The exuberant Conrad Schmidt, founder of the Work Less Party, was quoted in BC Bookworld as saying: “The five nations with the highest percentage of people working longer than fifty hours a week—the United States, Japan, UK, Australia and New Zealand—were all willing to send troops to Iraq.”

That may be true—it may even be important—but my guess is Conrad is referring specifically to Western nations. I can’t imagine working hours being less in Third World nations, although mass unemployment and off-the-grid work (and unpaid work) may statistically bring the average down.

Forget the Third World, try California, and the work hours of the average illegal alien.

Either way, if fifty hour work weeks are necessary in the developed world to fulfill insatiable consumption, to stay ahead of rising debt and also have some relation to sending troops to Iraq, god knows what kind of psychology is created by the desperation and uncertainty related to extreme poverty, with every day being a threat to survivaldespite working fifty or sixty hour weeks.

The words bitter, resilient, crushed, desperate, religious, strong, depressed, courageous and revolution come to mind.

Speaking of such conditions, many have lately read about the Nobel Prize winning founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which for thirty years has given loans to the poorest of the poor to support their creation of self-sustaining work (all enough to make a grown man weep with joy).

Despite Bangladesh being described by Henry Kissinger as a “cesspool” and an “international basket case,” results have been tangible. According to the brilliant Jeffrey Sachs, bestselling author of The End of Poverty, per capita income in Bangladesh has about doubled since independence from Pakistan in 1971 (pg 10-13):

Life expectancy [in Bangladesh] has risen from forty-four years to sixty-two years. The infant mortality rate (the number of children who die before their first birthday for every 1,000 born) has declined from 145 in 1970 to 48 in 2002…

How did this progress happen? In addition to bank loans to the poor, Sachs offers sweatshops as a vital vehicle for increasing living standards for the extreme poor:

…[S]weatshops are the first rung on the ladder out of extreme poverty…Some rich countries have argued that Dhaka’s apparel firms should either pay far higher wage rates or be closed, but closing such factories as a result of wages forced above worker productivity would be little more than a ticket for these women back to rural misery.
For these young women, these factories offer not only opportunities for personal freedom, but also the first rung on the ladder of rising skills and income for themselves and, within a few years, their children.

Virtually every poor country that has developed successfully has gone through these first stages of industrialization. These Bangladeshi women share the experience of many generations of immigrants to New York City’s garment district, [which is] not only fueling Bangladesh’s economic growth of more than 5 percent per year in recent years, but it is also raising the consciousness and power of women in a society that was long brazenly biased against women’s chances in life…

Sachs goes on:

There is nothing glamorous about this [garment factory/sweatshop] work. The women often walk two hours each morning in long quiet files…Arriving at seven or seven-thirty, they may be in their seats for most of the following twelve hours. They often work with almost no break at all or perhaps a very short lunch break, with little chance to go to the lavatory. Leering bosses lean over them, posing a threat of sexual harassment. After a long, difficult, tedious day, the young women trudge back home, when they are again sometimes threatened with physical assault.

Isn’t this argument painfully difficult to support, even if it’s correct? It’s a paradoxical and disturbing example (and they are everywhere) of the excruciatingly vast and unfair complexities of life.

Further, it gives an example of how all of us are constantly forced by habit, greed, arrogance and racism—including our own—to support policies that, if described in detail, we would strongly oppose.

Is this a sign of the times or human nature unfolding? And of course it’s both.

I am reminded of Linda McCartney’s line: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everybody would be vegetarian.”

I believe that to be true. Mostly everybody. With repeated viewings. And the occasional family Labrador retriever thrown in to really make the point. Otherwise…

Today I went shopping for a pair of runners that would help absorb as much shock as possible on a ruptured lumbar disc in my back. I asked the salesperson if any of the runners for sale were made in Canada or the States.

A few of the shoes were assembled in the States, he said, but it’s essentially a ruse. All the parts come from China.

I was tired. My day of writing was being swallowed. I thought of something Chomsky once wrote me when I asked about the effectiveness of refusing to pay taxes because of disagreements with foreign policy.

He said (I’m paraphrasing) that like other forms of civil disobedience, it can be a useful tactic if there is a background of understanding for it among a significant part of the public. And bear in mind that when you withhold taxes, you are not depriving the government of funds—and the least of the penalties is that you will pay them more.

He went on to say the best way to pay less taxes (other than becoming a big corporation) is to consciously make less money—an idea about as comfortable to most Westerners, myself included, as Christ’s demand to give away all our possessions and follow Him.

It turns out this being forced to choose the lesser of two evils doesn’t only happen every four years with elections. It seems in the West to be the very nature of most every choice made—verbally, physically, emotionally and monetarily.

It is also humbling.

On one level Sachs is saying that this rising female consciousness and empowerment that results from getting paid more than ever by working in oppressive and degrading conditions is a viable, necessary and in fact unavoidable means of extricating oneself out of extreme poverty.

If this condition of compromise is necessary to climb out of poverty, I can’t help but think that its long term results will not bode well for the species—and is in fact short-sighted.

And of course I realize that with death on the line, everything takes a back seat to survival. And extreme poverty in and of itself is an abomination against humanity, individually and collectively.

But surely for the soul of the species, people still need to have the right to stretch their body if it aches, to decide when to defecate, and to choose whose roving hands and genitalia they have to put up with.

What are the psychological effects on most of the billions who must live through ongoing degradation to possibly reach the next rung on the economic ladder? What does it do to world-view, or the likelihood of future violence? Does the desire to degrade another fellow human for their own ends become part of their character, too? Does humiliation not become life’s modus operandi?

A feeling of ongoing humiliation, it has been said, is one of the main forces behind an individual choosing terror.

New York Times pulitzer prize winning journalist Thomas Friedman said in 2003: “If I’ve learned one thing covering world affairs, it’s this: The single most under-appreciated force in international relations is humiliation.”

In a world that is already hyper-masculinized by war, extremism, rape as a weapon, AIDS being more and more female-specific, endless militarization via both WMDs and small arms and so on, Sachs’ point—in an admittedly impossible situation—continues to legitimize the ongoing right to be abusive and oppressive for those who can afford to be so.

Extreme poverty also begs other questions that for me are always worth repeating.

Are we not in every second utterly dependent upon and arrogantly forgetful of the inexplicability of our own circumstances?

In other words, if what I have in terms of wealth and freedom today is a result of the hard work of my ancestors or immigrants to Canada, have I explained in any way why my particular ancestors’ toil resulted in my prosperity and another’s did not?

I haven’t, because it cannot be explained by hard work or good attitude. Hard work, good intention and planning may play a role in progress, but so does stealing, killing, enslaving, raping, colonizing and abuse.

This inexplicability of circumstance, of course, is different than what we can choose to do now, today, within one’s circumstance.

And finally, if people by the millions, even billions, have to be degraded not only by being in extreme poverty but in order to rise out of extreme poverty, does this not make them prostitutes without choice?

And does insatiable consumption not make us johns and pimps by addiction?

If sweatshops and other slave labour scenarios are truly essential to help people climb out of extreme poverty, how could I ever oppose it? For the question of ongoing humiliation is of course intrinsic in extreme poverty itself.

Nevertheless, can it still be asked: if the world gets a greater GNP through the further degradation of people, is anything gained in the long term?

So what is to be done? I don’t know. But Sachs, whose passion and intellect I admire, rightly includes in his praise the NGO known as the Bangladeshi Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), an organization that in conjuction with the Grameen Bank supports…

…women living about an hour outside the city [to become] engaged in small-scale commercial activities—food processing and trade—within the village and on the roads between the village and Dhaka [the city] itself. These women presented a picture of change every bit as dramatic as that of the burgeoning apparel sector.

He describes it this way:

Wearing beautiful saris, the women sat on the ground in six rows, each with six women to greet us [Sachs and his colleagues] and answer questions. Each row represented a subgroup of the local “microfinance” unit. The woman in the front of the row was in charge of the borrowing of the whole group behind her. The group in each line was mutually responsible for repayments of the loans taken by any member within the line. BRAC and its famed counterpart, Grameen Bank, pioneered this kind of group lending, in which impoverished recipients (usually women) are given small loans of a few hundred dollars as working capital for microbusiness activities…

I don’t know how or why not, but does a sweatshop have to be as it is: a continuing tool for exploiting “invisible people” as machines, subjects for someone else’s enrichment, regardless of the results, and even if they are vital to the enrichment of the extreme poor?

Are institutions of degradation intrinsic to the human experience? I mean I know they are, but do they have to be?

Choosing to give bank loans to the poorest of the poor is evidently not only good business, but a conscious choice to support and believe in another human being precisely because he or she, and their families, are human beings.

Even more than human beings, they are sisters and brothers.

Gandhi once said: “God created enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

In Corinthians, it is written:

If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love always protects. Hmm.

Those runners sure are comfortable.




  1. […] I actually have an essay that did not begin as a blog on the go right now knocking around ideas about DNA, karma and the mystery of existence. And I started a blog yesterday that turned into another essay. […]

  2. […] In reference to The Inexplicability of Circumstance, I think I figured out, upon further reflection, what disturbed me so much. […]

  3. […] Yet international processes are cruel. The donor governments—including the United States and Europeans—told Malawi to scale back its proposal sharply because the first proposal was “too ambitious and too costly.? The next draft was cut back t a mere hunded thousand on treatment at the end of five years. Even that was too much. In a tense five-day period, the donors prevailed on Malawi to cut another 60 percent from the proposal, down to forty thousand on treatment. This atrophied plan was submitted to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and malaria. Incredibly, the donors that run that fund saw fit to cut back once again. After a long struggle, Malawi received funding to save just twenty-five thousand at the end of five years—a death warrant from the international community for the people of this country. […]

  4. […] In my opinion, one should not underestimate the sustainable power of seeing everybody as sisters and brothers, as dignified and worthy of kindness, respect and social justice. Nor should one minimize the effects of long term degradation—thus my argument against Jeffrey Sach’s exaltation of multinational corporation owned sweatshops. […]

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