Saturday, February 8, 2014

Show Biz re-visits world poverty (2005)

From the July 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Can Live 8 and the host of attendant charities campaigning this month really make a difference to world poverty?

“Make Poverty History” is an imaginative slogan. Who could disagree with the idea of a society in which all people enjoy good health and material security, with all the miseries of world poverty consigned to the past?  Sir Bob Geldof is one who believes in such a world and, as a rock performer with credibility, is trying to mobilise millions of like-minded people in great demonstrations aimed at bringing pressure on the G8 governments to assist the desperately poor in the undeveloped countries. If his plans succeed a million people will go to Edinburgh, and added to these will be many more attending concerts in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and Philadelphia, all to celebrate their solidarity and to make the point that the people of the richest countries should spend more money to end hunger. The aim is also to persuade world leaders to drop third world debt, reform trade laws and double aid to the undeveloped regions.

It is not for socialists to spoil a good party.  On the contrary, we can take some heart from these popular demonstrations of care and concern. It would be even more depressing if millions of people were dying every year from easily preventable causes while those better off never gave it a thought. However, this is not the case, so at least there is something reassuring about the willingness and enthusiasm of many people to join together to focus attention on the tragedies of needless death in a world that could so easily provide the good things of life for all.

However, we are bound to ask some critical questions. The staging of pop concerts aimed at making poverty history is beginning to acquire a history of its own.  It is twenty years since the first Live Aid Concert was staged at Wembley in 1985 and was thought to be a great success.  The aim was to make a difference but what difference did it make?

Reality behind the hype
No doubt in a very minor way the money raised following concerts and channelled through organisations like OXFAM has done a bit of good. But this should be seen against the scale of the problem and whether the actions led by Live Aid, or as it is now called Live 8, in any way address its causes. Over the years, agencies of the United Nations such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation have posted the numbers suffering poverty. For example, in 1975, 435 million people were seriously undernourished. By the year 2000 this had almost doubled to 820 million. UNICEF states that approximately 40,000 children under five die every day from preventable causes.  These figures indicate that since the first Live Aid concert in 1985 the numbers dying from poverty have been increasing horrendously, which leaves little doubt that pop concerts and the charities have made no significant impact on the problem. The grim facts are that the present methods of the “Make Poverty History” campaign stand no chance of ending deaths from hunger. If we are to be serious about stopping this perpetual holocaust, the many thousands of people who support this campaign should have a serious re-think about how best to go about it.

We don’t see much by way of analysis, but judged by its methods the “Make Poverty History” campaign appears to think that the fault lies with the developed countries in not cancelling third world debt, not opening up more free trade, and not being more generous in sending money aid to the undeveloped countries, particularly in Africa. However, there is not a shred of evidence that any cancellation of debt will result in improved conditions for workers in Africa.  It is claimed that the aim of loans to African states is to improve services such as health and education and build up infrastructures such as communications, port facilities, roads and bridges, etc. In theory these would assist the development of trade with a prospect of raising living standards throughout the continent.  A more realistic view is that loans enable Western governments, banks and global corporations to maintain an economic stranglehold on the economies of countries that are rich in resources such as oil, natural gas, gold, diamonds, iron ore, titanium ore, bauxite, timber, rubber, copper and other vital materials.

One example is Nigeria with a population of 135 million, GDP per capita of $275  per annum, an external debt of $1.1 billion and producing 750 million barrels of oil per year under the control of global oil companies such as Shell (Anglo Dutch), Exxon Mobil (US), Sasol (South Africa), AGIP International (Italy), Chevron (US), Total (France), BP (UK), Statoil (Norway).

Angola financed its civil war from profits from the sales of oil and diamonds and also relies on oil-backed loans which now burden the economy with an external debt of  $10.45 billion. Average life expectancy in Angola is 36 years.  Its GDP per capita income is $632 per year. Whilst most of its population suffers the most severe poverty its political rulers benefit from corruption. “The IMF found that between 1997 and 2002 some $4.22 billion went missing equivalent to some 12 percent of GDP. Angola’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite, who often use government positions for massive personal enrichment” (Guardian, 1 June).

The small country of Equatorial Guinea was recently subject to an escapade involving Sir Mark Thatcher who was accused of being part of an intended takeover. It is immensely rich in resources with oil and gas production expected to reach 150 million barrels a year. It carries an external debt of $248 million. Some international companies reaping high profits include Marathon Oil (US), Exxon Mobile (US), Energy Africa (South Africa), Chevron (US), British Gas (UK).

Marathon Oil operates in Equatorial Guinea on very good terms which may be associated with the benefits its politicians enjoy. “Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the country’s president, and his wife and son, were apparently treating themselves to planes, big houses and shopping sprees. Millions of dollars in cash were being lugged around Washington in suitcases” (Guardian, 2 June).

Taking the continent of Africa as a whole the (British) Prime Minister’s Commission for Africa “estimated that the amount stolen and now held in foreign banks is equivalent to more then half the continent’s external debt of $300 billion” (Guardian, 3 June).

There can be little doubt that the world we are now describing is one motivated by greed and pursued through a ruthless exploitation of natural and human resources. The main players are governments, multinational corporations and corrupt local politicians running gangster regimes. It may well be that the governments of the G8 will make a gesture that partially cancels third world debt but the write-off of these dollars will only be a means of continuing their grip on African countries whilst dressing their actions with the phoney rhetoric of care and concern.

There will be no outcome that will solve the problems of the desperately poor of Africa, and however well meaning may be their slogans, workers in the developed countries should not become involved in the machinations of interest groups whose basic concern is profit and the economic strategies of ruling elites.

Weakness of mere protest
Whilst the G8 protests may demonstrate great strength of feeling they will also demonstrate a great weakness; this is the lack of control of those who take part and their dependence on the decisions and actions of present power structures. Because of this, protesters can become victims of a seductive but deadly process. The capitalist system constantly throws up issues that demand action amongst those who are concerned and by many people who think of themselves as socialists. As a result, protest tends to become a demand for an “improved” kind of capitalism which leaves the long-term reasons for protest intact. This has been the history of protest.

In this sense, protest tends to set a stage for further protest and further demonstrations. Though the issues may vary the message stays the same: “We demand that governments do this, that or the other!” The spectacle of thousands demanding that governments act on their behalf is a most reassuring signal to those in power that their positions of control are secure.  In this way, repeated demonstrations do little more than confirm the continuity of the system. The point is to change society, not to appeal to the doubtful better nature of its power structures.

With Sir Bob as its high priest, we could also think of the Live 8 concerts as homage to the god of money and the illusion that it has powers of action on its own.  But the opposite is true. Money is part of a system that prevents us from using our real powers of production for the benefit of all people. Geldof never stops going on about giving more money and this feeds the illusion that without money we have no way to provide for the things we need. This leaves us separated from our powers of action. It ignores the fact that productive resources are not money but labour, land, industry, manufacture, transport and communications. The problems of world poverty require that these should be liberated from the economic constraints of money and the profit system.

Given that the number of people suffering and dying from the effects of world poverty have doubled over the past 25 years and on any realistic forecast will continue to increase, it should be obvious that we must go far beyond mere protests, organise to abolish the profit system and replace it with a world of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for needs. Such a socialist world would be able to stop people dying from hunger immediately and rapidly increase world food production to reach a point where every person on the planet would have free access to sufficient good quality food to maintain good health.
Pieter Lawrence

The Class Struggle in Cambodia (2014)

From the February 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

In some parts of the world workers are still being shot down for asking for higher wages.
During 2013 in Cambodia (the Khmer name is Kampuchea), the Khmer working class – particularly the half million garment factory workers – were active in the class struggle between capital and labour, clashing with the authoritarian government of Hun Sen and the repressive forces of the Cambodian police and military. The resistance of the garment factory workers to the downward economic pressures of the capitalist class culminated after a two week national strike in the New Year of 2014 with four workers killed and twenty seven injured when police and a deployment of an elite unit of soldiers, Special Command Unit 911 opened fire with AK-47s into a group of workers.
The workers' economic struggle has become allied with the protest movement for liberalism and bourgeois democracy in Cambodia which is associated with Sam Rainsy and his 'Party of Rescuing the Nation.' They allege electoral fraud in the July 2013 elections and claim they were cheated out of winning the election. This liberal political grouping have promised the garment factory workers their desired wage increase to $263 per month. In September 2013 20,000 workers including garment workers, students, civil servants, teachers, farmers, and Buddhist monks protesting against the government's 'rigging' of the election clashed with police and one worker was killed and others injured. 
Cambodia's government has been described by Human Rights Watch's Southeast Asian Director, David Roberts, as a 'vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy' (Political Transition in Cambodia 1991-1999, Curzon Publishers, 2001) which is quite accurate except Cambodia has nothing to do with 'communism'. Cambodia operates a capitalist market economy. It is notorious for corruption, ignoring human rights and suppressing political dissent. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, has been Prime Minister since 1985 and is leader of the Cambodia People's Party which is the renamed Kampuchea People's Revolutionary Party which was the sole party in the People's Republic of Kampuchea 1979-89 when Cambodia was occupied by the Vietnamese army. This Party had a Leninist ideology and Cambodia was run economically on Russian state capitalist lines. In the 1990s Hun Sen adopted free market capitalism, privatized state industries, and established private property rights.
During 2013 the Khmer working class have realised that their employers had contracted  their standard of living  at a time of increased productivity and profits in the garment industry. Strikes are necessary if the working class are to prevent themselves being driven into the ground by the never-satisfied demands of profit. The working class must organise to defend and improve wages and conditions of work or even just to keep pace with an inflationary standard of living.
The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia estimates that over a quarter of working days in the last two years have been lost due to strikes. The garment industry supplying clothes and footwear mainly to the European and American markets represents the largest portion of Cambodia's manufacturing sector, accounting for 80 percent of the country's exports. The garment industry manufactures clothes for a huge range of British high street companies, including H&M, Gap, Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Levis. In 2012, the exports grew to $4.61 billion, up 8 percent over 2011, and in the period from January to November 2013 the garment industry made $5.1 billion, a 22 percent increase on 2012.
More savvy than assumed
David Webb, Cambodian programme director at the Solidarity Centre said 'Workers are, frankly, far more savvy than they get credit for, and can see these vast amounts of money being made off the backs of some of the poorest workers in the region and how little they get back in return' (Guardian 16 December). A woman worker called Khmon is quoted saying 'There is no work in the countryside, so I have to work in the factories. The factories don't care about us. They pay us so little, work us so hard and throw us away when we cannot work for a moment' (Guardian 16 December). On May Day 2013 a garment factory worker named Chao Sinoun told Radio Free Asia 'The factory owner is exploiting my labour' (Sonorng Khe for Radio Free Asia Khmer Service, 1 May).
The May Day rally in Phnom Penh saw 10,000 garment and footwear factory workers with teachers and civil servants demanding wage increases, retirement pensions, reduced petrol prices, and the arrest of the killers of trade union activist Chea Victea in 2004. The same month saw two workers killed in a factory collapse at Wing Star Shoes owned by a Taiwanese company who make running shoes for Asics. A wage protest at a Nike Factory run by Sabrina Garment Manufacturing in the Kampang Speu province, west of Phnom Penh, involved 3,000 workers mostly women. They were seeking a $14 pay rise to cover transport, rent and healthcare on top of the $74 minimum wage but were attacked by riot police with stun batons and 23 workers were injured.
A July 2013 Report on Working Conditions in Cambodia's Garment Sector produced by Better Factories Cambodia, an ILO project found inadequate working conditions, fire safety, health and safety violations and child labour. Ath Thorn, President, Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union pointed out that Cambodia’s Ministry of Labour found that garment workers needed at least $156 per month to cover the cost of living. He added 'The current wages are too little and can't meet workers' needs' (Morning Star 28 December). 'The government and the factory owners know that workers cannot survive with the current salary' said Chea Mony, President, Free Trade Union of Workers (Morning Star 27 December).
The minimum wage per month was increased in May 2013 from $60 to $75 a month plus $5 living allowance but the increase was swallowed up in rent increases and other expenses of living in the capital city such as inflation, rent increases, and job insecurity. The value of labour power may change because the values of the necessities the worker and their family consume has changed. If their value increased, then a wage increase would merely restore the position and allow the workers to consume the same amount.
Race to the bottom
Cambodia's garment industry continues to grow rapidly which can be attributed to the country's open economic policy which has drawn large amounts of foreign investment into this sector of the economy. Nearly 80 percent of the garment factories are owned by Chinese, Taiwanese and South Korean companies with only 5 percent owned by the Cambodian capitalist class. The capitalist class say the onus was on Western clothing chains to pay more for the garments they were buying from Cambodia's factories. Ken Loo, Secretary-General of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia said 'The garment industry is a footloose industry, it is not difficult for any investor to uproot and move its investment elsewhere. In Cambodia the industry is made up of predominantly foreign investors. If investors decide to relocate, there would be no local factories that would rise to take these places. We do not own the brand of the items we are producing so our profits are determined by the brands and retailers who place orders with us, they have the ability and the finances to increase the minimum wage, not us. The focus has to be on the brands and retailers to start paying factories more, so that in return we have the ability to pay our workers more' (Guardian 16 December).
After the killing of workers in the New Year the Cambodian police forced 1,000 workers from their rally camp in Phnom Penh, and banned any further protests against the government. The State Prosecutors issued warrants for Sam Rainsy and his deputy to appear in court on 14 January on charges of inciting social unrest. On 7 January thousands of garment workers returned to work after the two week national strike. The strikes cost the garment industry approximately $20 million in lost revenue, and orders could decline by 20 to 30 percent in 2014. Sam Rainsy said 'Now we are working on the diplomatic front, on the commercial front, on the legal front. We are in touch with unions and workers’ organisations all over the world to condemn violence on workers and to help workers to achieve the minimum wage' (Morning Star 8 January).
The close relations of the trade unions in Cambodia with this liberal party led by Rainsy is effectively a non-revolutionary approach for the Khmer working class. The Cambodian trade unions should not depart from the principle of an antagonism of interests between the working class and the capitalist class. When they collaborate with the capitalist class, the state or political parties such as the National Rescue Party they are departing from this principle. As well as campaigning for an increase in the minimum wage the garment workers trade unions should aim for the 'Abolition of the wages system.'
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya P. Subedi said 'All parties, the Government, striking workers, trade unions, the factories and buyers needed to reassure protesting workers that they would develop a realistic wage structure' (United Nations Radio 27 December 2013). Van Son Leng, Chairman of Cambodia's Garment Manufacturers Association concluded 'It's bad that there were deaths and injuries but when there's violence and force is used, there's always going to be collateral damage. It's difficult to avoid' (Wall Street Journal 7 January).
The Khmer garment factory worker Khmon said 'The poor are always unlucky' (Guardian 16 December 2013) but, as our comrades in the Socialist Party of Canada have pointed out, there is a way-out for the trap the working class in Cambodia find themselves in:
'The capitalist apologists have a hard time explaining the nineteenth century wage rates and conditions that capital is flocking to. Isn’t capitalism supposed to bring widespread prosperity? If there is something lower, capital will flow there naturally like water flowing downhill. China is outsourcing its clothing orders to Bangladesh. If Cambodia can’t get lower than Bangladesh in wages, conditions of work, labour and safety legislation, etc, you are out of luck. There are always greener pastures for capital, until, that is, we, the workers wake up and make all property and the resources therein the common heritage of all mankind' (The Socialist Party of Canada Secretary’s Reports for November 1 and December 1, 2013).
Steve Clayton