An interview with Dr. Martin Hart-Landsberg by Fahmi Panimbang on Transnational Corporation operation in Asia. Below is the transcript of the interview:
Martin: The obvious impacts are despite huge profits of the Trans National Corporations, we are hearing about workers in the Philippines, in Bangladesh, in Cambodia, in Indonesia demanding just a living wage, or the right to go to the bathroom, the right to just have a union. And I think what a lot of people outside Asia don't understand, is how hard the struggle is for working people because in sub-Saharan Africa, in Latin America, people think Asia is the success story.
And they see the huge growth in exports, and what seems to be a celebration of global capitalisms' success, and yet when you hear and talk to workers, you realize the system does not work for them. And I think what is most telling is that in all the countries, workers are facing very similar situation of lack of job opportunities, precarious nature of work, attack on social programs, welfare programs, attack on unions, and this is happening in the Asian countries, I know this is happening in the United States, I know it is happening in Japan, in Germany, so I think what we 've really seen is that, what makes all of this so common, is the globalization process that has been driven by transnational corporations, they have knitted countries together in a way that has put pressure on the workers, whether it is in Asia, where a lot of the manufactures are produced, whether it is in Latin America, in sub-Saharan Africa, where a lot of the extractive work goes on, whether it is in US or Japan, where a lot of the products are being sold, the key is that this transnational corporate system, is really a system based on exports, and to be competitive, labour, workers are a cost, and so all the national governments, which wants to keep all the transnational corporations in their country are driven to create conditions that are most attractive.
In some ways China is setting the terms for that, and other countries are struggling to compete, so in Korea, which used to be a very dynamic, national economy, now more than half of the workers are irregular workers, unions are under tremendous attack, for the average worker, conditions are declining, so I think what we are really seeing is a world that's been knitted together to make profits for transnational corporations and national allies and the commonality has produced a situation where working people in most countries are on a defensive.
M: They account for a quarter of total gross GDP in the world
Fahmi: This was in 2010.
M: Yes, I think it has probably gone up because the slower growth has eroded the profits of the smaller companies, and if you look at the US for example, I am talking about non-financial corporations, more of the manufacturing firms, there profits and profits as a share of GDP are in an all-time record. You look at leading transnational corporations, where you are talking about computer companies, Apple, Microsoft, all of this companies, they are doing very well, and they are doing very well despite growth slowing, despite prices being low because this global system has enabled them to cut costs so tremendously. I guess there are two things to say. One is that it is a system that highlights how regressive capitalism has become. It used to be that capitalism was a means to an end, and people would say, well if things aren't going well, we can only make it more modern capitalism, a national capitalism that fits best with the trend, we'll be better off. Now we see the opposite, that this modern capitalist system, while it is generating profits is depressing the wages of workers. I think what is also important is that it is a system that has very deep contradictions.
For one thing, one of the inspiring things in the meeting we are at, is that workers are beginning to resist, increasingly effectively, it doesn't take long to convince people that the system does not work for them and they are fighting back. But the other is, particularly in Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, in different ways, all fit in together, that whole system has been designed to export to the core countries, US in particular, US consumption accounts for about 25 percent of total world growth, US household consumption is about 10 trillion dollars a year, Japan is only about 2-3 trillion, Germany is 2-3 trillion, the US is the main consumer market.
And what has happened with globalization, as you have companies like Apple who does not produce in the US, you have companies like Dell computers who do not produce in the US, US jobs have disappeared, and US income is back to the 1973 level. Now for a while, this was masked because of all this debt bubbles, where people were borrowing on their house, using credit cards, they can't do that anymore. And so what that means is going forward, this global system designed to export is going to find markets harder to find, and what is going to happen? Well, companies are going to demand more from workers, and I don't even know whether they can get that. But what that says is, this is not just an exploitative system, this is not a stable system. Something has to give. And that is the question: what is our strategy? What do we do?
M: One thing I am inspired at this meeting is the willingness of workers to take enormous risks, to strike and to organize. But I think militancy is not enough. I have studied the Korean experience a lot, Korean unions are justifiably known for their incredible militancy, but in a situation where mobility is the key to capitals' power, globalization is all about ensuring mobility, if workers strike, Korean companies would say: ok were on to China, and other workers say: Oh my god, what are you doing? You are jeopardizing our ability to succeed because if you strike and scare-off foreign investments, what are we going to do?
So I think that militancy alone, or even building strong unions alone - while it is important - is not enough. Part of the problem is, unions, as they are supposed to be, are worrying about what the garment wages, or what the steel wages, and in the global context, if you push hard to get a higher wage, you find that global capital shifts and leaves you and your country is worse off. In my way of thinking, we need new institutions that are a little bit above unions but below political parties.
For one thing, the number of workers and unions are quite low, even in Korea, it is about 8% - 10% of workers are now in unions. In China, they maybe in millions but they are not really unions. In the United States, unionization is about 9%-10%. So we can't rely just on unions. We need to talk about workers, and not just workplace issues but the broader kind of issues: about health care, our infrastructure, our social programs. One of the things we are experimenting on within some cities in the Unites States, it could be applicable, suggested for Asia, is workers' assemblies.
When unions engage in actions, and workers get really interested - becoming more politically active - where do they go? Sometimes unions themselves have limits on the kind of issues they want to take on, or workers who aren't in the unions, how do they get involved? In my city in Portland, Oregon, we are trying to build a workers assembly, where workers gets interested and involved, they come together, and the goal of a workers assembly is to really help workers see the broader forces that are at work. Let me give you some examples: in my city, and this is not uncommon, the government were going after the public school teachers and saying: Oh the reason why education is not working is because teachers' union are too strong; and they went after university professors: Oh the reason why universities cost too much is because professors make too much money; and they went after people who work in the parks, and they said: Oh the reason why your taxes are so high is because the workers who clean the parks make too much money.
In each case, those workers, knew that the story was false for them, but they believed for the other workers. What we did was to get all this union leaders and workers together and we have them tell their stories, and all of a sudden, the workers on each of those places realize: they weren't only lying about me, they were lying about you, you and you. And then the questions is: it is not only personal to my workplace, there is something bigger going on.
Why is the state trying to break public sector unionism? And how do we resist that, collectively? How do we begin a process of getting the community to see that public sector unions are really crucial in having public services that are responsive to people. Or, we have a number of low wage campaigns, we have zoo workers and school bus drivers and janitors; they were 8 campaigns and each campaigns, workers were trying to raise their wages but no one campaign ever learned about the other campaigns.
So each campaign was in a little bubble. When you get all the campaigns together in a room, in a worker's assembly, and they hear about each other’s struggle. Then it is a realization that, it is not just my employer out to get me, there is a process in the economy that is pushing down wages. The key to this workers' assemblies being helpful, not only in helping campaigns, in the public sector campaigns we were very successful, because each of those campaigns could draw on public sector workers from all the other places, and the low wage campaign, each campaign could draw on support from other low wage workers.
But workers began to raise real questions: Why is it that all this jobs are low wage jobs? What is working here? Why is it that the public sector is under attack? And when workers begin to think about this broader issues, they begin to become more politically-sensitive to what is going on. And they begin to think: why can't states tax the corporations? Why can't they pay us higher wages? Why are they trying to privatize everything?
Then, you get to the transnational corporations and their agenda. What is it about the economy that put pressure so that states can't tax people? That they got to drive down wages to survive? You begin to build a political movement, and those people can go back to their unions and communities, and start to become leaders and then you begin a process of challenging policies. One of the things that I think is really important, although globalization pre-dates a lot of these free trade agreements, this free trade agreements, which have strengthened globalization, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement we have now, many, ASEAN, many agreements.
They make very explicit what the aim of capitalism is. When workers say: we can't tax companies because they are moving around, it just seems like there not much you can do. Or if you are in competition with other workers, your boss has to demand lower wages, there is not much that you can do. But when workers begin to study this agreements, they called free trade agreements, and they include lowering tariffs, and they include many more chapters. They include that allow corporations to shift money wherever they want. Allow corporations to sue governments if they do anything that limits their profits. They come to realize that this are actual plans and that when this agreements are signed, the conditions are strengthened to limit workers abilities to defend their interests. Suddenly they can see, in ways that maybe they couldn't see before, that the kind of economy that they are forced to deal with is being created, it is not just some magical market, but a political process.
And therefore, if they are going to resist privatizations, resist cuts on social programs, they have to fight them and they have to fight these agreements that intensify the pressures they feel. And I think there is where you can start to build solidarity around the world.