is, “Well, the people want to work there. Who are you to tell them they can’t? Would they be better off if the factory closed down and they were out of work?” A good example of this argument can be found in a highly irritating article in the University of Chicago’s student newspaper, which complains about a proposed student boycott of Coke on the grounds that it’s subjecting workers in Colombia to inhumane working conditions and the threat of paramilitary murder.
The article is irritating partly because of the condescending tone – the writer, James Wang, has clearly taken a couple of economics classes and feels entitled to talk down to the readers who don’t share his intimate understanding of the wonders of capitalism. But it’s also irritating to me personally because I’ve heard this shit too many times, and it’s starting to acquire the aura of unquestioned truth.
So to borrow a stylistic irritant from Mr. Wang, let me break it down for you in a really patronising manner. Are you taking notes? Just because it’s possible to exploit somebody really poor, it doesn’t mean it’s OK to do so. The rules of capitalism are one thing — they do indeed dictate that there will always be people poor enough and desperate enough to take a job, no matter how bad the pay or conditions. But the rules of capitalism do not supersede the rules of morality. There’s no getout clause in the Bible or the Torah or the Quran or any other religious or non-religious moral code that says “Thou shalt love thy neighbour, unless thou art acting in a business context, in which case fuck him over.”
To put it simply, hiring paramilitary groups to kill or intimidate union officials is wrong. Paying people wages that will keep them in poverty is wrong. Subjecting workers to sexual abuse is wrong. Providing unsafe conditions for them to work in is wrong. These things are so deeply wrong on so many levels that it’s astonishing that I should have to point out that they are wrong. But clearly the economics textbooks that Mr. Wang is reading at the University of Chicago tell him otherwise, and to be fair, as I’ve said, he is far from alone in his delusions.
So what is the solution? Wang and other supporters of capitalism always present two alternatives: either things stay exactly as they are, or the company closes down its factory and the workers are thrown into destitution: his conclusion is “If the anti-Coke activists have their dream and Coke closes its plants in Colombia, I guarantee you that those displaced workers will not be happy.”
But there is another alternative, a “third way” I could call it. Perhaps Coke could keep its plants in Colombia open, and just stop treating its workers like shit on the bottom of its corporate shoe. Perhaps it could recognise that the extra few pesos it might end up spending on labour costs would be more than offset by the extra revenue from people who stop boycotting its products, and the costs it would save on defending itself from lawsuits. As the eager capitalists would say, that’s a real win-win scenario. After all, my guess is that Coke is currently paying more for one hour of a white-shoe lawyer’s time than for a year of a Colombian worker’s time. So you do the math.
Again, this stuff is so obvious that it really shouldn’t need mentioning. But so often I’ve heard this irritating defence of corporate crime, trying to put me in the position of putting the Colombian workers out of a job. I’m tired of it. Just stop exploiting workers. That’s it. You don’t have to close down, go out of business or put people out of work. Just treat the people who work for you humanely. Until Coke does that, I’m going to boycott it. Should be easy enough – the stuff tastes like drain cleaner anyway.