A central aspect of President Bush’s trip to Africa is the promotion of neoliberal trade policies and foreign direct investment as a path to “empowerment” and a “culture of self-reliance and opportunity.” The president has explicitly rejected “the paternalistic notion that treats African countries as charity cases, or a model of exploitation that seeks only to buy up their resources.”
But will the impact of his view of trade and investment on workers in Africa truly end this paternalism?
Bush will end his trip by spending a few hours in Liberia. There he will try to cast himself in the role of the compassionate conservative who successfully intervened in Liberia’s long civil war, thus heralding in a shining new democracy led by Africa’s first democratically-elected female president. In his February 14 press conference, Bush celebrated increasing private capital flows to sub-Saharan Africa. But the workers supposedly benefiting from foreign private investment in Liberia might have a different perspective.
For example, Liberia’s largest investor and employer, Firestone, has been exploiting workers on its rubber plantation for over 80 years. The company has been the focus of an international campaign and a lawsuit in U.S. courts because of its use of child labor and abuse of workers’ rights. Affidavits collected from child laborers on the plantation recently filed in the lawsuit show clearly how foreign direct investment and trade often do not benefit workers.
Sixteen-year-old James Roe IV is a typical example of a Firestone worker. He began working at the age of nine on the plantation, cleaning cups of latex and cutting grass with a machete. At the age of 11, he began collecting latex and applying toxic chemicals to trees without any protective gear. When he was nine, James was injured at work when he cut his foot with a machete. But he could not get proper health care because he lacked an ID card required by the company to access the Firestone Hospital. Since he works from 4 a.m. to 3 p.m., he has been unable to attend school and has only achieved a second-grade education. James was forced to work to help his father meet his daily production quota because if he failed to meet the quota, his family would not be able to afford food.
Firestone workers have seen few benefits from their labor and are stuck in a generational cycle of poverty. On the other hand, Firestone has built a multi-million dollar tire business using Liberia’s rubber. Firestone’s investment in Liberia is a textbook case of “exploitation that seeks only to buy up [Africa’s] resources.”
Bush will also be stopping in Ghana to meet with entrepreneurs who benefit from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Since 2001, international monitoring organizations have scrutinized Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire for the widespread use of abusive child labor, including forced labor and trafficking, on cocoa farms that supply the main ingredient for the chocolate bars sold by major U.S. corporations like Mars, Hershey, and Nestle. These chocolate companies have dragged their feet for years and refuse to acknowledge that the low prices they pay West African farmers for their cocoa beans create a downward pressure on wages and labor standards. A recent Global Witness report also found that the cocoa industry has helped to finance conflict in Cote d’Ivoire. Instead of using some of his time in Ghana to highlight the injustice facing cocoa farmers, Bush will be using his platform to further promote trade and investment policies that do not adequately protect labor rights.
AGOA provides clear benefits, however, for corporate investors. For example, a textile factory owned by the company Ramatex chose to take advantage of AGOA by locating in an Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in Namibia. Incentives offered to Ramatex for setting up shop in the EPZ include: an exemption from import duties, an exemption from sales tax, a guarantee of free repatriation of capital and profits, access to streamlined regulatory services, a refund of up to 75% of costs of pre-approved training of Namibian citizens, provision of dirt-cheap factory facilities, and of course, weak labor regulations. Ramatex is then able to export its products duty free to the United States through AGOA.
Meanwhile, AGOA has led to an increase in the low-skilled garment sector in Africa where workers are often abused. For example, a recent report by SOMO titled Footloose Investors found that in Swaziland, “violations documented at Asian-owned factories in the last 6 years include forced overtime, verbal abuse, sexual intimidation, unhealthy and unsafe conditions, unreasonable production targets and anti-union repression.” These violations of workers’ rights do not represent the commitment to fair trade that Bush promoted at his February 14 press conference.
Bush’s talk about “a new era of development” looks like more of the same – abuse of workers and extraction of Africa’s resources for the benefit of wealthy corporations. While the Bush administration clearly embraces both paternalism and the exploitation of Africa’s workers and resources, there is another option. We can stand in solidarity with African workers by actively supporting their organizing efforts – from the Firestone rubber plantation to Group 4 Securicor workers in Malawi to cut-flower workers in Kenya. U.S.-based corporations should be publicly accountable for their abuses in Africa, and U.S. trade policies should provide strong protections for workers. U.S. citizens, meanwhile, should participate in corporate campaigns and scrutinize their own investments and purchasing decisions.