A Letter from the Founders
In the movies, when someone is in trouble there is usually someone coming along to the rescue. It might be the cavalry, the army, the police, the love of their life, etc. But rest assured, someone is riding in to save the day.
On a recent trip to Mexico to research global production issues, we met a group of ladies who work as outreach workers helping other workers to understand their rights. These ladies are intelligent, well spoken, organized women who volunteer their time and energy to help others. We sat with them under a shade tree on folding chairs on a beautiful Spring day and listened to their stories of workers being paid less than $1.00 an hour, many working with dangerous chemicals that weren’t disclosed to them, of workers being injured by faulty industrial machinery, burned by chemicals, losing limbs, poisoned by lead, fired for being pregnant, the list went on and on. In truth it was a bit overwhelming to hear all of the different situations that they had seen and experienced firsthand.
They told us their stories, not because they expected us to be able to help them, but perhaps just because they wanted their stories to be heard. They are all current or former factory workers who have worked in international factories along the Mexico/U.S. border. The factories are not Mexican factories- they are operated by American, South Korean, Japanese, and German companies, among others. The companies come here for cheap labor, easy access to the United States via truck, and a free trade zone that lets them operate inexpensively. They save abundantly on labor costs but at a cost to their workforce that is too high.
When we left that meeting we knew one thing for certain. We could not just leave those ladies (and their co-workers) behind without trying to do something to help. No one is riding in to save the day for these workers. Not their government, not their multi-national employers. No one at all is on the way. This is not a movie- its real life. These workers just want someone to hear them, to see them, to know that they are there.
We have long been like-minded about what we believe is fair and not fair in the world. We’ve had many intense discussions about global concerns, one of them being fair trade and how the things we buy every day in the U.S. are made. Fifty years ago we still manufactured and assembled many things here in the United States for our own consumption. There is no doubt that those days are gone, and likely will never return. That much we will have to accept.
While other countries can offer a much cheaper cost of labor for the goods we buy, the question that has always concerned us is how cheap is too cheap? Is it fair for them to pay subsistence wages of less than $1.00 an hour in some cases, wages that do not allow for workers to have even a bare minimum standard of living? Is it fair to allow their factories to pollute indiscriminately in other countries in a manner that they would not allow in their home country? Is it fair for them to ignore safety standards in their factories in favor of production times so that workers are injured and sometimes maimed for life- as in what happened to Rosa Moreno? To us these practices are unconscionable. There is a difference between “saving” on costs and exploiting an entire country full of desperate workers for the sake of shareholder returns.
We also believe that environmental contamination anywhere is environmental contamination everywhere. Just because we can’t see it in front of us, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Especially in the case of the U.S./Mexico border, it is right in our backyard. Air pollution from factory emissions can’t be contained by a border fence. Water contamination runs directly from the rivers and streams it is dumped into right into the oceans we all share. Ground contamination affects entire cities full of people who live on top of it. We wouldn’t allow the environmental contamination that happens along the U.S./Mexico border (or in many industrial hub countries) in our own country. Therefore we believe we shouldn’t ignore it in other countries either.
The premise behind Partners for Responsible Trade Inc. is to create awareness of issues related to offshore production and try to find solutions that work for everyone- for the workers, the corporations and the consumers of the goods these factories produce. We in the United States are the primary consumers of the goods produced in some offshore factories. As a nation, we consume 80%+ of the goods produced and assembled on the U.S./Mexico border. As the end-users for these items we believe we have some responsibility for how they are produced. And our corporations, who operate facilities in Mexico (and other developing nations), have direct responsibility for how their factories operate there. We simply would like to help in some small way to create a better and safer working situation for the workers, a cleaner environment for all of us, and a corporate culture where nothing needs to be hidden because companies are proactively trying to be fair and act responsibly.
It’s always helpful for us to remember that we were lucky and won the “birth lottery” so to speak. We were born in the United States. We have always had enough to eat, running water and sewer services, electricity, free public education, access to grants and loans to attend college, and a variety of job choices. This is very different from what many people born in a developing country have to choose from in their lives. They may have to live without public utilities- no water and sewer, no electricity, no free primary education and absolutely no chance at college. There are few student loan programs in the developing world. There is also no safety net in many developing countries for the very poor- no public subsidies, no free medical care. If you get sick with cancer or some other serious disease- you die. No one is going to step in and help. And as for job choices, there may be only a very few and those may include employment in an international factory. It may be their only choice. Our “birth lottery” ticket landed us in Ohio- other’s tickets may have landed them in Mexico or Bangladesh, Cambodia or Honduras. Lucky us- not so lucky them. It’s really as simple as that.
Partners for Responsible Trade Inc. is an all-volunteer organization. We simply want to cash in our “birth lottery ticket” and use it to make some small difference in the lives of people who are hard workers and can and will help themselves, if we (consumers and corporations) just give them a fighting chance.
Partners for Responsible Trade, Inc.
An Ohio Non Profit Corporation.