What is a Crime?


Take a look at the clothing you wear.  Shirts, hats, pants, etc.  Chances are they are made in a Third World country.  A cursory look at the clothes in my closet gives evidence of this.  Thailand, Jordan, Marianna Islands, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Vietnam, Macau, China, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Korea, El Salvador, etc.  Check your tennis shoes – Nike, Reebok, etc. – they were probably made in Indonesia or Mexico. 


In 1906 Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which has since become a classic in muckraking journalism.  In this book he described the 16-hour workdays that paid peanuts in what he called “slaughterhouses.”  If Sinclair were to wake up today and do a similar investigation he would find “sweatshops” where young women and children toil away their lives, still making peanuts for a wage.  The working conditions resemble a prison as they are often literally locked up for up to 20 hours a day, with barely enough time to eat lunch and often with only a couple of bathroom breaks during the day. 


The modern-day equivalent of Upton Sinclair is Charles Kernaghan, who was the one who broke the story on clothing bearing the name of Kathy Gifford, made in these sweatshops.  He also reported on clothing made in China by young women working 90+ hours a week, 7 days a week at a wage of about 14 cents an hour (brands like Ralph Lauren). Then there are the maquiladora plants in Mexico, a perfect example of the collaboration between multinational corporations and the government.  This is one result of the so-called “free trade zones” that offer all sorts of freebies to big corporations.  These areas a heavily policed as if the workers were prisoners or slaves.  In a sense they are both slaves and prisoners.


Thanks to NAFTA corporations have fled the United States and set up their factories in Central America.  Currently there are more than 40,000 foreign factories and more than 4,000 U.S. plants in Mexico alone, including GM, Nike and GE. 


The maquiladora is a classic example of how corporations control our political system.  So-called “big government” is not the problem in this country, contrary to mainstream opinion.  “Government is the shadow cast upon society by big business,” said the American educator John Dewey many years ago.  When we attack the government as the source of our problems we are merely going after that shadow.  In the case of the maquiladora it was the “shadow” behind the scenes that went to their friendly collaborator, “big government,” to help them increase profits via such friendly deals as cheap land, the waiver of custom duties, and an exemption from environmental and labor laws.  The U.S. government cooperated as well with generous tax breaks and technical assistance.  Thousands of American jobs went south of the order in an instant.  If you ever wonder what happened to General Motors plants in Michigan and wonder why the inner-city of Detroit looks like a Third World country cast your eyes south of the Border.


            In Mexico, recent reports have uncovered incredible human rights abuses, as corporations create enormous wealth.  Where does this wealth go?  It certainly does not go to the Mexican laborers.  And surrounding communities cannot afford to provide such simple pleasures as running water and sewage disposal.  According to the 2000 census, 75% of the Mexican people live in poverty, compared with 49% in 1981.  Attempts to create unions and improve working conditions are constantly met with armed resistance from both local police and the army.


If you think sweatshops are found only in Third World countries, think again.  They are right here in America.  Recent investigations have found them flourishing in Los Angeles, New York and other large cities. A New York Times story in 2001 reported on two apparel factories in Brooklyn that forced Chinese immigrants to work up to 140 hours per week – with no overtime.  They produced about 60,000 garments each week (working 7 days a week, 363 days a year).  Two law suits were settled where the company was forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay. 


A sweatshop in North Carolina (a poultry-processing plant) caught fire back in 1991, killing 25 employees who were locked in by management.  The owner was sent sentenced to 20 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.  This is a rare instance of criminal convictions.  An individual wrongdoer is punished, while the system that person represents avoids such a label.  Which brings is back to the title of this article: what is a crime?


© 2007 by Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.