Thursday, December 11, 2008

Who Paid for those Christmas Presents?

I will probably say this many times in one way or another on this blog:

HIV may well be mainly sexually transmitted in Kenya, but under what circumstances do people have sex? Why do some have sex frequently and with many different people? Why do they not take precautions, perhaps by using a condom, avoiding people they know to have a sexually transmitted infection (see note below about health) or people they know to be violent? Why do they agree to more dangerous sexual practices, such as anal sex or dry sex?

IRIN ran an article recently about a young woman who had to have sex with her supervisor in order to be guaranteed regular work. She works in an Export Processing Zone (EPZ). EPZs were set up with the specific intention of allowing companies to operate their production units where labour is cheap.

This is not to say that EPZs were set up with purely evil intentions. Countries with EPZs could have had strong labour laws that protected their labour force and that punished employers who flouted these laws.

But competition ensured that the country with the fewest employee protections would win the contracts. Laws in Kenya governing EPZs rarely mention employees but are pretty explicit when it comes to the companies that are flocking to the country to take advantage of the cheap labour.

The companies setting up production units in Kenya and other countries with the 'unique selling point' of cheap labour are ones that produce fashionable clothes, popular brands of watches, pharmaceuticals and other things bought by most people in developed countries, the 'minority world'.

The number of people implicated in the abuse suffered by employees of EPZs is high, taking in multinational corporations, governments and the very population driving the process: the market.

That means you and I; the people who buy sports shoes, laptops, MP3 players, mobile phones and various other things that are only affordable because of a high level of exploitation. Cheap labour ensures our access to these goods.

Don't buy the popular media reflex that developing countries are poor because of corrupt governments. Serious corruption is global.

I almost forgot to mention the part played by the organisations that are supposed to be assisting developing countries to develop: those international financial institutions whose names shall remain the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They loan money to desperate countries with certain conditions attached. Those countries must be 'flexible', they must deregulate, they must reduce 'barriers to trade' and public services, they must reduce the civil service...

... many civil servants being involved in the 'anticompetitive' practice of regulating employers, ensuring workers rights, inspecting companies to reduce dangerous conditions and exploitation. In fact, EPZs are not bound by the Factories Act and do not have unions because such things would seriously reduce their competitiveness. EPZs don't even make people redundant, they only 'retrench' them, which is completely different. Well, it’s far cheaper for employers, anyway.

These measures keep international financial institutions, governments, consumers and employers happy. With EPZs, the world is almost perfect.

Except for the majority world; the place where over five billion people live (out of a global population of over six billion). The people who work in these EPZs are not guaranteed work, they must accept any conditions without complaint and they cannot strike. As the Kenya Human Rights Commission say in their report 'Manufacture of Poverty', employees 'report to the factory gates every morning without pay to check whether or not there is work'.

So what makes a prospective employee more 'competitive', more likely to work today and subsequent days? Aside from being silent about flouted fire regulations and other safety measures, impossible production targets, compulsory overtime and other abuses?

Well, agreeing to sleep with the person responsible for choosing who works and who doesn't work would be a start. Sleep with the supervisor. And every time the question of who to employ comes up, the question of what price is to be paid must also be answered. The woman interviewed in IRIN's article is not the only one who suffered abuse and continues to suffer abuse in this way.

So this is a whole field of scenarios where HIV is transmitted. But the issue here is not the transmission of HIV, alone. There is a whole range of human rights being abused with impunity, with the tacit acceptance of most of the people and institutions in the world who could and who should be objecting.

So instead of criticizing people's sexual practices, perhaps we could examine our own purchasing practices.

Note about health:

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank, mentioned above, have also given loans on condition that the number of people employed by public services such as health, education and infrastructure be fixed at low levels. Spending on such services is severely limited and this has many consequences for people’s overall health.

For example, intestinal parasites are very common, as is TB, malaria and many waterborne diseases like cholera. Sexually transmitted infections are also common, especially Herpes Simplex Virus. All of these make people more susceptible to HIV. The health of Kenyans is severely compromised by these loan conditions.

The HIV ‘experts’ who implement prevention programmes do so with the expectation that existing health, education and infrastructure will ensure the success of these programmes. Even the World Bank itself funds such programmes.

So, when they find that there are very few health and education facilities and very little infrastructure in Kenya and other developing countries, one hopes they will also know who to call on to find out why: themselves.

Maybe I am hopelessly idealistic.


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